How Instant Coffee Has Evolved

Instant coffee was developed to be the ultimate convenience product, providing a cheap, easy, and quick fix for those who needed a caffeine boost. 

Along with the explosion in the growth of the specialty coffee industry, instant coffee continues to grow in popularity. Accounting for roughly a third of all coffee consumed worldwide, instant coffee will still be a relevant player in the coffee industry. 

Let’s take a quick look at the history of this popular coffee product.

The Evolution of Instant Coffee

The History of Instant Coffee

There’s some debate surrounding who actually invented instant coffee, but it was first patented in 1890 by New Zealander David Strang. Although Nescafe got its start in the late 1930s, it wasn’t until World War II that instant coffee really began to take off. Thanks to its long shelf life, portability, and ease of use, soluble coffee was an ideal addition to troop rations. 

In the 1960s, Nescafe introduced freeze-dried coffee, which exploded in popularity, especially in Europe. The freeze-drying process produced instant coffee that was far superior in flavor and quickly eclipsed spray-drying to become the most common way to create instant coffee. 

Today, the market for instant coffee is stronger than ever. Brazil and Colombia – both big producers of instant coffee – have seen substantial growth in the sector over the last few years. 

The role of the Covid-19 pandemic can’t be underestimated, here – more and more consumers have been looking for an affordable and convenient way to make coffee while spending more time at home. 

However, instant coffee simply isn’t what it used to be. The industry has evolved to cater to more educated and quality-conscious customers through innovations in quality development and marketing. These days, it’s common to see organic, fair trade, and 100 percent arabica instant coffee on supermarket shelves.

Specialty Instant Coffee

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before the specialty coffee industry began to show an interest in developing high-quality instant coffee. After all, there are lots of benefits to being able to produce such a convenient product. 

For starters, roasters don’t have to worry as much about whole bean coffee sitting for more than two weeks on supermarket shelves. Second, offering instant coffee is a way to reach potential customers who are interested in exploring specialty coffee but aren’t ready to commit to a coffee grinder and a pour-over dripper.

Still, specialty roasters have to tread carefully here – they’ve built their reputations on providing the highest quality coffee beans and roasting them with care in order to showcase the qualities that make them worth paying extra for.

Although some smaller roasters in Europe and the United States had been flirting with instant coffee for a while, the Covid-19 pandemic was a motivating factor for many companies. 

During the early stages of the pandemic, roasters were forced to scale back retail operations, often finding themselves with a surplus of green coffee. Forced to improvise, roasters began to see the value in diversifying their online offerings, which has seen the emergence of single-serve instant coffee options on several specialty roasters’ websites.

Thanks to continued improvements in freeze-drying technology, smaller roasters are now able to offer an instant product that adequately represents their specialty coffee beans. This offers their customers more flexibility in brewing, and consumers who might never have considered instant coffee as an option can feel confident that they’re buying a quality product. 

Specialty instant coffee also fits well with the growing popularity of outdoor lifestyle pursuits. The convenience of carrying single-origin coffee in soluble form certainly appeals to many who enjoy camping, hiking, and quality coffee.

The Future of Instant Coffee

As we’ve seen, instant coffee appears to be a pantry staple for many people, and mixing soluble granules into a mug of hot water is how millions of us start each day. 

Although specialty instant coffee is still very small scale, many industry experts see it as an important part of the future of high-quality coffee. Some small-scale roasters are on a mission to improve the quality of this product.

Meticulous testing and research are beginning to yield results. Moreover, proprietary freeze-drying methods are being developed to help preserve coffee beans’ quality and intrinsic characteristics. The results could be a big win for producers, roasters, and consumers.

Written by: Arne Preuss, Founder of Coffeeness.de

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