27 Sept 2014

How it's Made: Instant Coffee

What you always wanted to know, but where to afraid to ask about instant coffee.

I master and own a lot of different coffee brewing methods. So when visitors ask for some coffee they get to choose. Filter or espresso? What type beans? What type of drip method? An espresso black or white? And if I really like them, and I have some in my cupboard (seriously, often I don't) they can have sugar in their espresso drink as well. Because of the choices and quality I provide, I used to expect that I could make everyone happy. Until that day. 

As I used to work for Douwe Egberts Master Blenders, I always had their free products in my house; gifts, trials, something left over. And what did I run into? A friend that preferred the instant coffee I had on a shelf somewhere over my own collection of coffee. Because it wasn't as strong or acidic.

Now to be honest, I really did not mind. At least someone was enjoying
it and in the end all you want is that your guest is happy and satisfied, right? Plus, I am no longer waisting my expensive beans on someone that does not appreciate them like I do. I'll just drink them myself.

What I really liked about this experience is that it was the first time that someone was comfortable and self-assured enough that he did not mind telling me he liked the instant product more. Often, when working in the coffee industry one gets asked the inevitable question what your opinion is on Kopi Luwak (really people, invent a different question to ask, will you?). But almost no-one wants to ask about instant coffee. The idea is that instant coffee must be so bad, it would be insulting to ask anything about that, wouldn't it?

But when on the rare occasion someone does ask, people gather round and listen. And not only laymen, but coffee professionals as well. Not a lot of people working in coffee have experience with this product. It is put off as being inferior right away, and within the specialty market, never used. At the same time, coffee people love coffee, love their product, and secretly do want to know the secrets behind this product. I however, having worked in specialty and several mainstream coffee companies, have experience with instant. And so this blog is to explain a little to you what instant coffee really is, how it is made and why, really, not all instant coffee is bad. And dare I say it, a better choice sometimes than mainstream pre-ground filter, espresso or liquid coffee.

What is instant coffee?
Instant is a product that is ideal for creating vast amounts of coffee in a short amount of time. It is powder or granules to which you add hot water to get a cup of coffee. What it comes down to is that green coffee is blended, roasted and brewed. When brewing, as mentioned in previous blogs, you extract coffee into water. With instant the water is for a large part taken out again, after brewing, leaving the extracted coffee in dry form. 

Sometimes colourants are added, because the producer is scared people will only drink black coffee. This is why some instant coffees are dark in colour and others are very light. It is not roast related. Dark roasted instant coffee will also be light in colour. Sometimes aromas and sweeteners are added. This is not always added onto the ingredients list. Just like some additives used in tea, most of these additives, because they are aromas, are part of the production method or dissolve, do not need to be added onto the back of the package. This is the end product that goes to the consumer. The consumer adds water and so, a brewed cup of coffee appears again.

What types of instant coffee are there?
There are three types of instant coffee. There is spray-dried instant, agglomerate and freeze-dried instant. Spray-dried instant looks like powder, it is the lowest in quality, and the cheapest. Usually (very) low quality beans are used. It is hard to find outside of the supermarket, however this does depend per country. For example it is possible to find it at, also higher end, hotels in Britain. But mostly this product has disappeared from the 'out of home' market. 

spray-dried (www.haco.ch)

Now, agglomerate is a greatly funny product. It is exactly the same as spray-dried coffee. The only difference? By adding coffee oils (or other liquidy stuff) whilst spinning the spray-dried coffee in a tumbler, the instant powder forms little balls. The little balls, or the agglomerates, look more appealing and expensive than powder, and so will more easily be sold. ... That's it.

agglomerate (www.haco.ch)

Sooooo, freeze-dried. It looks a little like kitty-litter. This is now the most common in the 'out of home' market. Usually better, higher quality, green beans are used, as the production method allows for more delicate flavours. 

freeze-dried (www.haco.ch)

How is it made?
As I said, agglomerate is agglomerated spray-dried coffee, so I'm lingering on this subject no longer. How is spray-dried made? And what is the difference with freeze-dried? The process is the same right up to when the water is removed from the brewed coffee.

