We Tried 13 Brands of Instant Coffee — And Are Shocked at How Good the Winners Taste

published Mar 3, 2024
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Group photo of instant coffee.
Credit: Mackenzie Filson

I approach my morning coffee with the same ferocity Dani Rojas, my favorite Ted Lasso character, approaches football (or soccer). Coffee IS life. Which makes sense, because I have Dani Rojas-levels of energy once I’m a cup deep. That’s how crucial coffee is to my entire being, which is something I realized when I didn’t have a way to brew coffee with my stovetop Bialetti as I moved into my apartment a few months ago. As I (very bravely) searched for a coffee shop in my new neighborhood, I bought something else alongside my cappuccino: a tidy little box of craft instant coffee for emergency coffee situations like these.

“Craft” and “instant coffee” are not a pair I’d ever thought would go together; many instant coffees I’d tried were somewhat low-quality substitutes for a freshly brewed drip. This box from my local cafe more than proved that there are some incredibly good instant coffees out there. So I decided it was time to taste-test my way through all the best instant coffees I could find (including the newer coffee concentrates on the market) — 13 in total.  

Quick Overview

The Best Instant Coffees at a Glance

As someone who spent her college years relying on instant coffee, alongside three years of barista work, I know both the highs and lows of the coffee world. What really struck me during my taste test is that instant coffee has come such a long way. These blends are not just something I drink because I have to anymore — I actually look forward to them. 

No exaggeration, some of these have caused my Bialetti to gather a bit of dust from lack of use. Let’s take a look.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

Best Classic Instant Coffee: Cafe Grumpy Las Flores

While my rubric for judging these instant coffee blends was as objective as possible, one particular blend became an instant favorite purely based on how often it was the box I turned to each morning. The Cafe Grumpy Las Flores blend in particular is so delicious, I almost accidentally drank all of my stash before conducting my official taste test. It was a delicious almost-disaster! I actually had to hide it from a friend who was visiting, in a very “No, this is MOMMY’S coffee” kind of way. 

What makes it so special? Well, it made me feel like coffee tasting notes are not all made up. In fact, the Las Flores hits you with tropical hints of crackly, bruléed fruits, and a boldness that had me daydreaming how the powder would fare straight up whipped into a buttercream or brewed and added to brownies. Most importantly (for my purposes, at least), it doesn’t hold back on the buzz: I was looking like the very opposite of the Cafe Grumpy logo halfway through my cup.

Buy: Cafe Grumpy Las Flores Instant Coffee, $16.20 for 6 packets at Amazon

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

Runner-Up: Partners Manhattan Specialty Instant Coffee

Okay, you know that feeling you get, when you stay over at your Fancy Coffee Friend’s house and they make you the most unbelievable cup of coffee the next morning and it partially tastes so good because your Fancy Coffee Friend (or really any friend) made it for you? That’s what immediately came to mind when I brewed up Partners’ Manhattan instant coffee. I understand that this defies the scientific process in which I taste test, but this coffee shot up my list directly because it tasted like someone lovingly made it for me.

Much like the Las Flores from Cafe Grumpy, Partners’ Manhattan is just as good as (if not leagues better than) any drip coffee I’ve had. In fact, it tastes like something I’ve spent $7 on at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. Adding a splash of half-and-half to my morning cup of Manhattan takes me to a dream where I’m floating on a marzipan chocolate cloud, and that’s a great morning for me.

Buy: Partners Manhattan Specialty Instant Coffee, $16.00 for a 6 sachets at Partners  

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

Best Coffee Concentrate: Cometeer x Houseplant Get Roasted

In my years of taste testing and food writing, one thing is clear: Food always tastes better when it’s created by people who are incredibly nerdy about it. You want nerds to be making your food, so it makes sense that an MIT engineer from Cometeer (and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Houseplant) made a really remarkable frozen coffee concentrate — one I’m glad to make freezer space for, if not just to pour one over ice cream for the easiest affogato ever.

Each frozen coffee puck can be brewed with hot or cold water, with the Get Roasted blend revealing a dark roast with plenty of Almond Joy-adjacent chocolate nuttiness. Sure, there’s a snag in convenience here (you can’t just throw one in your backpack and go and it’s sold in a combo pack along with the equally delightful medium roast Bean There Done That blend), but Cometeer makes up for it. 

All of its many amazing blends taste like they’re from a big city coffee shop, but are readily available now at Sprouts, Costco, and Whole Foods. Plus, the frozen pucks are packaged in a fully home-recyclable tin container (no need to ship them elsewhere like some other pod-based coffee brands).

Buy: Cometeer x Houseplant Get Roasted (and Bean There Done That), $64.00 for 32 capsules at Cometeer 

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

Best Budget: Juan Valdez Instant Coffee

I love blind-tasting because I’m always surprised by something. The biggest upset in my Instant Coffee March Madness bracket? That the Juan Valdez Instant Coffee would dethrone my budget-friendly favorite, Trader Joe’s Instant Colombian Coffee. The Juan Valdez was actually an immediate winner for me, with a smoothness and body I was not anticipating for under $6 a jar (a two-week supply for me).

While other instant coffees in this price bracket often tasted sour and acidic or tinny and metallic, the Juan Valdez Instant Coffee tasted no different than a cup of my favorite grocery bag of beans. Don’t just enjoy it hot, either — it makes a great iced latte as well. Just simply add half the hot water you’d use for a cup of hot coffee (so it’s roughly espresso-strength), stir, then pour over ice with your choice of milk (and maybe a splash of the best maple syrup, as I am wont to do).

Buy: Juan Valdez Instant Coffee, $5.48 for 3.52 ounces at Walmart  

How I Tested the Instant Coffees

For each brand, I taste-tested the instant coffee blindly and made it according to its particular brewing instructions. I drank them all hot and black (without cream or sugar). I also only included powdered instant coffees and coffee concentrates, not instant espressos. 

The best instant coffees accomplished a few things.

  • Convenience: They were truly instant (no stirring or scraping at the bottom of my mug to incorporate it all). 
  • Flavor: They tasted just as good as (if not better than) a cup of drip coffee. This is a “no metallic aftertaste” zone. 
  • Freshness: They had more than just a bit of dimension to them, whether it be with flavor notes or roundness and body to the brew. Another way of saying this: Ideally, the cup doesn’t taste burnt, stale, or like it’s been hanging around in a pot just a bit too long.

Did your favorite instant coffee make the cut? Tell us about it in the comments below.