At Bon Appétit, we love obsessing over every step of the coffee-making process: choosing the best beans, selecting our favorite brewing method, finding the right travel mug, and tweaking our techniques to get the perfect cup of joe. It might seem strange, then, to hear that we recommend instant coffee powders—you might even assume that the phrase “best instant coffees” would be an oxymoron. But don’t be so sure! Instant coffee brands have come a long way, and the market, once dominated by industry giants like Folgers, now also includes craft brands that offer a cup of instant coffee that is—gasp, pearl clutch, delicately wiping a beautiful bead of sweat from my brow—actually good.
For the coffee purists among us, instant coffee may not be an everyday thing, but a quality instant coffee can be a lifesaver when camping, traveling, or on any particularly hectic morning. For times when it’s just not possible to get to a coffee shop, it’s an easy shortcut: A few stirs to combine hot water with coffee crystals and you’re in business. But as instant coffee drinkers know, not all are created equal—in fact they vary greatly by brand. Some instant coffee packets yield a rich, deeply aromatic cup of coffee with layers of fruit and satisfying bite, while other single-serve packets leave you with a sad cup of old-tasting, diner-quality coffee.
What is instant coffee anyway?
The process of making instant coffee powders typically begins in much the same way as you’d brew regular coffee. First, beans are roasted and ground, then hot water is poured over them to brew—think of it like a giant French press. That coffee is concentrated through evaporation, then freeze dried or spray dried and broken into granules. These granules are packaged and can be revitalized with hot water to (hopefully) create a cup of coffee indistinguishable from a typical house blend—though they will usually have a lower caffeine content.
How we tested
To find the absolute best instant coffee, we blind-tested twelve brands, sticking to medium and espresso roasts, and focused on offerings from specialty coffee roasters as well as a few supermarket brands to keep things interesting. Our panel of tasters judged on taste and smell and the complexity of each cup to find the one that most closely resembled the flavor of freshly ground coffee. We tasted each contender twice, using hot water that wasn’t quite boiling, and no milk, creamers, or sweeteners for each sip. Here’s what we found:
What are the best instant coffees?
Partner’s Brooklyn blend, a sensible medium roast, had some subtle fruity notes that our tasters really enjoyed. Associate editor Zoe Denenberg noted that it was particularly berry-forward on the nose, but those flavors were more balanced during tasting, when a sharp zing of acidity pierced through the fruitiness. Partner’s instant coffee was a strong contender for the top spot but ultimately got points taken off for body, which our tasters felt was too weak to crown it number one. Nevertheless this was a quality instant coffee that we certainly wouldn’t mind drinking again.
Some thoughtful sips of Intelligentsia’s instant espresso placed it in the middle of the pack. The brewed coffee was supposed to have notes of marshmallow, dark chocolate, and raw sugar, according to the packaging, but those flavors didn’t come through for our tasters. The cup of brewed coffee wasn’t as strong as we’d have liked—more of a medium roast rather than espresso—and some tasters likened it to diner coffee. Still, it would work in a pinch—which is generally when you’re drinking instant coffee anyways. Food director Chris Morocco described it as “rough and ready,” because, while it’s not the best, you could do far worse.
Almost all tasters enjoyed their samples of Canyon’s Ethiopian single-origin instant coffee. Chris found it slightly vegetal but wonderfully bright, while other tasters noticed a distinctly fruity note in addition to some of the sharper, earthy flavors that Chris described. Coffee lovers will adore the aroma, which was warm, inviting, and strong, and it was a real contender for first place, until we noticed a slightly sour note that just slightly threw off the flavor balance in our cups of black coffee. Still, we’re confident in saying that a pack of Canyon instant coffee will leave you with a very respectable cup.
Sightglass initially lost us at its aroma, which had an almost chemical quality. Our tasters warmed up much more after an initial sip, however, although many found it had more of an acidic bite than they wanted. A second sip revealed some lightly fruity notes of blueberry or grape. Zoe put it with a shrug, “I would drink a cup of that.”
