It’s cheaper, quicker, and involves far less cleaning up than regular coffee. For anyone looking to get a quick caffeine fix, instant coffee has an undeniable charm.
Without access to cafés, restaurants, or even the coffee machine at work, the last couple of months saw me rekindling an old friendship with instant coffee. Given the number of Dalgona coffee (a trendy drink made from instant coffee) posts on social media, people around the world seem to be in a similar situation. But while instant coffee can be prepared simply and easily with little more than a kettle and cup, producing it is a rather intricate process.
The first instant coffee powder
There is no conclusive evidence regarding who invented instant coffee, but some likely contenders include John Dring who patented ‘coffee compound’ in 1771, a Glasgow company that claims to have invented ‘Camp Coffee’ in the late 1800s, and Japanese chemist Sartori Kato who introduced ‘powdered coffee’ in 1901.1 But none of these initial inventions were very successful in winning over consumers because they failed to preserve the aroma and taste of freshly brewed coffee.1
Back then, instant coffee (also called soluble coffee) mostly received attention from military commanders that were keen on experimenting with it as a way to provide their soldiers with a caffeine boost without having to carry cumbersome brewing equipment.2
How modern instant coffee was invented
Instant coffee only started its journey towards what we know and love today in the 1930s, when Brazil was left with a massive stock of unsold coffee beans due to disruptions in global coffee trade.2,4 Brazilian government officials teamed up with technicians from the Swiss company Nestlé to find ways to use up this stock.2 Nestlé, then a company specialising in milk products, used the spray-drying technique to produce milk powder.
This involved spraying concentrated milk (derived by heating milk to evaporate a part of the moisture) into drying towers and then mixing it with hot air. Whatever liquid remained in the concentrate would evaporate after coming in contact with the hot air, leaving behind the solid particles in a powdered form. Nestlé decided to use this technology for making powdered instant coffee from brewed coffee.2 Similar to milk, brewed coffee would be condensed into a concentrate by evaporating a significant portion of the moisture. This concentrate would then be mixed with hot air which resulted in the remaining moisture turning into vapour, and leaving behind a free-flowing instant coffee powder.
Originally produced in Brazil, the newly invented instant coffee was then exported in large volumes to the United States. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, instant coffee, along with other convenience foods like juice concentrates and frozen vegetables, had become a household staple in the United States.2 During the same period, Nestlé had also started manufacturing it for the European market, starting with Switzerland and France.2 In the years that followed, the U.K., Canada, and Japan joined the U.S. as major consumers of instant coffee.2,4
How instant coffee powder changed the coffee trade
The invention of instant coffee led to the creation of a new commodity chain in the coffee trade. Prior to this, coffee-producing countries almost exclusively exported green beans for roasting and processing in the importing markets. Because coffee beans need to be roasted relatively close to their time of consumption to retain maximum flavour profiles, importers would roast the beans themselves, often making more profit than green bean exporters. Producing instant coffee allowed South American countries to sell a finished product to importing countries, which was estimated to be more profitable than selling green beans.2
How it’s made today
Today, spray drying has been replaced with freeze-drying–a process that allows instant coffee to retain more flavour and aroma. The production process starts with roasting raw coffee beans to develop colour and flavour, followed soon after by grinding.4,5 Subsequently, ground coffee is brewed, much like regular coffee, then heated until it is condensed into an extract.4 Once a condensed extract is reached, it is frozen at around -40° C and broken up into uniformly sized granules. Oversized or undersized granules are reprocessed before they can be packaged.5
In recent decades, instant coffee manufacturing has become increasingly sophisticated. Producers now invest in advanced technologies that maximize extraction and retention of volatile compounds responsible for flavour and aroma.5 The compounds that give brewed coffee its signature aroma are extremely volatile and cannot be preserved, even through freeze-drying.5 However, caffeol—an oil produced by mechanically express-roasting beans or spent grounds—can be sprayed onto the granules to give instant coffee an aroma similar to that of freshly brewed coffee.5
Fun fact: In general, instant coffee contains less caffeine than fresh coffee.6 When home-brewed coffee was tested in a laboratory, instant coffee samples were found to contain 66 mg of caffeine per 225 ml cup on average.6 The same study found that drip or filter coffee contained 112 mg of caffeine per 225 ml cup.6 Despite lower caffeine content, instant coffee still provides around twice as much caffeine as other caffeine-rich beverages like tea or cola.6
Market research shows that almost half the world actually prefers instant coffee over freshly prepared coffee and that instant coffee now makes up more than a third of all coffee brewed for retail consumers globally.7 In established coffee markets such as mainland Europe, coffee is a product that comes with well-defined expectations regarding taste, strength and origin. However, the convenience and versatility of instant coffee make it an attractive consumer product in emerging coffee markets, offering consumers a multi-purpose product with several functional and flavour possibilities.8
Do you like instant coffee? Tell us why or why not in the comments below!
- “Is There a Future for Instant Coffee?” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed 20 August 2020.
- Talbot (1997). “The struggle for control of a commodity chain: instant coffee from Latin America”. Accessed 22 August 2020.
- “Celebrating 75 years of the Nestlé brand that invented instant coffee”. Nestlé. Accessed 24 August 2020.
- “How it works – Instant Coffee”. Free Documentary. Accessed 22 August 2020.
- Clarke (2003). COFFEE| Instant. Accessed 24 August 2020.
- Gilbert, Marshman, Schwieder, & Berg (1976). “Caffeine content of beverages as consumed”. Accessed 25 September 2020.
- “Almost half of the world actually prefers instant coffee”. The Washington Post. Accessed 19 August 2020.
- “Instant Coffee: Versatility and Convenience Drive Growth”. Euromonitor International. Accessed 25 August 2020.