About a month ago, we received a very sweet but poignant email from one of our customers. He said he’d tried hot water, then he tried cold water, but that the coffee he ordered from us “just wouldn’t dissolve in water”, which prompted him to then ask the question, “Is the coffee properly roasted?”. When we explained that our coffee wasn’t instant and that he would need to use some type of brewing equipment to make it or we could refund his money, he was a great sport and said that he would figure out a way to brew it. Besides highlighting that we’ve been blessed with the best and most open minded customers, his email was also a good reminder about the pervasiveness of instant coffee.
Given that so many people love instant coffee, it’s surprising that very few instant coffee consumers are aware of how instant coffee is actually created. Instant coffee begins its life as brewed coffee – this means that once the green coffee beans are roasted, they are ground and mixed with hot water. From this point, there are two ways that this coffee concoction is transformed into the instant crystals that so many of us grew up watching our parents mix into a cup of hot water. One way consists of spraying the brewed coffee in a very fine mist across extremely hot air. By the time the mist reaches the ground, the water has vaporized, leaving those familiar coffee crystals intact. The second method is to freeze the brewed coffee slurry to – 40 degrees celcius, and then place the mixture in a vacuum. The resulting drop in pressure causes the ice to transform directly from a solid to a gas which also creates coffee crystals ready to be disolved in a cup of water.
In theory this sounds great. No more measuring, grinding, brewing and timing, now to make a cup of coffee just simply scoop and stir! But here’s the downside: the dehydration process also removes many of the pleasant flavor and aroma compounds that make coffee taste, like, well, coffee. In order to compensate for this effect, instant coffee manufacturers capture the gases released when the beans are roasted and shoot them back into the coffee while it’s being packaged. This spray method is particularly harmful as the hot air often imparts a scorched and bitter flavor – imagine brewing up a pot of coffee, then blasting it with another round of heat. The other downside for those counting on the kick that coffee provides, is that instant coffee has nearly the half the caffeine concentration of a normal brew.
Because the process has such a detrimental effect on the flavor, coffee manufacturers wisely use the cheapest beans possible. After all, if the manufacturing process is going to remove most of the flavor, why use flavorful beans to begin with? In late September last year, we toured a curing works factory in Coorg, where green coffee beans undergo a final round of processing before being sent out to customers. On one side of the warehouse, we saw a wall stacked with hundreds of 60kgs bags of coffee. The coffee had been sitting there since being harvested six months ago, subject to the heat of the summer and the humidity of the monsoon, all in open air. As a result, most of the beans were bleached, having turned from bluish green to whitish gray removing much of the flavor in the process. We asked the owner what he was going to do with all the coffee. “It’ll all be sold,” he said, completely nonchalantly. “The instant coffee companies will buy anything.”