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Instant coffee is either a punchline or a lifesaver. There is no in between. The right cup is sent from the coffee gods to provide much-needed sustenance in a pinch. The wrong one could very well taste like damp mulch.
Early iterations of the dissolvable drink date back to 18th century Britain, but the idea really took off around 1910, when instant was first sold commercially. Today there are two primary methods of production: freeze drying, where coffee extract is frozen then broken apart, and spray drying, a faster, cheaper process where the coffee extract is sprayed into a chamber of hot air. While it’s difficult to find an instant coffee that compares to the real thing, our round-up saves you from rolling the dice.
For hikers, frequent travelers, or those who simply prefer convenience, here are the best instant coffees to buy.
Best Overall: Mount Hagen Instant Coffee
Organic, fair trade, and deliciously smooth, Mount Hagen could top a myriad of coffee categories, which is exactly why we chose it as our best overall brew. (Spoiler: this isn’t its last appearance on the list.)
Mount Hagen has been sourcing its coffee beans in the lush mountains of Papua New Guinea since 1986 and, over the past three decades, the company has specialized in the instant blend. The reviews for Mount Hagen’s Organic Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee are overwhelmingly positive, with the majority of customers giving it five stars. Praise ranges from the product’s reasonable price to its travel convenience to its full-bodied taste.
One 3.53-ounce jar yields approximately 60 cups. Simply stir a teaspoon of coffee grounds with a cup of boiling water and you’ll have ready-to-go joe that many say is even better than the real thing.
"I first tried Mount Hagen while traveling and was so impressed with it I started keeping a jar in my cupboard at home (especially for when I'm too lazy to brew a full pot of coffee). Instead of boiling hot water, I usually mix it with cold water and add ice cubes for quick-and-easy iced coffee." — Derek Rose, Coffee and Tea Expert, The Spruce Eats
Best Organic: Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee Mix
“Organic” is a much-touted phrase in the coffeeverse. It sounds nice, but the meaning can be ambiguous. What leads to such uncertainty are the many different requirements for coffee to be considered organic in the U.S.
A baseline definition of organic is that, from start to finish, the coffee is produced without any artificial substances. No added chemicals in the fertilizer, no pesticides on the crop. Just good, clean coffee.
Four Sigmatic checks these boxes, and many more. Its patented mushroom coffee is mixed with dried matsutake mushrooms which pack your morning joe with extra nutrients while still keeping it light and healthy.
As the name suggests, Four Sigmatic makes four varieties of instant coffee, each with its own purpose and benefits. Lion’s Mane aids focus and creativity. Cordyceps is extra energizing. Adaptogen cuts out the jitters for a calmer, more relaxing blend. And Mushroom Mocha is sweet and chocolaty.
Four Sigmatic is pricy for instant coffee, but its beloved taste and many health benefits might make up the extra bucks.
Best Single Serve: Joe Coffee Specialty Instant Coffee Packets, The Daily House Blend
Joe Coffee has been a New York favorite since 2003. Customers have gone nuts for these beans, and for good reason. All of Joe’s coffee goes through a rigorous selection process to ensure the highest quality—and its instant coffee is no different. These grounds balance the brightness of a medium roast with the sweetness of milk chocolate and caramel. It’s barista-worthy coffee that you can take anywhere (just grab your travel mug and hit the road) and make any time.
Great taste and convenience come at a price though, as Joe Coffee makes one of the priciest instant blends on the market. One 6-serving box comes out to around $3 per cup—certainly a hefty price, but one that might be worth it for such a delicious jolt of coffee.
Best Value: Maxwell House Original Roast Instant Coffee
Established in 1892, Maxwell House is one of the oldest and most trusted U.S. coffee brands for a reason: it gets the job done. Hot, dependable coffee when you need it.
Like its regular coffee, Maxwell House’s instant coffee is one of the most affordable on the market, comparable to large brands like Folgers and Chock full o’Nuts. Given the lower price, reviews on taste do vary. Some customers swear by Maxwell House’s instant coffee, calling it undervalued and just as good as more expensive blends, while others say that the taste leaves something to be desired. What every coffee drinker can agree on, however, is the price.
Maxwell House is also easy to find in-store and online, and if its classic medium roast doesn’t excite you, the company also offers a variety of instant coffee flavors, like French Vanilla, Toasted Hazelnut, Pumpkin Spice Latte, and more.
Best Cold Brew: Cusa Tea & Coffee Cold Brew Variety Pack
Standard cold brew needs 12 to 24 hours in the fridge before it's ready to drink, the longest brewing time of any coffee-making method. But these instant cold brew packets from Cusa Tea & Coffee shorten the process to seconds.
The Spruce Eats' coffee-and-tea expert, Derek Rose, received a free sample of Cusa's Coffee Variety Pack to test and enjoyed its blend of convenience and quality taste. He found the flavor smoother and less bitter than that of other instant coffees. This is largely due to the brand's signature Cold Brew Process, which uses room-temperature water instead of harsh hot water. One downside, however, is that the individual sticks make it difficult to brew extra-bold coffee, as they are designed for a specific portion size. Ways to strengthen the coffee include using less water or opening another packet when brewing. That said, the individual sticks make a terrific companion when hiking or traveling.
Cusa sets itself apart from other brands by offering a variety of flavors. There are traditional light, medium, and dark roasts (already a wider range than many instant coffees), as well as Mocha, Dirty Chai, and Lemon Dark Roast. Our product tester found the sweetness of Vanilla Dark Roast paired especially well with soy milk. Cusa also offers instant tea sticks made via the same cold-brewing process.
