Instant coffee is on the brink of becoming cool again, though it doesn't have such a hot history.
According to a 2014 report from market research firm Euromonitor, people in the United States spent over $30 billion dollars on coffee in 2013 alone. But we're not willing to shell out the dough when it comes to the instant stuff: Only $960 million dollars, or just about 3% of the total money spent by Americans on coffee, was spent on instant coffee.
The low number is especially shocking when you consider how popular instant coffee — which requires no fancy or finicky brewing processes — is in other parts of the globe. The Euromonitor report revealed that close to half of the planet actually prefers the instant stuff, the Washington Post noted in 2014. In 2013, the globe consumed nearly $31 billion-worth of instant coffee. That number was expected to jump to over $35 billion by 2018.
Instant coffee just lacks a cool-factor in the U.S., where some are willing to fork over $16 for a single cup and enjoy nerding out about the origins of beans and brewing methods. But by shunning the instant stuff, Americans could be missing out on newly reimagined formulas and convenience, considering several companies are now making hip, respectable instant versions.
The old stuff just didn't taste good to Americans' palates.
It's not surprising that instant coffee has a poor reputation in the U.S., said Kalle Freese, a former barista and co-founder of Sudden, a San Francisco-based instant coffee start-up. "It's something that everyone knows has sucked forever," he said over the phone. This is simply because a lot of commercial instant coffee in America is made by large coffee companies who want to make as much coffee as possible for as little money as possible, Freese explained. "So they buy really poor quality, really cheap coffee beans."
This low-quality coffee is brewed at "extremely high temperature and pressures, and it loses its integrity," Kent Sheridan, the founder of instant coffee brand Voilà, said in an email. The liquid coffee is then sprayed with hot air, resulting in instant coffee granules that taste bitter, Freese said. Who can blame someone for not wanting to drink that?
But better beans are coming to the market.
Companies like Sudden and Voilà are hoping to change America's attitude toward instant coffee by amping up the drink's quality while holding onto its convenience. Both companies are focused on markedly improving the taste of instant coffee.
"When I go on sourcing trips for Sudden, I am looking for the same high-quality beans I would have served in my speciality coffee shop in Finland," Freese said. Over at Voilà, Sheridan sources his beans from many respected roasters in the U.S., like California's Supersonic and Portland's Dapper and Wise.
Unlike the larger coffee companies, both Sudden and Voilà avoid using the air-dry method to make their instant coffee granules. Instead, both companies turn to freeze-drying: The coffee is brewed and then the liquid is freeze-dried through each company's proprietary process. This helps retain the flavor of the coffee, Sheridan explained.
When the quality of the beans is no longer a differentiator, there are many advantages to drinking instant coffee over the speciality stuff — namely that it doesn't require any pricey brewing tool or intimidating culture.
"I created Sudden because I wanted to make good coffee approachable and accessible to everyone, and in many ways bring coffee away from the arrogant hipster barista image that is the source of many memes on the internet for good reason," Freese said.
To make a cup of instant coffee all you really need is a liquid. "At home I like to microwave a cup of water for 90 seconds and then mix in a packet of Sudden," Freese said. "If I am out biking, however, I just mix a packet into the cold water bottles I have with me." Freese said it's easy to mix instant coffee with hot or cold almond or dairy milks too.
Convenience is key.
Who would want this new and improved instant coffee? Anyone who doesn't want to deal with brewing methods like the pour over.
"My grandma lives in the middle-of-nowhere Finland, where speciality coffee shops aren't easily accessible, but she loves good coffee," Freese said. "I tried to teach her how to brew speciality coffee, but she couldn't be bothered because she didn't need more than a cup for herself, so Sudden is the perfect solution."
Instant coffee has some real potential to shake up the coffee market and become a true mainstay. Both Freese and Sheridan have received funding, either from investors or crowdfunding. Plus, take a look at Starbucks' success: Since launching its Via instant coffee in 2009, the coffee chain has seen the line expand and grow to include a number of options, a Starbucks spokesperson noted in an email.
But don't throw away your Chemex just yet: While high-quality instant coffees like Sudden and Voilà make good cups of coffee, both Freese and Sheridan admit they will never totally beat the experience of making a cup of speciality coffee.
"There will always be a romance and pride around manually brewing your coffee from start to finish," Sheridan explained. Still, for those who have two minutes to make a cup of coffee before running out the door in the morning — these new instant coffees might just do the trick.