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Instant Coffee Is Back, Again

If you know your history—or attended college without money—then you know that when times get tough, we turn to instant. Instant ramen. Instant rice. Instant oatmeal. And, of course, instant coffee. Through war and economic scarcity, Americans perked themselves up with vacuum-sealed cans and jars of low-quality coffee. We’re not alone, and it’s not all history: Today, traditionally tea-drinking countries enjoying their first wave of coffee drinking (China, for instance, where consumption has tripled over the last four years) still represent a robust market for mass-market coffee.

In the U.S. and much of Europe, however, we’ve jettisoned those cans of instant coffee in favor of single-origin light roasts and painstakingly brewed pour overs. Specialty coffee has spread to every state in the union, and experts predict the sector will continue to explode over the next few years, swelling to a value of $85 billion by 2025. Given the exacting expectations of today’s drinks culture, does instant coffee have a place at the table? A small but growing group of entrepreneurs aims to find out.

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Swift Cup partners with about 60 independent roasters to create instant versions of their single-origin and blended beans. Sudden Coffee, a San Francisco start-up founded by a Finnish barista and a former McKinsey consultant, boasts a “top-secret process” that promises to “revolutionize the whole coffee industry.” Partnerships with roasters are key to both businesses, as they are for Bend, Oregon–based Voilà Coffee and Los Angeles–based Waka Coffee, which uses 100 percent arabica beans and appeals to eco-minded instant drinkers by donating four percent of profits to clean-water initiatives.

These start-ups share a bold ambition to rebrand instant coffee. It’s not the first time, though, that savvy marketers have worked to position instant coffee as aspirational. In midcentury America, cans of Folgers and Nescafé emblemized middle-class prosperity. And there was the time in 2009 when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also promised to revolutionize the industry, one wee packet of VIA instant at a time. But we’re jumping ahead a bit. To understand whether instant does indeed have a future, we must first look to its origins.

Orbe, Switzerland: workers filling tins of Nescafè in the 1940s. | Photo courtesy of Nestlè.

Our story begins in 1771, when the English government registered a patent for a “coffee compound” developed by John Dring. Arguably, this was the first instance of a viable instant coffee, but everyone was a little distracted—across the pond, an underground crew called the Sons of Liberty had been tar and feathering Colonial officials and torching office buildings to protest taxes. By 1773, when the Sons steeped Griffin’s Wharf in Boston with 342 chests of British tea, England’s favorite beverage had come to represent no-no loyalism. Patriotic Colonists (preferring, presumably, not to be painted in wood tar) dutifully switched to coffee. During the Civil War, the government issued 36 pounds of coffee a year to Union soldiers, who carried hand grinders and sometimes rifles with grinders built into their butts. (The Confederacy, meanwhile, was forced to do without— and we all know how that turned out.) In 1903, Japanese chemist Satori Kato received a patent for dehydrating coffee, but it was a man named George C. L. Washington who would create the first commercially successful instant coffee in 1910, and his powder perked up the troops throughout World War I.

Then, in 1932, Max Morgenthaler, a Swiss chemist who specialized in enriching dairy products with vitamins, received a not-so-small assignment. Three years earlier, the U.S. stock market had crashed. Consumers everywhere snapped their wallets shut, leading to a surplus inventory of just about everything. Coffee was no exception, and as demand quickly dwindled, unsold beans began rotting in Brazilian warehouses. Panicked coffee financiers turned to condensed milk company Nestlé in search of a way to convert this coffee surfeit into a soluble product that retained the flavor of freshly ground beans. It took Morgenthaler and his team years of experimentation, but Nescafé—their “coffee without the pot”—debuted in 1937. By 1940, it was lifting eyelids in more than 30 countries, and Nescafé accompanied Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Momo to Everest’s apex and traveled to the moon with Neil Armstrong and crew. At the end of World War II, when American soldiers distributed care packages to devastated communities in Europe and Japan, they tucked cans of Nescafé inside—a small but coveted perk to kick off the immense business of piecing the world back together.

Today, we wonder how anyone could love instant coffee, with its shallow flavor and total lack of aroma. But as Nate Kaiser, the founder of specialty instant coffee company Swift Cup, points out, they didn’t have much to compare it to. Prior to the availability of automatic machines like Mr. Coffee, home coffee brewers were subject to the whims of a percolator, a challenging apparatus with unpredictable results. Along came cans of Nestlé’s Taster’s Choice and Folgers. “You just had to add water and, miraculously, this cup of coffee would appear,” says Kaiser. “To have something quick in itself was special.”

Instant quickly revolutionized the industry, meeting all the criteria for what today’s techies call a “disruptor.” “It [was] a cheap alternative that took market share from the traditional players,” says Yannis Apostolopoulos, CEO of the Orange County, California–based Specialty Coffee Association. “It also provided access to many people who either couldn’t afford to buy coffee, or couldn’t brew it the way it was brewed back then.”

Instant coffee continued to dominate in 1960s America, the era coffee historians refer to as “first wave” coffee. Meanwhile out west, trouble was brewing: San Francisco had become a hotbed for hippie resistance, culminating in 1967’s Summer of Love, when more than 100,000 itinerant longhairs loped into the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. Just a year earlier, Dutch-born coffee pro Alfred Peet had opened his first café in nearby Berkeley, introducing many Americans to their first dark-roasted brews along with European-style espresso drinks and developing a cult following referred to as “Peetniks.” But Peet’s contribution extended beyond good coffee: As Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters explained to The New York Times following his death in 2007, Peet helped inspire a culinary renaissance. “He taught us a new way to look at food, wine, and coffee,” Waters is quoted as saying, “paying attention to the preparation, the ritual, and understanding how the beans and ingredients were grown.”

