One of the most appealing aspects of instant coffee is the ease with which you can have a cup of coffee that’s ready to drink. But how is it made? Indeed, does it even qualify as real coffee?
When you purchase instant coffee, one of the things you’ll notice regularly appears on some packaging is the emphasis on it being “freeze dried.” But what does that mean? Is it a more appealing way of processing coffee than alternative methods?
Recently we tested 56 instant coffees, most of the best tasting brands use freeze-dried method. Here you can check out our best instant coffee reviews. We also tested the best decaf instant coffees in another post.
If you’re not sure about any of these things, this article will go into detail explaining them.
How Is Instant Coffee Made? A Brief Overview
As with every other coffee type, instant coffee originates from the coffee tree. The farmer then picks the fruit, which is then processed as whole green beans. At this point, the coffee beans are sent to the makers of instant coffee who roast the coffee, grind it, and brew it.
At this point, the coffee extract’s water is removed using either methods of spray drying or freeze drying to powderize them. Once the dried coffee extract is turned into coffee granules, they remain solid at room temperature until boiling water is poured on them, when they will dissolve.
Once in its granulated state, the coffee is packed, with the consumer left to add the boiling water to get instant coffee.
The above overview is a simplified description of the instant coffee-making process. In reality, the process that gets the beans to the cup is far more complex. So, let’s go into more detail about exactly how to make instant coffee.
Is Instant Coffee Really Coffee?
The short answer is ‘yes’ because instant coffee derives from whole beans. Before they become crystals or soluble powder, they undergo processing in the same way as regular coffee to extract the best elements of the beans.
Roasting, grinding, and brewing take place to turn the beans into liquid coffee. The process of manufacturing instant coffee occurs in industrial-sized roasters, mills, and brewers. However, at one stage, the instant coffee was brewed coffee.
However, if instant coffee is real coffee, why does it taste so different from fresh regular coffee?
The Process Of Roasting, Grinding, And Brewing
It would be an error to think the beans used in instant coffee receive the same level of care in the grinding and brewing process as the single-origin coffee used for pour over.
Instead, the whole green coffee beans are filtered then placed into enormous ovens that roast the beans to attain the color and extract the flavors. When the beans are roasted, they will fall into a huge coffee mill that grinds them into coarse coffee grounds. Then the ground coffee goes into an industrial brewer.
When the beans are ground, the smell begins to ebb away when it reacts with oxygen. Some coffee makers counteract this by putting nitrogen gas through them, then holding the vapor for putting back into the coffee at a later point.
The manufacturers will then brew the coffee’s flavor into a concentrate of fresh coffee inside vast coffee machines. The machines push the flavors down using very hot water or pressure and steam. The machines – that can make 18,000 liters of liquid coffee concentrate per hour – then heat the coffee, which removes some of the water, turning the liquid into a coffee extract.
Turning The Coffee Into Instant Powder
The coffee becomes powder by taking out all the water through either freezing or evaporation.
Typically, there are two means of making instant coffee: freeze drying or spray drying. This section examines those processes and how they differ.
Spray drying is the process of turning liquid coffee into a fine mist and spraying it into a tall, large chamber filled with swirling hot air that can reach temperatures of 400-500 F.
When the coffee lands on the chamber’s floor, the coffee concentrate’s water evaporates speedily, allowing the dehydrated crystals to accumulate.
This method is easy and quick, and with such a large machine, the manufacturers can maintain impressively high output.
It’s also a more cost-effective method than freeze-drying.
Not surprisingly, the process is not kind to the coffee’s flavors. The aromas evaporate at incredibly hot temperatures, leading to the chemical structures of the coffee breaking down and the flavors going with it.
Some manufacturers compensate for this by adding the collected “aroma” afterward, which gives a sense of a coffee smell when you open the package. However, they won’t last long and soon disappear after pouring the coffee.
The freeze drying process is more complex than spray drying. That’s because there are more stages to releasing the water held in the coffee extracts.
