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My Grandmother used to always have a jar of ACME store brand instant coffee in her refrigerator when I was a kid. I can remember her scooping two teaspoonfuls of the sparkly brown powder into a cup of hot water. This was how I usually saw coffee made as a child. Now, 30+ years later, I have seen many other brewing processes, and learned a lot more about coffee. While instant coffee is a drink I don’t partake in, a lot of other people do, and it was a topic I wanted to explore.
Instant coffee was first developed in 1901 by Satori Kato. While he was never able to bring his to market, a second form was developed by George Constant Louis Washington; and his version made it to market circa 1910. Later versions of instant coffee included one by Nescafe in the 30s; a company named National Research Corporation developed the modern version of instant processing during and after WWII in their research of non-food medical applications for the army. By 1949, they formed a company and manufactured the most advanced form of instant coffee under the name of Holiday Brands.
There are two forms of production that are mainly used: Freeze Drying and Spray Drying. Both start out the same, where the beans are roasted, ground, and brewed into coffee. At that point, the processes diverge a bit on their way to the instant granules.
Freeze Drying takes the brewed coffee and quickly freezes it. The coffee is then placed onto metal trays in a vacuum chamber. As the chamber is heated, the water in the coffee is removed from the brew by sublimation, instantly changing from solid to gas. The water vapor is then removed from the chamber through condensing coils, just like in an air conditioner. Left behind on the metal trays are instant coffee granules, sent out to be packaged and shipped.
With spray drying, the brewed liquid coffee is literally sprayed into a heated chamber, and the water is extracted out in a cyclonic drying funnel and the particles are left behind at the bottom. The process is much quicker, but also needs a second process to combine the particles created, as they are too small for use by consumers.
My take on instant coffee is that basically it’s drinking twice brewed and baked off coffee. While it is touted as easy, instant coffee is no easier than having a super-auto machine on your counter; and it is not any quicker either. Boiling time for water on a pot and warm up time for a lot of espresso machines are comparable. Brew times are similar, but it only takes a few seconds longer for the machine to brew 4-6 ounces than pour the same amount into a cup and swirl the instant. But, an espresso machine delivers a completely fresh, better tasting, real cup of coffee.
Instant is a very interesting form of coffee brewing, a nifty history lesson, and in wartime, it has its place in foxholes by our GIs, but with the availability of modern espresso machines, I don’t think it’s very relevant anymore. Does anyone disagree and use instant coffee? Tell us how.