Instant coffee bears little resemblance in taste to freshly brewed coffee.
It is commonly made with inferior ‘robusta’ beans, which are a popular source but often require more speciality coffee making to really get the most out of them.
It may be convenient, but do we actually know what we are drinking? Have you ever wondered how they make coffee soluble? After all, coffee is made using tough coffee beans that surely cannot be made to just dissolve in water, right?
The truth is that instant coffee does not contain any actual coffee beans; it is simply a dried coffee flavoured solution that is the product of a complex brewing process. This is how instant coffee is made, ready for the supermarket shelves.
It is the product of a complex scientific process, yet we British love it.
The process starts by passing water through a series of cylinders full of ground coffee beans. Each of these cylinders is heated to a different temperature, and in at least one of the cylinders, pressure is applied to achieve a fuller extraction.
One of the reasons why instant coffee is bitter is because, during this extraction process, the coffee grounds become burnt as they are exposed to temperatures of up to 180°C (the widely agreed optimum temperature, among coffee enthusiasts, to brew coffee at is between 90-95°C, and maybe even as low as 80 for some blends).
This coffee solution is then filtered to remove any unwanted particles before the concentration stage. Here, water is removed from the coffee solution to increase the flavour.
There are several different techniques to do this, one of which involves heating the solution further to evaporate the water.
In this stage, the coffee solution is converted to a dry form. There are two commonly used methods; Spray drying and Freeze drying.
All these different stages, and the high temperatures used in them, destroy most of the natural flavours that occur in coffee. The dry form of the coffee solution is, therefore, both stewed and bitter. So to help improve the taste, aromas produced during the various stages of this process are captured and then sprayed onto the dry coffee particles.
It still dominates the home (as much as we are on a mission to fight this). But the hold is narrowing.
Coffee producers and drinkers of instant coffee understand that instant coffee and fresh coffee from beans are two separate things, just like fresh orange juice is different to diluted juice. Some people may prefer one over the other or simply want the choice of both. This means that many people think there is room on the market for both and they shouldn’t compete against one another. Fair point.
Instant coffee was first introduced to the UK by American soldiers during World War II. It was meant as a temporary fix for them not having a decent ‘cup of joe’ on the front line, but soon caught on in Britain and we favoured its ease and the different taste. After all, you didn’t have your big De’Longhi, Sage and Gaggia bean to cups machine back then.
Britain was also a nation of tea drinkers. We are famous for it, in fact. So being able to make a cup of coffee just as easy as a cup of tea was huge news. People today still like that ease, and the fact that it takes up little room, is relatively cheap and there are now more varieties than ever.
It may not be the favoured drink by coffee snobs, and is shunned by coffee shops who serve those desperately needing a caffeine kick. The addition of milk and sugar makes for a rather mild drink after you have been introduced to a bean to cup coffee. But there is no denying that even those who hide their jar of instant in the back of their cupboard and only bring it out in private find instant coffee a guilty pleasure.