What is The Difference Between Instant and “Regular” Coffee?

This article is for those who still don’t completely understand what instant coffee is and how different it is from other types of coffee.

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What is Instant Coffee?

Instant coffee is coffee that can be prepared in seconds, with minimal ingredients, tools, mess, time, and effort. Essentially, it is regular coffee, made easier. 

What makes instant coffee so efficient is that it is made from soluble coffee crystals that dissolve in hot or cold water in mere seconds. 

But, where did instant coffee come from and when did it become popular? 

The first prototype of instant coffee surfaced in the 1770s, in Britain. Called “Coffee compound,” the concept only came to the United States nearly one hundred years later, in 1851, and was used as rations in the Civil War. There, instant coffee was known as “Solid Coffee,” or “Coffee cakes,” and became popular since it was affordable, easy to transport and could provide for large infantries and armies. 

These initial instant coffees were often completely solid blocks of coffee that took minutes to dissolve in water. However, the first instant coffee powder as we know it today was invented only in 1901, by Japanese-American chemist Satori Kato. This product was further developed in 1910, when it was made into the first commercial brand of instant coffee. 

By 1960, the modern methods of making instant coffee, freeze drying and spray drying, were developed, and additional instant coffee brands began popping up.  Instant coffee became much more popular and mainstream among customers looking for a fast cup of coffee every day. 

Is Instant Coffee Made of Real Coffee?

Instant coffee is made from real, brewed coffee. Although it doesn't contain coffee grounds or grains directly in it, it is made completely from pre-brewed, real coffee. 

Oftentimes, people making the decision of instant coffee vs. regular coffee operate under the assumption that instant coffee isn’t made of real coffee, but this is completely false. Instant coffee is not a coffee substitute or alternative, but is rather made from ground, roasted coffee beans which are then brewed into coffee and finally dried into the instant coffee powder. 

How Instant Coffee is Made

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The process of making instant coffee is one that has gone through many changes throughout the product’s existence. However, in modern times, there are mainly two ways to make instant coffee powder: spray drying and freeze drying.

Both methods follow the same basic structure: they dry pre-brewed, liquid coffee until the water evaporates, and a soluble, coffee powder is left. This powder is a concentrate of all the flavor and coffee solubles that a brewed coffee contains, but it doesn’t contain the actual coffee grains that cannot dissolve. 

The first method of making instant coffee, spray drying, is a quicker and cheaper method. This is achieved by spraying tiny particles of brewed coffee into a pressurized chamber with hot air or gas. The hot air immediately dries out the particles of coffee, leaving behind the coffee solubles and flavor. 

The second method of making instant coffee, freeze drying, is a more time consuming and more expensive to make. In this process, a large amount of brewed coffee is transported into an evaporation tank which evaporates half of the coffee over a long period of time. Through this slow and steady process, the coffee is eventually cooked down into a sticky and concentrated coffee “syrup.” The syrup is then chilled, until it is frozen in shallow trays at temperatures of -40 to -50 degrees celsius. 

The freezing process can take multiple hours, but once the coffee syrup has completely frozen, the sheets of coffee are broken into small shards and granules. This is when sublimation occurs. Sublimation is the process of converting a solid directly into a gas, without entering the liquid stage. This happens in a vacuum chamber under high pressure, in order to ensure that no liquid forms. By sublimating the remaining frozen water in the coffee syrup, the flavor of the coffee is prevented from escaping, as this loss of flavor would occur in the liquid stage. 

Once all of the ice has been completely sublimated, the remaining granules are the resulting instant coffee powder. 

Do People Drink Instant Coffee?

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In the 1960s, instant coffee soared in popularity since it appealed to middle class audiences as an affordable and fast way to make coffee. However, with modern innovations in the production and quality of instant coffee, the product is becoming more of a commodity that is desired for its efficiency, as well as its improving taste and luxury. 

In fact, instant coffee accounts for 25 percent of all retail coffee sales worldwide, and this number only continues to grow. With the recent pandemic, even more people have been making coffee from home, and better quality instant coffees have become popular alternatives to home brewed coffee. 

Apart from the slowly increasing popularity of instant coffee in western cultures, instant coffee has been a staple in many eastern cultures for centuries. Many tea-oriented countries, such as India, China, and Russia, prefer instant to brewed coffee, since it can have less bitterness and more sweetness. Along with this, many Latin-American countries consume high amounts of instant coffee, as it is readily available to most of the public, as opposed to brewed coffee. 

Can You Use Ground Coffee as Instant Coffee?

The most basic definition of instant coffee is that it can be made instantly—in other words, it dissolves in water. Since regular coffee grounds do not dissolve in water, instant coffee cannot be made from ground coffee. It must instead be made from dehydrated, pre-brewed coffee. 

What Makes Instant Coffee Taste Better?

With a variety of different ways to make instant coffee, and different types of coffee beans to make it from, there are certain steps that ensure a higher quality instant coffee. One of these is freeze drying instead of spray drying when making instant coffee powder. 

As mentioned earlier, freeze drying is a longer and more expensive process than spray drying, but it also results in a higher quality coffee. Because freeze dried coffee is cooled and then sublimated, the maximum amount of coffee flavor is retained, as no liquid is evaporated. Along with this, spray drying requires high temperature, which can sometimes burn the coffee and result in a bitter or charred taste. Freeze drying prevents this unwanted effect. 

The type of coffee bean that the instant coffee is made from can also drastically affect the taste and quality of the coffee. The most popular, and widely believed to be the best quality coffee bean, is the Arabica bean. This coffee bean was the first species of coffee to be cultivated, and is popular for its less bitter and less acidic taste. 

Caffeine in Instant Coffee vs. Other Coffee

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The level of caffeine in any brand of coffee varies, apart from whether it is instant or brewed coffee. Even so, instant coffee often has less caffeine than brewed coffee does. While the average cup of instant coffee can contain anywhere between 30-90 milligrams of caffeine, the average cup of brewed coffee can contain 70-140 milligrams of caffeine. 

This can still be altered with the preparation of the coffee, depending on the desired strength of the coffee, but the general trend stays constant.  

Instant coffee was first developed in a time of need, when quality wasn’t the main concern. However, modern day instant coffees make quality a priority, and instant coffee a luxury drink.

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