I’m going to be real here: This was a toughie. If you’re accustomed to starting your day with a cup of coffee freshly brewed from beans (drip, pour-over, what have you), dehydrated coffee granules dissolved in piping hot water don’t really approximate what you think of as “coffee.” But some instant coffees get much closer than others.
First thing’s first: What is instant coffee? It’s brewed coffee that’s had all the water removed, leaving behind crystals. To make it come to life again, you just revive the granules by adding hot water back in. (If you’re into food science, there’s interesting info about the different ways it’s made in this Huffington Post article.) While instant hasn’t achieved critical mass among coffee snobs for a reason, there’s a time and a place for the stuff. It’s an easy solution if you’re going camping and don’t have percolator. If you don’t regularly drink decaf but want to have some on hand for visitors, hey, just throw a jar of instant in the cupboard. Or, my most vivid association from childhood, if a scarred murderer named Freddy Krueger is haunting your dreams and you need to stay awake, you can shovel instant coffee granules into your mouth by the spoonful. (Although, I guess we don’t recommend it.)
For this taste test, the Sporked team set aside their instant coffee preconceptions and tried everything from elevated instant coffees to the most affordable store brands. With some help from Good Mythical Morning‘s Chase Hilt, we found six that’ll give you lift in a pinch.
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- Starbucks Dark Roast Premium Instant
Hey, an instant coffee that tastes like coffee! I’ll take it! This one comes in a nice little tin that contains 40 cups worth of dehydrated crystals. It purports to be “bold & roasty,” and that’s about right. Chase thought it tasted like a very well-done s’more. It’s certainly stronger than most of the others we tried, but it doesn’t taste too, too bitter or burnt (personally, I thought Starbucks’ instant French Roast was too bitter to make the list at all). Between the lovely presentation and the pretty decent coffee flavor, this instant is way better than most.
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- Starbucks Via Instant Colombia Medium Roast Coffee
If bold coffee aroma is your thing, this one will scratch an itch. This is perhaps the most convenient option on the list. You just dump a pre-portioned packet into a mug, add hot water, and you’re good to go. No measuring necessary. As far as flavor goes, this one definitely has a bit of bitterness but nothing you can’t get past. The roasty notes on the nose help translate into a bold, mostly enjoyable cup of coffee.
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- Café Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee
I have a soft spot for Café Bustelo. When I first got an extremely cheap espresso maker in college, I always brewed Café Bustelo because it’s affordable and reliable. This is definitely more aggressive tasting than the other coffees on the list, but that’s kind of what you want from an espresso, right? “This would get me amped up,” staff writer Danny Palumbo said after he took a sip. “Sometimes I like things that taste borderline too harsh.” If you want a good, quick, concentrated dose of caffeine, this is a good option.
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- Nescafé Clasico Dark Roast
At this point, it’s kind of hard to believe Nespresso and Nescafé share DNA. Both are Nestle products (hence the “Nes”). But Nespresso has become an upscale brand of machines and pods (here in L.A., one of our fancier malls has a whole-ass Nespresso store), while Nescafe’s most popular form is still instant crystals. I guess you could say Necafé walked so Nespresso could run. Anyway, this feels like a pretty classic and standard instant coffee, something that’ll get you through the morning. A word of warning: When you’re in the coffee aisle, definitely go with this one over Nescafé Taster’s Choice, which we all thought was bitter, sour, and had an off-putting smell.
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- Kroger Autentico
This coffee definitely has slightly watered-down, tire-shop-coffee vibes, but don’t write it off completely. It also has a slightly sweet quality, which we really liked given that so many of these dehydrated crystals produced a super bitter cup of coffee. Danny thought it tasted like hotel coffee. Okay, fine. Motel coffee. But you could certainly do worse!
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- Great Value Classic Decaf
I brought this up earlier, but this seems like exactly what you keep in the pantry if you don’t drink decaf but might have a person with a heart condition drop by every now and then. There are 120 cups in this jar, but I’d recommend adding more crystals to your cup than the instructions indicate to get a more bold flavor from this one. Your decaf-loving visitors might not clamor for another cup, but they won’t avoid coming over either.
Credit: Merc / Walmart
Best of the Best
Other products we tried: Folgers Classic Packets, O Organics Instant Coffee, Starbucks French Roast, Trader Joe’s 100% Columbian Instant Coffee, Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee Packets All Dressed Up, Maxwell House Hazelnut Cafe, Beaumont Instant Coffee Classic Decaf, Nescafe Tasters Choice 100% Colombian
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