What Is Instant Coffee?

what is instant coffee

The Spruce Eats / Lindsay Kreighbaum

Instant coffee can be found just about everywhere. It's super-convenient and is enjoyed—or at least tolerated—by many looking for a cheap, quick caffeine boost. 

Whether you're a fan of instant coffee or someone who has completely shunned it, do you really know what it is? Let's take a closer look at this quick coffee option that has clearly found a place in the world of java, even if mostly for convenience.

What Is Instant Coffee?

Basically, instant coffee is regularly brewed coffee with nearly all the water removed from it. It's not a mysterious process, and there are no strange chemical alterations that take place. Instant coffee is simply pure coffee without the liquid. One important difference, however, is that instant coffee is usually made with robusta coffee beans rather than the more expensive arabica coffee beans.

Instant Coffee vs. Brewed Coffee

How It's Made

There are two basic methods for producing instant coffee crystals: freeze-drying and spray-drying. Prior to drying, the brewed coffee may—or may not—be concentrated with one of these two methods:

  • Vacuum evaporation: A process in which the coffee boils at a lower temperature. It's also used to make ketchup, powdered milk, and other commercial foods.
  • Freeze concentration: A more flavor-friendly process in which water-based ice is removed, leaving a more concentrated liquid behind. This procedure is also used to make concentrated fruit juices, applejack, and concentrated vinegars.

Freeze-Drying Method

The freeze-drying method preserves more coffee flavor, but it's a complicated procedure. You will probably have to pay more for freeze-dried instant coffee, but the superior flavor is worth it.

  1. The coffee (or a coffee concentrate made by freeze concentration) is rapidly frozen to around -40 F (-40 C).
  2. It's placed into a drying chamber, a vacuum is created in the chamber, and the chamber is heated.
  3. As the frozen coffee warms up, the frozen water rapidly expands into gas in a process called sublimation. What's left after sublimation are the dry grains of coffee.

Spray-Drying Method

The spray-drying method of making instant coffee is almost as instantaneous as brewing the coffee. The transition from liquid coffee to instant coffee crystals takes only 5 to 30 seconds. 

  1. In this method, coffee or concentrated coffee is sprayed from a high tower in a large hot-air chamber.
  2. As the droplets fall, the remaining water evaporates.
  3. And the dry crystals of coffee fall to the bottom of the chamber.

Unfortunately, the high temperatures in this process tend to affect the oils of the coffee, resulting in an additional loss of flavor. Also, it often produces too fine of a powder. In order to make the consistency acceptable for consumers, grains must be fused together with additional processing that involves steam.

History

Instant coffee was invented in 1890 by New Zealander David Strang. He marketed his instant coffee as "Strang's Coffee" and called his patented instant coffee process the "Dry Hot-Air" process.

But it wasn't until the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 that instant coffee received widespread attention when Satori Kato, a Japanese scientist working in Chicago, introduced it to the masses.

In 1910, English chemist George Constant Louis Washington developed another process for making instant coffee while living in Guatemala. An avid coffee drinker, he noticed a powdery buildup on the spout of his favorite silver coffee pot. That prompted his curiosity and further experimentation followed. He eventually produced a dried coffee crystal much like what we have today. His brand was called "Red E Coffee."

At the urging of the Brazilian government, Nestlé began refining the instant coffee process in 1930. In 1938, the Switzerland-based company introduced its own instant coffee to the international market. They launched the product under the name "Nescafé," a portmanteau of "Nestlé" and "café." In 1965, they expanded their instant coffee offerings to include Nescafé Gold, a freeze-dried instant coffee, in Europe.

Uses

Instant coffee is often used on the go and in places where there is not a proper kitchen, such as on trains, at drink kiosks, and in offices. With the advent of single-serve instant coffees, such as Starbucks VIA, drinking coffee on the go is easier than ever.

Even if you don't care for a whole cup of instant brew, you can still use instant coffee to add a tasty touch to other drinks like hot cocoa. It can also be used in cooking and baking.

Did You Know?

Instant coffee is not just a drink. It's also a major ingredient in Caffenol-C, a homemade developing liquid for black-and-white photos. Interestingly, the cheaper the brand of instant coffee, the better it usually works for developing photos.

Popular Brands

Looking for instant coffee in your local supermarket? Popular brands include Nescafé, Starbucks VIA, Maxwell House, Folgers, Robert Timms, International Roast, and Kava (a reduced acid instant coffee).

Caffeine Levels

In general, an 8-ounce serving of instant coffee contains 27 to 173 milligrams of caffeine, but most range between 100 to 160 milligrams. A decaf instant coffee usually contains 2 to 12 milligrams of caffeine.

Here are the specific quantities of caffeine found in a few popular brands of coffee:

  • Folgers Classic Roast instant coffee (2 tablespoons / 12 ounces): 148 milligrams
  • Maxwell House 100 percent Colombian (2 tablespoons / 12 ounces): 100 to 160 milligrams
  • Maxwell House Dark Roast (2 tablespoons / 12 ounces): 100-160 milligrams
  • Maxwell House International Café (all flavors; 2.66 tablespoons / 12 to 16 ounces): 40 to 130 milligrams
  • Maxwell House Master Blend (2 tablespoons / 12 ounces): 100 to 160 milligrams
  • Maxwell House Original Roast (2 tablespoons / 12 ounces): 100 to 160 milligrams
  • Nescafé instant coffee: approximately 65 milligrams per 6-ounce serving
  • Starbucks VIA House Blend instant coffee (1 packet): 135 milligrams

Decaf instant coffee is made by decaffeinating the coffee beans prior to brewing and powdering them.

Health Effects: Instant vs. Regular Coffee

Although instant coffee is basically just coffee with the water taken out and then added back in before it's drunk, there are some health differences between regular coffee and instant coffee.

Whereas a normal cup of coffee has about 400 milligrams of polyphenols (a type of antioxidant) per 180-milliliter serving, instant coffee has about 320 milligrams per serving.

Instant coffee generally has a slightly reduced caffeine level compared to freshly brewed coffee, so if you're concerned about getting too much caffeine, this could be a benefit for you.

For unknown reasons, instant coffee may decrease iron absorption compared to regular coffee. Normally, the intestines absorb about 5.88 percent of the iron you ingest. With regular drip coffee, that percentage is reduced to 1.64 percent. With instant coffee, it is only 0.97 percent.

Tip: You can avoid any malabsorption of iron due to coffee consumption by drinking coffee one hour or more before eating. Also, don't drink coffee for several hours after eating.

There is some indication that there may be an increased risk of bladder cancer for women who drink instant coffee compared to regular coffee. This possible increased risk does not appear to apply to men.

Interestingly, brewed instant coffee is generally much lower in the carcinogen acrylamide than freshly brewed coffee (3 to 7 parts per billion for instant compared to 6 to 13 parts per billion for brewed).

Instant Coffee vs. Espresso Powder

Espresso powder—or instant espresso—is very similar to instant coffee, but it's stronger and is often made from a better quality coffee. It's usually made from darker roasted beans with a higher percentage of Arabica beans in the blend, resulting in a darker, smoother taste. It's also usually dried with the freeze-drying method to preserve flavor.

You can substitute instant coffee for instant espresso in recipes by using 50 percent more than the recipe calls for. But be warned, it may have a harsher taste than it would if you use espresso powder. Adding a little extra sugar can help counteract unwanted bitterness from instant coffee powder.