A Brief History of Instant Coffee

While some people think today’s generation may be the most impatient in history, imagine back to what it was like in the 1800s. Sure, electricity in homes was just catching on and cooking with gas was still a bit novel as well—but there had to be a real, urgent demand for coffee right now and right where you happened to be to inspire the invention of instant coffee—this magical substance created by chemists and governments in cakes and cubes and powders, for use both at home and at war. Of course, instant coffee wasn’t (and isn’t) just about instant gratification, but also convenience, and once the idea took hold in coffee drinkers’ consciousnesses, it became clear that  the market for delicious instant coffee was here for good.

The race for the title of the inventor of instant coffee was tight and hotly debated. Was the first inentor of instant coffee Satori Kato, whose 1901 invention of a soluble coffee was patented in 1903 and debuted to acclaim at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York? Or was he beat to the punch by New Zealander David Strang and his “Strang’s Coffee”, made with a patented “Dry-Air Process” years earlier? (The versatile kiwi is also said to have invented the “mocha”!) Were they both later to the game than Alphonse Allais of France, who is said to have invented a form of instant coffee in 1881? And then there are the yet larger hitters: the British and United States governments are also credited with developing early forms of water-soluble coffee cakes that worked something like what we, today, might call instant coffee—inventions that became essential during wartime. 

On the consumer front, instant coffee was first mass-produced by George Washington (not that one), whose George Washington’s Red E Coffee was a hit—especially with soldiers abroad. The United States famously caused a run on instant coffee in World War I, forcing innovation out of necessity and bringing instant coffee in powdered sachet form to popularity for the first time (a movement that’s come full circle today.)

One of the most famous instant coffees worldwide is Nescafé, a dissolvable coffee said to have been invented as a way to use up the surplus coffee quickly going stale in Brazilian warehouses during the trying economic times of the 1930s. Nescafé is today perhaps the world’s best-known instant coffee and even any kind of coffee brands (including in coffee-producing countries, for better or for worse). Nestlé bills the product as the world’s “first” instant coffee—though they likely mean the world’s first widely successful (and today its best-known) instant brand. Their spray-drying technique launched at Nestlé’s swiss factory in 1938, and the rest, as they say, is instant history.

And let’s not forget our friend Sanka. Is there anything more 1970s-conjuring than an image of a big orange jug of Sanka? The famous brand of instant crystals is known for straddling two much-maligned categories in modern-day coffee: both decaf and instant—but was in fact a pioneering product in both fields. Brought to market in the early half of the 20th century—hot on the heels of the invention of decaf itself, in Germany in 1903—Sanka has remained a known name for its unique role in the coffee market. While originally available as traditional ground or whole bean coffee, it was marketed as instant by then-owners General Foods (now Kraft) during the Second World War. Though it’s diminished in popularity today, you better believe it’s still one of instant coffee history’s most revered icons. Don’t forget to spend a few hours on YouTube reminiscing about the decaffeinated instant coffee’s heyday!

Instant coffee came back into fashion—and emerged as an acceptable option to the now widespread, quality-minded coffee-drinking set—in 2009 with the introduction of Starbucks Via. The invention was long in the making (under top-secret blood-oath conditions) within the Starbucks Coffee empire for decades, and hit the coffee-loving world with a granulated bang. At the time, Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz famously declared that their Via instant coffee would “transform the coffee industry”—and he may not have been exaggerating. The handy product comes in small, vertical envelopes similar to some sugar pouches, and is nowadays available in more than half a dozen varieties, including everything from Starbucks’ beloved light and dark roasts, to an Italian roast decaf, to instant coffees specialized for iced drinks, in either regular or caramel iced latte flavor.

How is Instant Coffee Even Made?

Typically, instant coffee is made by first brewing coffee—often in a high concentration of coffee to water—in a more traditional, but larger-scale method and then processed into a dried coffee substance via freezing or evaporation. Freeze-drying, a process by which the brewed coffee is brought to a very low temperature and then dried in a vacuum environment, and broken into small particles, is one method. Spray-drying works sort of in the opposite way: brewed coffee is literally sprayed into hot, dry air causing the coffee to become fine particles of dry matter, which are then fused into large enough crystals for easy consumer handling. Spray-drying is much faster than freeze-drying but does require this additional step to make it into something you can take along and use easily to make coffee. (Most of today’s specialty instant coffee production techniques employ a form of freeze-drying.) 

Best Instant Coffee Brands of 2019

In the delicious grip of the Third Wave (and post-Third Wave!) coffee movement, the world’s best coffee roasters are turning to soluble instant coffee offerings to provide their loyal customers and fans a range of choices in how, when, and where to consume their coffees. In fact, there are so many great offerings out there in the specialty instant world right now that we couldn’t stop our list at just a mere Top 10! So here are our Top 11 Instant Coffee Brands to consider stashing in that day-bag, glove compartment, laptop sleeve, camping backpack, Louis Vuitton purse, or hobo bindle for your next quick overnight trip.

1. Olympia Coffee Roasters

With all of today’s instant coffee innovation allowing a truer, more full-bodied coffee flavor to come through in the cup, it’s no surprise that today’s most delicious instant coffees come from the country’s most talented coffee roasters. Olympia Coffee’s instant comes from the makers at Swift Cup, who use a freeze-drying technique to preserve the flavor, acidity, and body of beautiful coffees for speedy re-birth as instant. Oly coffee’s current instant offering is a single-origin Ethiopia Jibicho Natural, and a luxurious-looking, gold-seal-embossed box of six sachets is only $16 USD.