The instant coffee makers hold the flavor inside by freezing the coffee extract at temperatures as low as 40 C below zero. Once frozen, the coffee extract is turned into granules. At this point, the granules are placed in a drying vacuum to remove even more of the moisture.
Once that is complete, a little heat is applied to the frozen coffee for the remaining water to sublimate. This allows the water to turn from a frozen state to a gaseous one without it becoming liquid along the way. What’s left are completely dry coffee granules. Now, the coffee granules remain solid at room temperature while preserving the flavors.
Using this process allows manufacturers to alter the pressure and temperature and dehydrate the coffee beneath freezing, which helps retain all the flavor.
Because higher temperatures are not used during this method, the aromatic compounds do not escape the coffee crystals. Also, elements such as the sugars and acids are unaffected, ensuring the coffee retains its complexity. This results in instant coffee of better quality, with more appealing aromas and a beautiful flavor.
The method takes longer than spray drying and is more complex. Also, the batches it produces are smaller than the spray-drying method. For those reasons, bigger organizations prefer spray drying. Meanwhile, freeze-dried instant coffees are more costly.
Conclusion: Spray Drying vs. Freeze Drying
While there are significant advantages and disadvantages to both methods, freeze drying coffee is far superior from a perspective of quality. That’s because freeze-dried instant coffee retains the appealing smells and tastes of coffee, while much of those are lost in the spray-drying technique. This also explains why instant coffee manufacturers are so keen to display whenever their coffee is freeze dried and why it is more expensive.
Packing, Selling And Enjoying A Cup
Once the process of spray drying or freeze drying the coffee is complete, the coffee is machine-packed and taken to the various consumer outlets. That’s the whole process of how instant coffee is made.
Once you purchase it, you need to add some water to some of the granules, and you’ll have a cup of instant coffee without needing a machine to brew it.
The History Of Instant Coffee
The concept of instant coffee has been around for a long while. Indeed, people were attempting to manufacture it as early as the 1700s. In 1771, it made its first appearance in Britain and was known as a “coffee compound.”
Eventually, in 1980, the first soluble instant coffee powder was invented by David Strand.
This was then finessed over the years that followed. A more robust soluble coffee powder was invented by a scientist from Japan named Satori Kato in 1901. Later, in 1910, George Constant Louis Washington created instant coffee crystals.
In 1938, Nestle developed an instant coffee named Nescafe, which was extremely popular among the military in the World War II. Since then, Nescafe has grown to dominate the instant coffee market, making up around 70% of instant coffee sales.
By the mid-20th Century, improvements in instant coffee were such that it amounted to around 25% of all coffee consumption, and it remains a popular drink to this day.
There are a huge number of instant coffee manufacturers worldwide, and production methods are constantly improving, with some independent roasters even offering specialty premium-quality instant coffee.
Many coffee drinkers may not like instant coffee, indeed, it won’t taste as good as freshly brewed coffee. However, making instant coffee takes only a few seconds, it’s still a great choice when brewing coffee is not an option.
Knowing the whole process of how instant coffee is made, we can see the manufacturing process has greatly improved. Even some specialty coffee roasters joined the game, offering higher quality single-origin specialty instant coffee.
Recently we tested 56 coffees from 26 instant coffee brands and we found some of them actually taste good.
Apart from issues with the flavor, many people have worries that instant coffee is not ethical to the producers because it is cheaply made. As this article explains, there are several steps to manufacturing instant coffee, and it’s a quite complex procedure too. However, the product itself is relatively inexpensive. For that reason, big companies are unlikely to relinquish their profits for the sake of sustainability.
It is not easy to ascertain which instant coffees are most ethical. However, certain brands are more invested in the sustainability of the coffee industry than others, while those that are certified Fair Trade will display this on the packet.
The most significant difference between crystals and powder is how they are made. Instant coffee powder is processed using spray drying,
whereas the crystals are produced using the freeze-drying method.
As we explained earlier in the article, freeze-dried instant coffee crystals will offer you a more satisfying flavor and aroma because of the process, which preserves them. However, they are more expensive than instant coffee powders. From a perspective of quality alone, we would always opt for freeze-dried instant coffee.