I remember drinking bad instant coffee as a youngster with my family on holiday or when camping, but there always used to be something a little ironically romantic (and now nostalgic) about having a bad coffee in a cool spot. Since then, the whole instant coffee category has improved and there are now much better, high-quality options available.
Even with specialty coffee more easily available, about 80% of UK households still stock instant coffee in their cupboards (according to the British Coffee Association). Brands are creating new innovations to lure us with variations such as the instant cappuccino sachet or the ‘cafe-style’ instant latte. Some brands are also quite rightly looking at more important factors like the quality of coffee beans used and the method of the drying process itself which heavily influences the overall quality of instant coffee.
What is instant coffee?
Instant coffee is dried-out coffee extract that is instantly re-dissolvable in hot water. It can either be freeze-dried or spray-dried. Overall, the freeze-dried process leads to better flavour and aroma and generally produces a higher quality instant coffee. Spray-dried instant coffee can often have a burnt flavour.
Types of beans used in instant coffee can be either Arabica or Robusta or a blend of the two, but I would always recommend looking for coffee that uses Arabica, a much higher quality, better tasting bean.
The main reasons to drink instant coffee are for time efficiency (it is very quick to make), plus it is usually cheaper than coffee beans or ground coffee. Instant coffee requires no barista skills or equipment and has a long shelf life. Nutritionally, instant coffee usually has less caffeine (due to the drying process) than traditionally made coffee but still holds a lot of coffee’s antioxidants.
Best instant coffee at a glance
- Quokka Coffee Premium Colombian Fairtrade Coffee, from £6.95
- TrueStart Coffee Barista Grade Instant Coffee, from £6.99
- Presto Colombian Instant Coffee, from £6.99
- Lavazza Prontissimo Americano Instant Coffee, from £4.89
- Nescafe Azera Grindsmith Craft Instant Coffee, from £5.49
- Beanies Nutty Hazelnut Flavour Instant Coffee, from £2.50
- Notes Instant Specialty Coffee, from £12.50
- Artisan Coffee Co. Coffee Bags, from £7.25
- Faff Single Origin Coffee Bags, from £11
Best instant coffees 2021
Quokka uses Fairtrade and FNC-certified coffee, ensuring it is ethically and sustainably sourced. This 100% Colombian Arabica freeze-dried coffee comes in a simply designed but memorable red recyclable aluminium tin. The light-in-colour dry chunky granules have a subtle aroma. I was really surprised by my first sip as it was pleasant and didn’t have a strong astringent bitter taste often associated with instant coffee. The cup was clean with no crema, which I liked because it looked like a proper filter coffee. It has a nice aroma and is smooth to drink if you don’t use too many granules: I used 1.5 teaspoons.
At £6.85 for 100g, it is more expensive than most of the supermarket brands, but worth the extra few pounds if you are supplementing your specialty coffee with the odd instant. There are also bulk-buy options for offices or higher volume drinkers.
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TrueStart Coffee is run by a husband and wife team who offer a range of products including instant coffee, cold brew cans, coffee bags and specialty coffee beans.
This instant coffee is 100% Colombian Arabica coffee that was really pleasant to drink: naturally sweet, bold and not overpowering. The instant coffee comes in two sizes, 100g and 500g. They also do an office pack and a decaf instant coffee if you are so inclined.
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Presto uses 100% Colombian Arabica beans and blends 10% ground coffee beans with the instant coffee to enhance its flavour, a common technique in instant coffees. Often you can tell this because there is a slight crema that forms on top.
The granules are medium texture and freeze dried. This coffee makes quite a clean, enjoyable cup that is smooth and is low on bitterness compared to many other instant coffees. I also particularly like the monochromatic patterned packaging on the recyclable tin!
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Lavazza is one of the longest standing Italian-style coffee companies around (since 1895!) and has a huge range of coffees ranging from coffee beans to instant coffee and coffee capsules.
The Prontissimo Americano is an extremely fine instant coffee, made by blending 5% roasted ground coffee with the instant powder. The result tastes just like an espresso americano you might find in cafés, and is an incredibly drinkable cup for those who like a rich black coffee, but one that doesn’t taste too strong. For a stronger coffee, increase the recommended amount of instant coffee powder until you find a ratio that suits you.
