Gourmet Instant Coffee – No Longer an Oxymoron?

Two years ago when Starbucks announced the grand introduction of its gourmet instant coffee brand, VIA, the coffee world was understandably skeptical. Ever since Mr. Coffee simplified coffee brewing in the 1970s, instant coffee brands had undergone a slow, undignified slide downward in the eyes of most coffee drinkers. In fact, the taste of instant coffee had such a bad reputation that it served as the running tagline behind Folger’s famous vintage television ads for Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals.

Advantages of Instant Coffee

Starbucks’ VIA instant coffee is made using a special patented process that the company doesn’t disclose. Whatever they’ve done differently, though, the flavor difference between Starbucks’ VIA and the usual supermarket brand of instant coffee is immeasurable. While VIA wouldn’t win awards at a coffee cuppers’ convention — or even hold up to a great cup of home-brewed coffee — stashing a couple of tubes in your desk drawer can provide a reasonable facsimile of a quick cup of decent coffee on the days you can’t get to a real coffee pot. In fact, depending on the office, you may even find that you’d rather stir up a VIA instant coffee than pour yourself a mug full of whatever’s brewing in the office coffee pot.

Starbucks isn’t the only coffee company on the gourmet instant coffee bandwagon. In fact, gourmet coffee drinks have been a staple for General Foods since the 1970s, when the company introduced its International instant coffee drinks. Originally available in three flavors, the General Foods International line of instant coffees has expanded to include nearly two dozen flavors, many of which bear the label “By the makers of Maxwell House.”

From the beginning, General Foods — which is now a division of international juggernaut Kraft Foods — marketed its coffee drinks as “gourmet instant coffee drinks,” although they have far more in common with hot chocolate than with most other brands of instant coffee. If you’re a coffee purist, General Foods International instant coffees aren’t likely to live up to your expectations for a cup of real java. The powdered drink mixes are a blend of powdered coffee extract, non-dairy creamers, sugar or sugar substitute and flavorings. The end result is a frothy confection that resembles a latte or cappuccino, but mixes up with just-add-hot-water-and-stir ease.

Most instant coffee products today are freeze-dried. The process starts by extracting the fats, sugars, proteins and other chemicals from roasted coffee beans to create a very concentrated liquid coffee extract. The coffee extract is then frozen in stages to separate the water content from the coffee solids. Finally, the frozen coffee extract goes through a process that vaporizes the ice and removes the water, leaving behind the coffee solids — instant coffee grains or granules that can be reconstituted by adding water.

Starbucks uses a dry roasting process that extracts the flavors directly from the coffee bean rather than from brewed coffee. It’s the same process used by the makers of Asia’s most popular instant coffee, G7, Vietnamese coffee roasters, Trung Nguyen. Made with a process developed in 2002, G7 has only been available in Asia until recently. You can now purchase G7 gourmet instant coffee online through Heirloom Coffee, at trung-nguyen-online.com.

If you like the convenience of just adding hot water, but haven’t found an instant coffee you could love yet, Starbucks VIA or Trung Nguyen’s G7 might be the one you’ve been waiting for.

For a complete list of the best instant coffees, check out Instant coffee list