Various instant coffees being made.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

I Tried 16 Different Kinds of Instant Coffee — These Are the 2 I’ll Be Buying Again

published May 5, 2021
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I always keep a jar of instant coffee on hand for those mornings (and afternoons … who am I kidding?) when I find myself out of freshly ground beans. My go-to method of preparation? I dissolve a teaspoon of instant coffee in a splash of warm tap water, top with ice and milk, and add a splash of maple syrup. Yum. And, now that I know that instant coffee is the most eco-friendly way to make a cuppa, I’m an even bigger fan of the stuff.

Despite my own fandom and consumption habits, I haven’t seen any definitive assertions anywhere regarding which instant coffee reigns supreme flavor-wise. No person should have to do all of that research while caffeine-deprived, so I did the only logical thing I could think of: I got extremely buzzed on 16 different kinds of instant coffee to figure out which is the best.  

Credit: Aliza Gans

How I Tested the Instant Coffee Brands

While shopping, I stuck to house or regular blends and avoided any instant “espresso” (because there’s a strength distinction between espresso and coffee). I prepped them all according to package directions, which just called for dissolving a specific amount of coffee in a specific amount of water.

Credit: Aliza Gans

In order to test the quality and flavor, for the first round of tasting I drank the coffee as is (with no milk or sugar!). I then cleansed my palate between samples with a gulp of water and a roasted almond. For the final round of tasting, I sampled the coffees with milk and sugar. I needed to know if preparing the coffee in a way I’d inevitably drink it would tip a certain cup in one brand’s flavor. (Spoiler alert: It certainly did.)

Ultimately, there was one clear winner and another very enjoyable runner-up. 

Credit: Aliza Gans

The Best Instant Coffee: Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Instant Coffee

If you’re looking for instant coffee that tastes as if it has been brewed by a barista, try Mount Hagen. The flavor is robust and kind of chocolatey, and not acrid at all. As I hovered my nose over the steam, I experienced the same aroma as I would from a drip coffee at the cafe down the street. It definitely doesn’t have the rich texture of said coffee, but it is undeniably bright. Note: I opted for the single-serve sticks of Mount Hagen to save space, which might’ve added to the freshness factor, too.

This brand is freeze-dried, one of two industry standards I noticed during my shopping. The more common and less expensive alternative (spray-dried) is a little harsher on the originating brew, which I learned in this nerdy article on Science Direct. Mount Hagen also scored high marks in my book for their ethical sourcing methods.

Buy: Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Instant Coffee, $11.99 for 25 single serve sticks

Credit: Aliza Gans

The Very Close Runner-Up: Maxwell House Original Roast

Maxwell House is definitely not trying to be your barista, which is why I was so surprised when I realized that I liked it better than most others with far more grandiose label messaging. It has an easy-open jar, and a familiar flavor that reminds me of sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup with a slice of Entenmann’s danish after synagogue at my grandma’s Formica table.

To make sure I wasn’t purely projecting my non-existent nostalgia (I never drank this specific instant coffee at my grandma’s formica table), I taste tested this multiple times. I even enlisted my two roommates and my mom to blind test as well. We all agreed: This one tasted like a classic, but more well-rounded with character. A little bit of bitterness in this blend went a long way when I added milk. Maxwell House held its own, even with milk and sugar, so I’m holding on to to this jar for future coffee emergencies. 

Buy: Maxwell House Original Roast Instant Coffee, $22.42 for two 8-ounce jars

What’s your favorite instant coffee?