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Instant coffee has had a bad rap until recently, going from cheap, low-quality options to high-end, organic, and specialty coffees. Early iterations of the dissolvable drink date back to 18th century Britain, but the idea really took off around 1910 when instant coffee was first sold commercially; its popularity increased during WWII and since then has expanded into the more gourmet markets.
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. Lower-quality coffee beans are used for spray drying making a less desirable cup of joe.
While it’s difficult to find an instant coffee that compares to freshly brewed, our round-up will guide your toward a cup that comes close. Whether for camping, traveling, or for those who simply prefer convenience, here are the best instant coffees to buy.
Best Overall: Mount Hagen Instant Coffee
Organic, Fair Trade Certified, 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: It also appears later 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.
Roast: Medium | Size: 3.53-ounce jar | Packaging Options: Glass jar, single-serve sticks, and Doypack bag | Available In: Instant and ground
"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 Instant Mushroom Coffee With Lion's Mane
Four Sigmatic coffee is not only certified organic, but it is also good for you. This Finish-origin company chose this name because, as they explain, Four Sigmatic foods are the most nutrient-dense on the planet; included in these 100 foods are mushrooms, called Chaga, which this patented mushroom coffee is made from—and yes, it's delicious (and does not taste like mushrooms). The company sources its mushrooms from all over the world with an emphasis on quality. Then, it employs third-party tests to ensure purity levels and the absence of pesticides and mycotoxins.
Four Sigmatic makes four varieties of instant coffee, each with its own aims: Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, Adaptogen, and Mushroom Mocha. Four Sigmatic is pricy for instant coffee, but its beloved taste might make up for the extra bucks.
Roast: Medium | Size: 10-count box | Packaging Options: Single-serve packets | Available In: Instant, ground, and pods
Best Single Serve: Joe Coffee The Daily Specialty Instant Coffee
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 cost, 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.
Roast: Medium | Size: 6-count box | Packaging Options: Single-serve packets | Available In: Instant, whole bean, and ground
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. 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 its affordability.
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.
Roast: Medium | Size: 8 ounces | Packaging Options: Glass jar | Available In: Instant, ground, K-Cup, and single-serve filter bags
Best Cold Brew: Cusa Tea & Coffee Cold Brew
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 that 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.
Roast: Sold in light, medium, and dark roasts | Size: 7, 10, 30, and 100 sticks | Packaging Options: Single-serve sticks | Available In: Instant
Best Decaf: Mount Hagen Organic Freeze Dried Instant Decaf Coffee
Many have faced the conundrum 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 shows that together, both decaf and instant coffee can be strong and tasty. It is made without chemicals, resulting in a pure and flavorful coffee. Like Mount Hagen’s other products, this coffee is organic, Fair Trade Certified, and reasonably priced.
Roast: Medium | Size: 3.53-ounce jar | Packaging Options: Glass jar, single-serve sticks, and Doypack bag | Available In: Instant
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 tasting cup 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.
Roast: Medium | Size: 6-count box | Packaging Options: Single-serve packets | Available In: Instant
Best Medium Roast: Waka Coffee Quality Instant Coffee
Medium roast is often overlooked, thought of as simply dependable but nothing special.
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, ensuring a fresh cup every morning, afternoon, and, for you night owls, at night.
Waka Coffee is available in a variety of size options and its price is on par with competitors. 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 if you'd like to be able to adjust the strength of your cup of joe.
Roast: Medium | Size: 8-count box and 3.5- or 8-ounce bag Packaging Options: Single-serve packets or resealable bag | Available In: Instant
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.
Roast: Dark | Size: 8-count box | Packaging Options: Single-serve sticks | Available In: Instant, whole bean, ground, K-Cup
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.
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.
Roast: Medium | Size: 3.53-ounce jar | Packaging Options: Glass jar | Available In: Instant
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) is a worthwhile splurge.
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 packaging. 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.