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What is Instant Coffee?

A Kaminsky
Updated May 17, 2024
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Instant coffee is, essentially, ground coffee that has been freeze-dried. When rehydrated with hot water, it makes a beverage that is somewhat similar to coffee brewed from ground, roasted beans. It does not require a pot or brewing time, which makes it ideal for travelers or camping, or any time when brewed coffee is not available.

Satori Kato, a Japanese scientist working in Chicago, invented instant coffee in 1901. It was mostly a concept until the Nescafe Company introduced it commercially in 1938. This beverage gained popularity in the following years, and it was included in the C-Ration packets issued in the field to soldiers during World War II.

Instant coffee is produced by placing wet coffee granules on large trays and freezing them. The air is then pulled out of the freezing chamber to prevent condensation, and the chamber is warmed. The resulting grounds are packaged for sale. Manufacturers frequently use low-quality coffee beans for roasting and grinding, which contributes to its generally substandard taste.

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s were decades of emerging convenience foods and appliances, so it is not surprising that this product was most popular during these years and on into the 1970s. Using this type of coffee, like many other food fads, was considered "progressive." Those who preferred brewed coffee might have been considered a little old-fashioned.

With the advent of drip coffee makers, brewing fresh coffee suddenly came back into fashion. Percolators can be difficult to work with, but the drip machine was easy: people could just put the little paper filter into the basket, pour the coffee into it, then pour water into the reservoir in the back. Ten minutes later, they had a nicely brewed cup of coffee. Those who had practically forgotten what brewed coffee tasted like were buying drip-style coffee pots, and instant coffee began falling rapidly out of favor.

As the "gourmet" coffee trend has established itself, drinking instant coffee is, in some circles, strongly looked down on. This product has its uses in cooking, however. It is good for flavoring desserts such as mousse or filling creme when strong brewed coffee would add too much liquid. This type of coffee is also used in frappes and other beverages that require a coffee taste, but not necessarily from brewed coffee. It's still readily available in most supermarkets, and most cooks keep a jar of it handy, just for these uses.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
A Kaminsky
By A Kaminsky
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGEEK. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

Discussion Comments

By anon322839 — On Mar 01, 2013

Whether instant or ground, the bottom line in my opinion are the beans that are used. And the bottom line is like everything in this crazy world: money.

Robusta coffee is cheap so it is blended more and more. My hunch is that it is also poisonous. Nature gives us a clue because it is vile. Visitors to the USA all comment how bad the coffee is. It is a big thing in the US and big business. The US also has 11 million or so fibromyalga sufferers, mostly all in the last 30 or so years. The biggest producer of Robusta coffee by far is Vietnam -- also in the last 30 years. Go figure.

By anon301302 — On Nov 03, 2012

"It's just as good as brewed in my opinion."

We all know what they say about opinions. But I digress. Instant is swill, as is Starbucks. I collect coffee brewing devices, and used to roast my own. Now, I'm happy with whole-bean, grinding it daily with a Zassenhaus (look it up, old man), and brewing it in a *true* Drip-o-lator. So if you're happy drinking the equivalent of dirty dishwater, you have my condolences. I'll enjoy a cup of *real* coffee.

By anon139781 — On Jan 05, 2011

I roast specialty/gourmet coffee. The difference between instant coffee is the equivalent of a micro brewed beer (small, quality-controlled batches), and Budweiser from a can (created in boilers as big as a house). There is no comparison.

Arabica coffee beans are Indica, and Robusta/exchange grade is bammer. If you like the taste of wood+bourbon+poo, or like stems+seeds+headaches, you'll love Folgers, Maxwell House, and Yuban. You may also enjoy filtered motor oil. Alternatively, Starbucks sucks too. That's why they roast so dark, to hide their coffee's taste defects. Go figure.

By anon69560 — On Mar 09, 2010

@anon36215 There are different strong levels available (eg: light, medium, and strong)

By anon36215 — On Jul 10, 2009

It's just as good as brewed in my opinion. I don't like gourmet for the reason those coffee snobs (said affectionately) DO like it: the strength. I like medium coffee. Not too strong, but not brown water either.

A Kaminsky

A Kaminsky

Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGEEK. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
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