I am a coffee snob, self-proclaimed. Much like how I like my brownies or any food, I like the flavor to be deep and nuanced, able to be enjoyed black or with cream and sugar. I drink coffee more for the flavor than for the caffeine. I prefer locally roasted, or at least roasted by people I know. In my opinion, coffee is always best when brewed at home, but sometimes you need that quick pick-me-up, or you just want a good, quick cup of coffee. This is not always easily attainable due to lack of stove, or coffee grinder, or who knows what else!
Enter: “instant coffee”. Just add the weird little crystals to hot or cold water and voila! Coffee! However, if you have been around at all in the last 20 years, you probably know that instant coffee is rather lacking (to put it mildly). So I decided to go on a quest to see what the best instant coffee was (or if there was even one worth drinking) and how they all stacked up.
As I mentioned above, the typical instant coffee available is not good. It frequently tastes burnt, is very acidic, and just is not pleasant at all. It certainly would work if you were in an extreme pinch, but my philosophy has been that it would be better to wait and find a decent gas station to get some from or just skip it entirely. I will say, in instant coffee’s defense, that it is pretty useful when trying to infuse food with coffee flavor. In coffee ice cream, a baked good, etc, it does work fairly well, but it’s just not worth drinking an actual cup of it!
What I was Looking For
I start my search by looking for “specialty” instant coffee. A quick word on the word “specialty”. We are talking about high quality, excellence-focused coffee. There is no set definition that I know of, but typically this is coffee produced by relatively small businesses, sometimes single operators, whose sole goal is to produce the best coffee possible. They hand pick their beans, frequently going straight to the farmer to find them, and make each batch by hand with great care.
The coffee is typically small batch roasted. Small batches can range anywhere from 1 pound to 150 pounds. That may seem like a large swing, but it is small enough to give a focused look at the process and make sure each batch is perfect. In the end, “specialty” coffee is all about using the best ingredients and the best procedures to produce a coffee that is excellent in all aspects. You could relate that to our brownies being a “specialty” brownie in that regard. If you would like more information you can check out the Specialty Coffee Association.
I wanted something that had a pleasant taste, hopefully with some depth to the flavor. I’m ok with some acidity if it’s from the varietal itself, but not because of the process or because of using super cheap coffee. Some amount of affordability did need to be factored in. Certainly, as with any higher quality good, the price is going to be higher. Typical specialty coffee can easily be $16 a pound vs $4 for something like Folgers. Obviously that is going to flow through to instant as well. Convenient packaging would also be a plus, since I am looking at this as an easy to carry coffee in my car or bag vs just a convenience at home.
After a bit of looking, I decided on 5 different options for the best instant coffee trials: Trader Joes Instant, Regular and Decaf from Swift Cup, Black Rifle Coffee, and Voila. Trader Joes may seem an odd addition, but their coffee is pretty good in general, so I thought that might extend to their instant. Swift Cup was the only one I found with a decaf option. I would classify all of these as “specialty” Instant Coffee with the exception of Trader Joes.
Totally unplanned, but I did end up with basically all Colombian coffees. The minor exception being the Mainstay Blend from Swift Cup, although it is a blend of Latin American and African coffees, so it will produce very similar flavors and probably does contain Colombian beans. The great thing about that is that the basic flavors of each coffee will be similar. I can compare the quality of each brand more and not have to fight through the flavor profiles of each bean.
Traders joes is a traditionally freeze dried, Black Rifle is low acid spray dried, and my understanding is that both Swift Cup and Voila are freeze dried with their own proprietary process.
I probably should have done a completely blind taste test of them but I did not. I prepared each one at the recommended water amounts. Each package was a slightly different size, with approximately 190 degree water. I then smelled and sipped each one several times, at several different temperatures to see how the taste changed.
Trader Joes Instant Coffee: Approximately 7 cents per cup. $3.99 for 1.5 cups.
Black Rifle Coffee “Black Powder”: $24.99 for 32 packets (free shipping?). $.78 cents a cup
Swift Cup Instant Coffee: Price varies per type. $11.95 for Mainstay Blend, 6 packets ($4 Shipping), $2.67 per cup. They do offer bulk packs for better pricing, which gets you to about $1.75 per cup.
Voila Instant Coffee: $16 for 5 cups (Free shipping?) $3.20 per cup
Time to Taste
Trader Joes: Just bad, although it is probably better than Nescafé or Kroger brand instant coffee, but it was not good. There was no smell to either the grounds or the coffee, and it tasted extremely burnt. Not recommended.
Black Rifle Coffee “Black Powder” Sticks: Probably the smoothest and best balanced of all of them. There is not much aroma other than general “coffee” scent. There is a slight burnt flavor, but it’s very mild. It does have the lowest acidity of all of them. It does not have a huge depth of flavor, but it does have a nice coffee flavor that is tasty either hot or iced.
Swift Cup: Both the decaf and regular were fairly similar, though the regular had somewhat more depth of flavor, which is to be expected. It had a fairly nice aroma, not quite like a fresh cup of coffee, but there was definitely something there. They were both fairly acidic – as I mentioned above, I’m not sure if that was because of them being a lightly roasted Colombian bean or due to the process. They had more depth of flavor than the Black Rifle, but nothing spectacular. Overall fairly enjoyable other than the high acidity.
Voila: The Voila is absolutely the best overall, which could be surmised simply from the price. Both the crystals and the coffee had a nice, fresh smell to them. It had a pleasing body to it, feeling like a real cup of coffee. While lightly acidic, there was a decent amount of depth of flavor to the Voila. I would say the Voila is the most like a normal cup of coffee in both smell and taste.
The End Result
So what is the best instant coffee? It all depends on what you are looking for. I think the market has now come up with several good options for us to use.
The Best, cost aside: Voila is the winner. With the best taste and aroma of all, this is not terribly far off from fresh brewed.
The Best Value: Black Rifle Coffee Black Powder Sticks: While the taste may be somewhat lacking, I think it gives a good, well rounded cup at a reasonable cost.
The Runner Up: I would still recommend Swift Cup. The flavor is good, if not quite as good as Voila, and it has a mid-range price point. I think if you want something with a bit more depth that doesn’t cost quite as much as starbucks, Swift is a solid choice.
Have you tried any specialty instant coffees? What is the best instant coffee in your opinion? Let us know in the comments, and let us know how you would use any of these!
Make it a tasty day,