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This is a surprising and unique collaboration between a large coffee company (Nescafé) and an independent specialty coffee roaster in Manchester (Grindsmith Coffee Roasters), whose coffee shops I can certainly recommend.
Nescafé have had huge success with their Azera range already and claim that this is UK and Ireland’s first craft instant coffee. However, I would say others in this list (Notes and TrueStart, for example) have long been using specialty grade coffee to make their instant coffee too.
The instant coffee itself uses a blend of Brazil and Colombian coffee. The powder is fine in texture and light in colour. If you like a strong and bold chocolaty coffee, with a slight bitter finish, then this is one for you.
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If you are a fan of flavoured syrups or sugar in your coffee, then this is a great option. There are plenty of flamboyant flavours to choose between, from Apple Cinnamon to Sticky Toffee Pudding, Cookies and Cream, Chocolate Orange and many more! The coffee comes in small 50g glass jars holding chunky coffee granules that make about 25 coffees.
I tried the Hazelnut Instant which has a very strong, sweet and hazelnut aroma. It tastes just how it smells: sweet and nutty! It’s personally a little sweet for me, although it is vegan as well as being sugar-, nut-, gluten-, wheat- and dairy-free. Different milk options would work well and add another dimension to this coffee.
If you are a bit adventurous, a coffee newbie with a sweet tooth or want to experiment, have a look at the whole Beanies range.
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I have long been a fan of Notes, based in London, so I was looking forward to trying their instant coffee. It is processed in partnership with Voila, a high-end American specialty coffee company who were one of the first to perfect sophisticated technology to produce high-quality freeze-dried coffee.
Notes offers two origins (one from Honduras, one from Brazil). The slim, appealing packaging has a neat flip lid with five dainty sachets of coffee inside. The coffee itself didn’t disappoint. The granules are powder fine so dissolves, well, instantly! The aroma is very similar to freshly ground coffee and when you add hot water, there is no bitter or bubbly crema that forms like on cheaper instant coffee products or where ground coffee is added. The taste is clean and delicious, like drinking a freshly ground filter coffee.
Because of the price, I wouldn’t recommend this as an everyday coffee, but I would suggest keeping a packet in the cupboard for an instant coffee treat. The coffee quality and the minimal, efficient packaging makes it very portable. I’m impressed by this instant coffee and I’ll likely be taking a few sachets with me when I travel.
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Artisan Coffee has a classy range of coffee bags that all have bold and evocative names like ‘The Genius’, ‘The Smart Cookie’, ‘The Big Shot’, ‘The Heroine’ and more, that refer to their taste profiles. Whilst not strictly instant coffee, these are pretty much instant to brew and match instant coffee by needing no equipment.
These coffee bags have ground coffee inside them, so work similarly to teabags and are also similar in size (about 7.5g), but with coffee inside. They are priced similarly to fresh ground coffee at around £7-8 per box of 20. I found the taste to be similar in strength to tea, mild and pleasant – so it’s not a heavy cup of coffee which you might need in the morning, but a perfect light afternoon or evening cuppa. There is an extensive tasting collection if you want to try all the flavours out, and they come individually wrapped, which makes them a convenient option to take camping or away on short trips. It would be great to see these in hotels and accommodation in addition to the vast teabag selections usually on offer.
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Faff coffee bags live up to the claim on the packet – #nofaff.
The bags are large (double the size of most other coffee bags), holding about 15g of coffee each. A box comes with 15 bags packaged in a sealable coffee bag that visually looks like a bag of fresh coffee. The bags are compostable but not individually wrapped so it’s not convenient if you want to take one or two away with you.
I was impressed by the strong taste and full flavour of the Guatemalan coffee brewed from the bag. The taste was the closest we tried to a filter coffee made with fresh ground beans, but without the equipment.
This fun and bold brand is definitely a good option for the coffee lover who wants fresh coffee but not all the faff of making it in the morning.
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