Instant coffee has seemingly eluded the coffee canon, repelling coffee purists for decades. It has been relegated as worthy of consumption while only in the wilderness; considered a launchpad for “the good stuff.” But instant coffee is magical. Just add water and within nanoseconds, chestnut-colored crystals metamorphose into a sippable double rainbow; it’s delightfully satisfying and thus completely misunderstood. Brewed coffee and espresso — whether from a coffee shop or made at home — have been part of my daily routine for years. But nowadays, instant coffee is my morning cup of choice.
Instant, or soluble, coffee has earned its bad rap. Early iterations were like carpet in a bathroom, gross and perplexing — the result of inferior beans and faulty processing methods which left the end product tasteless and susceptible to rancidity. But the entire genre has matured over the years as a new breed of enthusiasts and small-batch roasters approach instant coffee with revere. They’ve developed innovative freeze-drying techniques that preserve the coffee’s integrity, and now there’s even a fine dining of instant coffee — a flash-frozen puck — from the start-up Cometeer.
I’ve dabbled in instant coffee over the years, usually a Starbucks VIA thanks to its convenience, but I didn’t become a loyal instant coffee drinker until this year (blame it on 2020). At the start of the U.S. coronavirus shutdowns, like many, I went grocery shopping, and the coffee aisle was the last leg of my trip. Scanning floor-to-ceiling shelves of K-cups and vacuum-sealed roasted goodness was too daunting with my head already buzzing with pandemic-induced angst. I wanted something good but simple, and I found it once I kneeled down and peered at the bottom shelf, where the instant coffee lived. Questionable product placement aside, I reached for a row of Mount Hagen glass jars that already had a few missing (a positive indicator according to my parochial rating system), grabbed two jars, threw them into the cart, and headed to the checkout.
At first glance, preparing coffee instantaneously as the world is slowing down may seem counterintuitive. Gathering for coffee is no longer part of our social construct, and coffee-making, much like cooking, has largely become an at-home affair. The upheaval of our daily routines means each of us has had to redefine what joy and nourishment looks like in this moment. And for me, instant coffee and its nonexistent gadgetry checks the pertinent boxes.
Perhaps it’s time to collectively expand our definition of “instant coffee,” in the way that the devastating impact of COVID-19 has forced us to expand our definition of “restaurant” to encompass non-traditional spaces like pop-ups and ghost kitchens. A proper Dalgona coffee would cease to exist were it not for instant coffee. The whipped beverage, considered a welcomed distraction by many at the start of the pandemic, deftly calls attention to instant coffee’s standout feature: versatility. After all, what is a pod or a capsule if not just liquified instant coffee?
There’s beauty in my morning ritual of preparing a cup of instant coffee. It begins with the harmonious clinks made by the tiny coffee granules as they tumble into my mug; the sound is softer than cereal hitting a bowl and soothes me like the perfect wind chime. Pouring over hot water prompts that familiar aroma that sashays side to side as I blow before sipping until I’m content. Afterwards, there’s little waste and exactly one dish to clean. Instant coffee is a happy ending.
Like any coffee, you may have to sample a few brands and varieties before discovering the instant coffee that honors your palate. But rest assured, the days of coffee-shaming are finally over, so everyone should feel free to proudly drink their coffee as they please (cream and sugar, anyone?).
Angela Burke is a Chicago-based food writer and the creator of the site Black Food & Beverage.