Almost 50% of the world’s population prefers instant coffee to fresh, according to a 2014 Euromonitor report – and between 2000 and 2014, sales of instant tripled.
Yet head to the US, or Brazil, and you’ll notice a very different picture: fresh, whole bean coffee dominates the market.
So what actually is the difference between instant and ground/whole bean? What even is instant? And which one should you be drinking? Grab yourself a brew as we examine the finer grounds of this question.
Lee este artículo en español Guerra de Cafés: ¿Deberías Tomar Café Instantáneo o en Grano?
Instant coffee up close.
Is Instant Coffee Real Coffee? & What Even Are Coffee Beans?
Yes, instant coffee is real coffee. But coffee beans? They’re not real beans.
Coffee is the product of a berry, often called a cherry thanks to its typically round, red appearance. Inside each cherry are two seeds (unless you have a peaberry, where the seeds didn’t split). Coffee producers harvest the cherries and then do what’s commonly called “coffee processing” – the method by which the fruit is removed from the beans. The different processing methods all affect the different flavours of the coffee. The beans are then dried, roasted, and ready for brewing.
And it’s at this stage that instant coffee and whole bean finally part ways.
Want to learn more? Check out What Is Coffee? An Explanation From Seed to Cup
Hot water, spoon, and instant coffee: all you need to brew a cup. Credit: Daryl Grunau
How Is Instant Coffee Made?
No matter your opinion on instant coffee, it’s the product of impressive science.
Walk into an instant coffee factory and you’ll come across huge vats of our favourite brew ready for instandisation. So what’s involved in this process? Quite simply, dehydration. The water compounds are removed, ready to be re-added later by consumers in their kitchen. All that remains are the soluble coffee compounds.
The dehydration can be done through one of two processes: freeze-drying or spray-drying.
It’s worth noting that some additional compounds can be lost, especially caffeine and aroma compounds, although the quality of the instantisation process affects this. Some manufacturers will add additional compounds to compensate.
Want to see this process in action? Check our video article: How Is Instant Coffee Made?
85 x 8oz cups of coffee, brewed by hand and concentrated into 1 gallon. Next step, freeze to -45°C and below. Credit: Swift Cup Coffee
With instant coffee, it’s easy – you simply pour some crystals into a cup, add hot water, and you’re ready to go.
With whole beans, it’s slightly different. You need to grind the coffee, brew it (normally using some kind of filter), and then dispose of those waste grounds. This opens up a whole new world for coffee lovers, since they can experiment with different brew methods, water:coffee ratios, water temperatures, and more to create their perfect cup of coffee.
Want a heavier-bodied coffee that fills your mouth? You might want to use a French press or AeroPress instead of a V60. Want to reduce bitterness and accentuate sweetness or acidity instead? Shorten the extraction: use a coarser grind setting, a quicker brew time, or slightly cooler water.
Learn more! Read Brewing Methods Compared: How Should YOU Make Coffee at Home?
Instant coffee will always taste the same way. Fresh coffee, on the other hand, will taste however the brewer crafts it to taste.
An instant coffee blend ready for drinking. Credit: Daniel Jimenez
The Big Showdown: Who Wins?
So is this all a storm in a coffee cup? Or is one better than the other? Get ready for our instant vs whole bean coffee showdown.
Cost & Convenience
There’s no denying that instant coffee (generally) works out cheaper per cup. What’s more, when all you have to do is boil the kettle, it’s convenient.
Yet while instant is cheaper, does it offer the best value for money? That depends on what you value – convenience, flavour, aroma…
Quality & Flavour
In this category, whole beans are a clear winner. Here’s why.
- The Beans Used
The biggest factor in a coffee’s quality is always going to be the coffee beans themselves. Since cost is normally the priority in instant coffee, often low-quality Robusta coffee (a typically bitterer, harsher-tasting species) is used.
What’s more, as an organic product, coffee loses its flavour over time. Coffee traders often refer to past crop coffee: beans harvested the year before that have faded flavours and aromas. These coffees are then sold at significantly cheaper rates. Again, this makes them a prime candidate for instant coffee.
You might also like Home Brewing for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know
It’s possible to make instant coffee out of high-quality beans, yet in real life, it’s a rare occurrence. And of course, low-quality whole bean coffee exists – but high-quality options are always available.
Coffee beans ready for grinding and brewing. Credit: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez
- The Brewing Process
Coffee brewing is half-physics, half-chemistry, and can be a fascinatingly complex field. Yet one of the most important things to know is that different flavour compounds are extracted at different stages of brewing. As a result, if a coffee is brewed for too long, it becomes bitter. While, again, it is possible to use perfectly extracted coffee for instant, it is unlikely.
And, as we said above, brewing whole bean coffee gives consumers complete control over their coffee’s flavour.
- Aroma & Flavour Compounds
Finally, as we’ve already discussed, some of the flavour and aroma compounds can be lost when instantising. And the strongest aromas are always generated as the hot water first hits, and reacts with, the dry grounds – a moment that, with instant, happened months or even years before the consumer sat down to enjoy their coffee.
Aroma is responsible for a large portion of flavour, meaning this fact can have a huge impact on the drinker’s experience. (Side note: this is why you should always take the lid off your coffee before drinking it.)
Coffee beans and instant coffee.
Is drinking instant coffee bad for you? Actually, no. Despite all the rumours that instant coffee will give you cancer, they appear to be just that – unfounded rumours. There is no conclusive evidence that instant coffee is any better or worse for you than regular coffee.
Of course, if you buy 3-in-1 instant coffee that comes with sweeteners or sugar already added, that will be less healthy. Yet the actual process of instantisation appears to have no negative or positive effects.
As Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, 2015 UK Barista Champion, Co-Owner of Colonna & Smalls Speciality Coffee, and author of The Coffee Dictionary, told us last year, “Instant is the best [coffee] out there if environmental impact is the only goal.”
Surprised? Instant undergoes greater processing and we often – rightly – associate processing with a heavier environmental footprint. Yet with a much lower ratio of packaging to number of coffees brewed (assuming you’re not purchasing the single-use packages that you see in hotels), and the waste grounds disposed of by large-scale factories with appropriate refuse systems, instant is actually greener.
That doesn’t mean whole bean coffee consumers can’t find ways to look after the environment, though. Proper waste disposal, recycling and reusing coffee grounds, using real cups… there are many ways to minimise our impact on the world around us.
Instant coffee in a cup, ready to drink. Credit: Little Amps Coffee Roasters
So what does this mean for you, the consumer? Simply put, if you want the best flavours and aromas in your coffee, you should buy whole beans. However, drinking instant won’t give you cancer – and, no matter what you drink, it’s good to take care of the environment.
Want to start brewing whole bean coffee? Check out Home Brewing for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know!
Written by Tanya Newton.
Perfect Daily Grind
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