Discover how instant coffee is really made in 3 simple steps. From growing, harvesting, to roasting, brewing and drying. Let's explore.
Instant coffee has been around for a while, has its own sections in grocery stores, and now is becoming even more popular. The first instant coffee products that were made were generally disliked, but instant coffee nowadays are much better in quality. To fully understand the transformation of instant coffee into its modern light, let us first start with a brief history lesson.
History of instant coffee
Instant coffee might have only just become more and more popular, but it has been around for hundreds of years. The first traces of instant coffee come from Britain in 1771 and was first produced in America in 1853. The first successful and stable technique for making instant coffee was created by Sartori Kato, a Japanese man who used this process for instant tea, in 1901. The invention of Kato’s method made production in the US an easier feat.
Instant coffee began to be mass produced in the US in 1910 by George Washington, who patented the technique. Though the products creation was successful, it was not widely loved and seldom chosen over brewed coffee. This is partially because the methods of creating instant coffee in the early 20th century made the coffee taste very bitter and unappealing.
It wasn’t until more recently that instant coffee processing was fine tuned to keep the flavors of the bean intact while also making it instant. This newer method of production is called freeze-drying.
At first, instant coffee was primarily used by soldiers, as the product is very easy to carry, does not expire for a long time, and requires no electricity or appliances to turn into a coffee drink. Now, instant coffee is used in many cooking recipes, and as an alternative to brewed coffee.
Learn more about the history of instant coffee here.
Step 1: Growing the beans
There are two primary species of coffee that are grown for consumption—Arabica (75% of world production) and Robusta (25% of world production). We at Waka Coffee use Arabica beans for our premium instant coffee. Arabica plants are characterized by a large bush with dark green leaves.
The fruits mature within 7 to 9 months and do not contain a lot of seeds. Robusta plants are much smaller and shrub like and the fruits take longer to mature—around 11 months.
Coffee beans require two primary climates to grow properly: subtropical regions and equatorial regions. Equatorial regions are good for growing coffee because of the area’s continuous rainfall. A moist climate allows for the coffee plants to continuously flower and mature at a steady and slow rate.
Slow development of the plant leads to a richer and more developed taste of the final product. Subtropical regions, which have wet and dry seasons, allow coffee to grow at lower altitudes. Due to its seasonal schedule, there are smaller time frames that the beans can be grown.
Arabica beans are usually grown in equatorial regions, require substantial rainfall (1,200-2,200mm per year), and grow at 60-75ºF. The Robusta coffee plant can withstand a more varied and harsh temperature, and it primarily grown in subtropical regions. They can grow in warmer temperatures and lower altitudes and produce more fruits per tree than Arabica.
Even though Robusta coffee plants produce more fruits per plant, Arabica is more widely loved and enjoyed and matures more quickly (making it the most used beans for specialty coffee). It takes around 3 to 4 years for a new coffee plant to bear fruit.
Step 2: Harvesting the beans
As stated in a previous post, most of the coffee beans used in the United States come from Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. After the 3-4 years of the coffee plants development, the bright red and orange cherries of the plant are removed. There are two primary ways in which coffee is harvested. The first is called selective harvesting which involves picking only the ripe fruit by hand—the unripe coffee is kept on the tree to get harvested later on, and overripe fruits can be taken off the tree or left on.
The second method of harvesting is called strip harvesting. In this method, all coffee fruits are “stripped” from the plant altogether by a machine and then the ripe cherries are sorted out for use. The cherries are then shipped off to be roasted and brewed.
Step 3: Roasting, brewing and drying
There are two primary methods that are used when turning brewed coffee into instant coffee. The first method, which Waka coffee uses, is freeze drying. It is important to note that in both methods, “real” coffee is brewed. This means that both processes begin with the same coffee you might make at home or get from a coffee shop. The process of drying the coffee is what change its appearance and texture.
First, raw beans are forced into large ovens where they are roasted. The beans will be roasted at a range of temperatures which determine their strength and whether they are dark, medium, or light roast. If you want to read more about roast levels of coffee, check out Waka Coffee’s Coffeepedia here.
Once the beans are roasted to the preferred amount they are transferred into a large mill where they are ground into a coarse powder—this is the coffee powder that you can purchase from the grocery store or make at home by grinding coffee beans. The powder then gets transferred into a coffee machine where the flavor of the bean gets extruded from the bean with hot water and high pressure, brewing up large quantities of fresh coffee.
This is essentially a mass brewing process that yields tons of coffee rather than the few cups that your at home coffee machine might produce.
The coffee is heated until it is condensed into a thick coffee extract closely resembling the viscosity of honey. The extract is then transported into a freezing chamber that keeps an internal temperature of -50 degrees Celsius, or -58 degrees Fahrenheit. These cold temperatures can only naturally be found in the arctic or at incredibly high elevations and exposure to these temperatures can cause hypothermia. These extreme and dangerous temperatures are why machines are used to freeze the coffee.
The coffee extract is frozen solid in order to lock in the flavor and complexity of the beans. The frozen coffee extract is then broken up into granules which still contain small amounts of water. The water must be removed before the coffee granules can be sold because they will turn into a liquid as they are reheated to room temperature.
In order to remove all of the water from the coffee granules, they are put in a low-pressure container and heated at 60 degrees Celsius in a strong vacuum. Under pressure, the water inside the granules instantly evaporates and is sucked away by a vacuum, leaving behind only the coffee crystals. This process is also known as sublimation.
A prime example of sublimation is dry ice—when left at room temperature, dry ice sublimates (not melts like regular ice), which is why it produces the cool white smoke the goes perfectly with Halloween decorations. Dry ice goes directly from a solid form to gaseous form, skipping a liquid state entirely, much like the coffee concentrate in the freeze-drying method.
Once the granules are out of the vacuum, they have been freeze-dried and will remain dry at room temperature. Granules then travel packaging where they are put in bags or jars, and then distributed around the world for consumption.
The freeze drying and spray drying process begin in the same way; by roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee beans. To turn the coffee into dried granules, it is put into a spray drying machine. Coffee is quickly sprayed into a drying chamber alongside extremely hot air. The hot air is traveling into the chamber at around 400 mph and is at around 120-160 degrees Celsius, or 250-320 degrees Fahrenheit.
The high velocity air instantly atomizes the liquid (converts the liquid into very fine particles or droplets). The heat of the air instantly evaporates any water in the coffee solution and is sucked out of the machine. The extreme heat allows for instant drying, and the immediate evaporation keeps the coffee from burning—if the water is quickly extracted, it cannot boil and burn the coffee.
The dry coffee particles then fall to the bottom of the chamber in powder form and are then ready to be collected and packaged for distribution and consumption. In this method, the heat changes the chemical structure of the beans which result in an unpleasant aftertaste (resemble a burnt taste).
Quality instant coffee?
Many people hesitant to use instant coffee might be worried about it not tasting as good, strong, or fresh as a traditionally brewed cup of coffee. Not all coffees are created equal, but some instant coffee really does stand up to brewed coffee. Most of the instant coffee brands that use the freeze fried method will produce a great cup of coffee.
Waka coffee is freeze dried because it helps to maintain the depth of flavor of the bean without adding a burnt taste that the spray drying method can lead to. If using the right brands and methods, instant coffee really is as good as brewed coffee (if not even better than some brands!).
It also has many uses! Instant coffee is used a lot today in recipes and is perfect for travel and camping. If you are curious to try instant coffee or want to know how it can be used, check out Waka Coffee’s coffee blog here for recipes, history, and fun facts.