Three Peetniks—Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl, and Jerry Baldwin—opened their own fancy bean shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971. The intention: to help American households upgrade from commodity-grade instant coffee to the custom-roasted dark blends they’d discovered at Peet’s. Peet mentored the project, even sourcing beans to the trio to get them up and running. They soon debuted three more stores around Seattle and brought aboard a young marketing maverick named Howard Schultz. Fresh off a trip from Italy, Schultz was convinced that Starbucks should build cafés serving espresso drinks that showcased their beans. Copycat cafés popped up quickly, and soon, Americans—who’d theretofore mostly drunk coffee at home, the office, fast food outlets, or greasy-spoon diners— were lining up for a cup at the local coffeehouse.

Over the next few years, Starbucks started springing up everywhere, with more than 15,000 stores worldwide by 2007. Known as “second wave coffee,” this epoch saw Americans embracing espresso drinks, while also guzzling confectionary concoctions like caramel macchiatos and pumpkin-spiced lattes. But then, just as it had in the 1930s, global economic collapse came for coffee. As millennial graduates moved back in with Mom and Dad, and McMansion clusters from Miami to Scottsdale sunk into foreclosure, many a mochaccino went undrunk. Starbucks stores began to shutter and, in 2009, Schultz attempted a turnaround with VIA, a coffee powder that boasted the same 100 percent arabica beans as customers enjoyed in Starbucks cafés. “This is not your mother’s instant coffee,” Schultz boated at a press conference for the new product, Ipredicting that it would “reinvent the category.”

While VIA is still for sale, it never turned into the runaway hit Schultz had projected. Meanwhile, specialty coffee drinkers have become even more discerning, taking a note from Scandinavia’s thriving scene to adopt obsessively performed brewing rituals and lighter roasts that showcase subtle aromas and flavors. With its Nordic austerity and notable lack of whipped-cream topping, “third wave” coffee sometimes gets pinged for its preciousness, and instant entrepreneurs like Voilà Coffee’s Kent Sheridan see an opportunity for no-nonsense coffee drinkers who want great flavor minus the air of elitism.

Sheridan first came to the idea while camping. Tired of schlepping his coffee-making gadgetry through the woods—a third-wave problem if there ever was one—he wondered whether it was possible to create an instant coffee on par with a premium drip. His barista and roaster buddies weren’t impressed. “Everyone was like, ‘No, no, no, no. You cannot do that with coffee,’ ” he says. He persisted, and today he partners with roasters like Proud Mary and 1000 Faces, brewing beans to “near-perfect extraction” then freeze drying the results and packaging in individual sachets. Despite the resistance he initially encountered in the coffee community, Sheridan believed early on that consumers were ready for it. And while he planned to pitch the product for camping, “The number one use case is actually in the office.”

For Nate Kaiser, the founder of Swift Cup, the openness to high-end instant represents a new era of maturity for specialty java. “For the first 10 or 20 years, it was important to create a polar-opposite experience with coffee, ritualizing it in a way that would allow you to appreciate it in the same way you might wine or beer or different spirits,” he says. But with the category continuing to expand worldwide, today investors and entrepreneurs feel confident specialty coffee’s here to stay—and with that confidence comes a new openness to innovation. “Whether it’s instant coffee or other things that you’re seeing with ready-to-drink formats, it’s that liberty to experiment that’s really given way to new products.”

Entrepreneurial optimism aside, there’s little data to indicate coffee connoisseurs will embrace instant. Yannis Apostolopoulos at the Specialty Coffee Association predicts its unsavory reputation will prove sticky. “It can take years to shift consumer perception about specialty instant coffee,” he says. “Even coffee nerds like us may look at it skeptically, but history shows that shifts in consumer perception are possible.”

Another obstacle impossible to ignore: When it comes to flavor, the new instants can’t compete with brewed coffee. James Hoffmann, founder of London-based Square Mile Coffee and author of The World Atlas of Coffee, shares Apostolopoulos’s doubts. “If it were an absolute replication of good brewed coffee, it would be a different story,” says Hoffmann. He’s impressed by the flavor that companies like Sudden, Swift Cup, and Voilà have managed to extract in instant, but he maintains that it “sits in this funny halfway house” between commodity coffee and a brewed cup of well-sourced beans. He also cites the expense required to produce it—a small freeze-drying machine can run a quarter-million dollars—and the complication of achieving the proper concentration prior to freeze-drying. And Hoffmann, too, ponders its real potential. Everyone agrees the new specialty instants are an excellent option for hotel rooms, campsites, or anywhere else you might wake up without access to a decent cup of coffee. But given the cost of producing it— which translates to a per-cup price of about $2.50—can it really compete to become our go-to daily brew?

By all accounts, it’s too early to tell. And while high-end instant innovators grapple with complicated manufacturing realities and proof of market fit, Hoffman has been pondering another possibility. Since the dawn of the global coffee industry, profits have always wound up not in the countries that cultivated coffee crops, but in those that imported, roasted, and packaged them. “There are a lot of reasons why that’s logistically sensible,” he points out. “Green coffee beans are denser, easier to ship, and have a longer shelf life.” Roasting in the country of origin simply doesn’t make sense.

But if instant became the daily cup of choice, that alters the equation. Manufacturing soluble coffee in the same place it grows is a highly efficient way to get cups of coffee from origin to consumers. And if the coffee-growing countries controlled both bean cultivation and manufacturing, that could have seismic implications for the industry as a whole, and potentially even out a playing field that’s always been dramatically sloped in the importing countries’ favor. All sorts of barriers stand in the way, of course. Wow, though, is it an interesting idea. Who knows? Maybe coffee’s fourth wave will be a tsunami.

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