Best Decaf: Mount Hagen Organic Freeze Dried Instant Decaf Coffee
Many have faced the debacle of wanting afternoon or late-night coffee but also wanting, at some point, to sleep. The answer: decaf. That’s where Mount Hagen comes in with its freeze-dried instant decaf coffee.
If you’ve ever sipped a cup of decaf and found the taste to be weak and watery, you’re not crazy. The decaffeination process can drain coffee beans of certain chemicals that provide the rich flavors and aromas you love. As a result, decaf coffee, like instant, is often maligned. But this product solves both decaf and instant coffee in one. Customers say the beans are strong and tasty. Like Mount Hagen’s other products, this coffee is organic, fair trade, and reasonably priced. It's made for a late-night sip without the buzz; for coffee lovers with health difficulties; and those who want coffee’s many health benefits without all of that caffeine.
Best Splurge: Canyon Coffee Instant Coffee
It sounds like an oxymoron: luxury instant coffee. But Canyon Coffee is precisely that. The company packages one cup’s worth of top-quality grounds into individual packets, ensuring the freshest brew and making for a great travel companion.
The beans are hand-picked and freshly brewed in the Yirgacheffe region of southern Ethiopia—an area that grows some of the most delicious and distinct coffee in the world. Every sip will burst with sweet notes of honey, jasmine, and peach.
Canyon even teamed up with Swift Cup Coffee, a company that specializes in instant coffee, to produce one of the best ready-to-go cups you can buy.
The only downside is that Canyon can roast a hole in your wallet. Each box contains six packets and costs roughly $3 per cup, which is basically the going rate in an actual coffee shop. But customers return to this boutique roaster because of its coffee’s unbeatable taste.
Best Medium Roast: Waka Coffee Quality Instant Coffee
Medium roast is often overlooked. Thought of as simply dependable. A coffee that’s just there.
But Waka Coffee, made of 100 percent Arabica beans, is a smooth and balanced Colombian roast, buzzing with citrus flavors. The beans are also freeze-dried, guaranteeing a fresh cup every morning, afternoon and, for you insomniacs, night.
Waka Coffee’s price is on par with competitors and sells its coffee in a variety of size options. You can start out with an 8-pack box or go big with a 24 pack. Both options provide individual servings of coffee, making it easy to measure and easy to travel with. You can also choose between Waka’s 3.5-ounce bag and 8-ounce bag for a stash of unwrapped instant coffee grounds.
Best Dark Roast: Starbucks VIA Instant French Roast Dark Roast Coffee
Depending on your taste buds, Starbucks is either famous or infamous for its strong, distinct coffee. But the signature robustness is exactly what makes Starbucks VIA Instant French Roast so adored. Bold, smoky, and not for the faint of heart, this is one of the most reviewed and most purchased instant coffees on the market.
Even though Starbucks’ in-store prices are on the higher end, its instant coffee is surprisingly affordable, and you can order it in a variety of sizes, from an 8-pack box to a 50-pack.
And if you’re a dark coffee lover but prefer a sweeter undertone to the smokiness of French roast, Starbucks makes an instant Italian roast, rich with notes of sugar and caramel.
Best Fair Trade: Café Altura Organic Freeze Dried Instant Coffee
Café Altura can not only take pride in its coffee’s taste but in its fair-trade certification as well. To receive this certification, companies must meet several requirements, all of which guarantee that no unfair labor practices occur during the coffee-making process. This means every single one of Café Altura’s employees, from the first person to pick the rich Arabica beans to the person who packages the grounds, is happy.
On top of that, this coffee is organic, GMO-free, and downright tasty. Café Altura also freeze-dries its grounds for maximum freshness and taste. Take a spoonful of coffee out of the 3.5-ounce jar, mix it with hot water and enjoy instant caffeinated goodness.
Those looking for reliable instant coffee should turn to Mount Hagen's Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee (view at Amazon) first. It's widely available both in-store and online, and the freeze-dried crystals smoothly dissolve into a tasty cup of coffee. As a unique alternative, Four Sigmatic's Mushroom Coffee Mix (view at Amazon) offers various benefits ranging from improved concentration to immune support.
What to Look for in Instant Coffee
Single Serve vs. Jar
Walk into your local grocery store or search online and you'll find instant coffee sold in either single-serve packets and sticks or in jars. The advantages to single-serve instant coffee include that it's easier to travel with and that the proper amount of coffee crystals per cup are measured out for you. On the other hand, buying instant coffee in a jar usually saves money, allows you to buy more coffee at once, and many jars can still be stored in a bag or suitcase if you're traveling.
Identifying the type of roast you like—light, medium, or dark—is a great place to start when trying a new coffee. But it can get even trickier than that. Keep an eye out for a blend's tasting notes, usually written somewhere on the bag. With a dark roast, for instance, you might like one that has notes of chocolate but not notes of smokiness, or vice versa.
Instant coffee is generally less expensive per serving than regular coffee. In fact, many people choose instant over the real thing simply to save money and because they don't mind the difference in taste. However, instant coffee itself can vary in price, from very cheap little packets to more expensive products from boutique brands. Experiment with a few different options. Just because a coffee is more expensive doesn't mean it's the right one for your taste buds.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
This piece was written by Derek Rose, the coffee and tea expert for The Spruce Eats. He researches a variety of products, from measuring scoops to commercial espresso machines, and interviews field experts for their insight. Before recommending these products, he gathered information from customer reviews and third-party articles. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and a BA in Communications from Marist College.