First the green and unroasted beans are, usually, blendedSometimes the blending occurs after roasting. The blend is roasted, as the brewing process is quite short, the roast is quite dark. But it depends on the developed  end product. 
After the beans are roasted, they are rested a short while, never too long, to remove some of the CO2. Then the beans are ground very, very coarse, and brewed. Usually in very big quantities, without any type of filter other than metal, in an airtight space. Really think of it as a french press, or aeropress, type of system.

Now after brewing, the magic happens. The brewed coffee is thickened. Or in other words, a part of the water is taken out. And this is the chef's secret. What is done exactly is something companies protect and is not shared. But, whatever they do, what it comes down to is that they separate the first and secondary extract. The primary extract are the first flavours that are extracted during brewing. This part has the most aromas, the most acidity and is the most sweet. The secondairy extract is the second part of extraction during brewing. During this time the bitters are extracted. The secondary extract is heated and a part of the O2 evaporates. Then the thickened secondary extract is mixed back into the primary extract. This results in a strong, thick liquid that still has all the fresh, flavoursome and more acidic and sweet flavours that are found in the primary extract.

After the thick liquid is created, the methods of productions start to differ. The spray-dried coffee is led to the top of a high tower. From there it is sprayed down. On it's way down, the liquid coffee is 'blow-dried' from the sides. What is left and caught at the bottom is powder, or, spray-dried coffee. 
This is also the reason why spray-dried coffee is lower in quality. The heat and oxygen that is used, also removes the most delicate, fresh, sweet and acidic flavours. What is left is a flat and more bitter powder.

The freeze-dried process is completely different. The liquid coffee is spread across a flat running belt, and frozen. The belt travels to grinders. These grinders break the frozen liquid coffee, which gives freeze-dried coffee it's specific form (sharp broken-like bits). The broken liquid parts are put into flat trays. Then the trays are led into an airtight and vacuum tunnel. In the vacuum tunnel the temperature is brought up from minus 42 degrees Celsius to minus 25 degrees Celsius. 
So why is that important? Because of the tunnel being vacuum, a chemical process occurs, called sublimation. Water, or O2, reacts differently under vacuum. The points where O2 freezes, melts and evaporates are different. Basically the way the tunnel is made, the O2 in the brewed and frozen coffee goes from frozen to evaporated, without melting in between. This means the water is taken out of the brewed coffee, without being exposed to heat and oxygen. Resulting in an end product that still has all the flavours it had when just being brewed. Tadaaaaaa. Awesome. And again a point in my life I wished I had enrolled in more chemical and physics classes. Because...how awesome?

Quality differences?
Well yes, did you not read the above? In our modern days and ways, there really is no reason why instant coffee should taste bad. What it comes down to in the end, is what people want to pay for their coffee. It's a shame that instant has a rep for being awful,  because it is the rep that is the reason why it often tastes blah. Now, who reading this wants to pay for a cup of instant coffee? Then, who reading this blog believes that an amazing cup of coffee is available for free? The answer to the last question, unless you're thick in the head, is: "nooooo, of course not". Quality costs money. 
I have had an amazing single origin Kenyan instant coffee. However, it is not available in most markets, because no-one wants to pay for it. No-one wants to buy it. A big, big shame. I would love some instant Kenya while camping, or during a hospital visit. And I would be willing to pay.

Now, of course I am not saying that quality instant is better than freshly roasted, ground and barista brewed coffee. But what is? In a future blog I'll discuss the different coffees at work. And often instant is a better option than an automatic espresso machine. It is all about the instant product you choose and getting the ratio of instant to water correct. 


  1. So true. In fact when living and working in East and Southern Africa, I often bought or ordered delicious instant coffee. No it wasn't the then omnipresent dark box Nestlé instant, but some big tin Tanzania instant. In powder form, but great, smooth and not harsh and acid like the standard Nestlè one (btw. N also makes decent more expensive instant). I googled the Tanzania one, but can't find the typical big tin anymore. Maybe they updated the packaging?

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