Tasters agreed that this contender wasn’t bad—but it wasn’t great either. The consensus was that it was a bit of a nothingburger in terms of flavor and aroma, though it’s possible Blue Bottle’s instant espresso, which is formulated for lattes, doesn’t show best with just water. In our testing, it lacked the richness and depth we expected from espresso, and even fell short of the benchmark we’d expect in a strong roast coffee. We agreed that it might work as a crowd pleaser since there was nothing outright offensive about it. Chris, however, praised its middle-of-the roadness. “To be in the clean, simple realm,” he said, “feels like an achievement.”
Cometeer isn’t like other instant coffees—they source coffee from specialty roasters like Equator and Counter Culture, brew it at ten times the strength of normal coffee, and then freeze it into a puck. When you’re ready to make a cup, you simply pour hot water over the frozen coffee concentrate. When tasting this blend from Onyx Roasters, the overwhelming note was that it was sour. First and second sips left tasters with a puckery feeling in their mouth and a dry aftertaste, which, we agreed, was not ideal. As tasters’ palates acclimated to the acidity on subsequent tastes, though, the roar of sour became more of a pleasant purr, and they enjoyed their sips of Cometeer. Still, we felt it was a touch harsher than regular coffee and that there was room for improvement here.
A well balanced medium roast, Verve’s Streetlevel blend is everything we want in a cup of coffee. It has a delicious, deep chocolatey aroma, a strong, dark roast taste, and a bit of an acidic bite for balance. Chris was pleased to find that this was a high-quality cup of coffee that had “character and nuance” to it. It had all the rich flavors and robust body of a beautiful pour over with the easy smoothness of a cold brew. Because it checked all our boxes and more, we’re naming Verve Streetlevel our best instant coffee.
Others we tested that were…not the best
Cafe Bustelo’s instant espresso fell extremely flat on flavor and aroma. Chris generously described the flavor as “vegetal,” but other tasters noticed the distinct flavor of soy sauce in every sip. It was hard to draw comparisons between a cup of Cafe Bustelo instant espresso and an actual cup of coffee made from real coffee beans—Bustelo is in its own instant coffee universe. The coffee was watery and weak, falling short of the rich, dark roast we want from any instant coffee, let alone an instant espresso powder.
Velty’s instant coffee powder was the only decaffeinated option we tried, but, really, Velty is more than coffee, and also the only contender that claims to improve your digestive health. It contains small amounts of ingredients like lion’s mane mushrooms, ginger, and inulin, which the brand says can aid in gut health and brain function. The flavor of those additions is undetectable, but commerce producer Alaina Chou found she enjoyed notes of “tropical fruit” while Chris said the coffee had “an inherent sweetness.” Unfortunately, Velty failed another baseline criteria: easy dissolving. Despite vigorous stirring, lots of granules remained floating around in our cups, which led to a gritty feeling sip after sip.
When we hear the words “instant coffee,” Nescafé Original is what we expect—for better or for worse—and that may just be why instant coffee has a bad rap. “Dead last,” said Zoe bluntly, after her first sip. The rest of the tasters agreed wholeheartedly. Nescafé had an unpleasant smell that some tasters described as “fishy” and others likened to a cafeteria. Either way Nescafé was not great, to put it generously, and we can’t recommend you drink it if you’re looking for a great, good, or even average cup of coffee.
“Charred,” “burnt,” and “sad” were all words used to describe the taste of Starbucks Via Colombia instant coffee, which is made with the same arabica beans used in-store at Starbucks locations. Perhaps that’s why Morocco noted that even the smell, which was acrid and stale, would be enough to turn him off from trying a cup. The crystals didn’t quite dissolve, which left us with a gritty cup of coffee, and it got low marks for taste as well. Without much positive to say, Starbucks Via ends up towards the bottom of our list.
House of Word instant coffee has a brewing process that makes it somewhat unique; instead of the French press method, ground coffee is cold brewed, then filtered and dehydrated to create, according to the brand, an especially smooth cup of coffee. But our panel found House of Word to be somewhat flaccid. After just a couple sips, Alaina noted that this was one of the most watery instant coffees of the bunch. Zoe declared, unhappily, that it didn’t “taste like much.” House of Word instant coffee wasn’t actively offensive in terms of flavor, body and aroma, but it didn’t give us much to love either. It was generally agreed upon that it had a very “instant coffee taste” which, for our tasters, wasn’t a compliment.