2. Proud Mary 

Melbourne and Portland-based roasters Proud Mary offer an instant coffee made with freeze-drying technology from Voila, an Oregon-based instant coffee company. The roaster offers a Discovery Box of its instant coffee selections, with one envelope each of four single origins from Brazil, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Colombia, as well as one envelope of their Ghost Rider blend. At only $17 USD, we can’t think of a more instantly gratifying way to tour the coffees of the world!

3. Tandem 

From one Portland to another, Tandem Coffee out of Portland, Maine, offers another high-quality specialty instant brew, this time from Swift Cup. Tandem has fully embraced the instant coffee revolution and offer three varieties of their specialty instant coffee: one blend, one single origin (currently from Ethiopia) and one Ethyl-Acetate-processed decaffeinated instant coffee. What’s more, the company has recognized the instant-coffee-shaped void in many jet-setting coffee lovers’ hearts and offers a stunning World Voyageurs instant coffee box set containing 50 (count ’em!) sachets of the instant of your choice for a mere $99 USD. This should keep frequent fliers going for at least a few weeks of the year, amirite? 

4. Ritual 

Leave it to the Bay Area to birth an instant coffee method that feels just like a tech startup. Sudden Coffee, which comes in nitrogen-packed plastic vials (making you look like a super-cool scientist or fancy drug dealer, employs a small-batch freeze-drying technology that’s been written up everywhere from Food & Wine to the New York Times. Their San Francisco Bay Area partners Ritual Coffee offer their noted single origins as single tubes of instant coffee for $4 a pop—surely just pennies for any tech brah or brahette who needs a boost on that commuter shuttle.

5. Joe Coffee Company

Longtime NYC café chain and roaster Joe Coffee Company offers its classic Daily blend, seasonally rotating single-origin coffees (currently La Familia Guarnizo from Colombia), and their Swiss Water Process Nightcap decaf in convenient instant form. Their specialty instant coffee is produced in cooperation with their Pennsylvania neighbors Swift Cup, and the company promises it tastes great in both hot or cold water, milk, or even seltzer! A box of six handy house blend sachets will run you $18 USD.

6. Verve

A specialty instant coffee technology that works a little differently than the others, DripKit’s method includes a pop-out coffee filter (filled with delicious Verve Coffee Roasters coffee!) that sits right atop your cup and works like the world’s cutest, smallest pour-over coffee. These so-called “single-serve pour-overs” come in a blend—Verve’s Seabright blend—and a seasonally changing single-origin (currently Honduras Juan Benitez). You’ll pay $16.50 for a five-pack of the single-origin and $15.50 for the house blend. Did we mention they’re so cute?

7. Passenger 

We know Lancaster, Pennsylvania roasters Passenger Coffee have a delicious specialty instant coffee because they’re the friends and neighbors of Swift Cup, based in the very same not-too-large town! Passenger was among the first to market with their instant, and today it’s available in both a house blend and an EA-processed Colombian decaf. What’s more, it’s available in convenient and stylish 50g jars, enough to make ten cups. A jar of their Stowaway house blend instant coffee costs $25.00 and fits perfectly into your carry-on.

8. Intelligentsia 

This Chicago-and-LA-based roaster has cafés in both of those cities as well as Boston and NYC—but if you’re not near one of their shops, or if you’re caught on an airplane somewhere between, you can still enjoy some of their classic brews like Costa Rica Flecha Roja or Colombia Tres Santos as instant coffee preparations. Partnering with San Francisco’s Sudden, the roaster offers a handy pack of four instant coffee tubes for just $13.00.

9. Sightglass

New to the roster of roasters Pennsylvania’s Swift Cup works with to instant-ize their product is the beloved San Francisco roaster Sightglass Coffee. Their Blueboon instant coffee boasts notes of chocolate, Mandarin orange, and honeysuckle, and comes in a box of six sachets for only $18 USD.

9. Ruby Coffee 

When central Wisconsin artisan roasters Ruby Coffee Roasters wanted to produce an on-the-go coffee offering for their loyal fans near and far, they looked to Sudden Coffee to produce an artisan instant version of their seasonal Creamery coffee blend. Ruby was drawn not just to the quality and affordability of Sudden’s product, but its sustainable commitment as well—each tube that Ruby Coffee Roasters’ Instant Creamery Blend comes in is fully recyclable. Pick up a tube for only $3.00 or a four-pack for $12.

10. Parlor Coffee

Everything Brooklyn’s Parlor Coffee has brought to the specialty coffee landscape has been unsurprisingly stylish, and their jarred specialty instant coffee offering produced by Swift Cup is no exception. The 2oz jars of seasonal single coffees, in instant form, make up to 15 cups of coffee—their latest is a blend of coffees from Colombia and Peru, with notes of caramel, toffee, and cocoa. These beautiful jars of Parlor instant coffee will set you back $30 and will look just stunning atop your hotel bar.

With the myriad options available for today’s on-the-go coffee connoisseur, finding a specialty instant coffee from a great roaster—perhaps one of the roasters that are already among your favorites!—is getting easier each day. And as the delicious selections on this list prove once and for all: there’s no longer any shame in the instant coffee game.

If instant coffee isn’t your thing, you can still get an instant delight – right now. Join the GGET coffee club and never worry about running out of specialty coffee again. That, my friend, is an instant win!