No matter what we need to do in the AM, the first rule is Coffee First. The second rule is, it should be Good.
On a road trip, while car camping, or living the Vanlife, we love the idea of a French Press. But we hate the fact that we have to empty the grounds somewhere, and then clean the press and all its parts each morning. And as romantic and flavorful a pour-over seems, it’s just quicker and easier to get the day going with instant coffee.
With instant coffee, flavor profiles and quality runs the gamut, and the last thing we want is to be waking up to an incredible sunrise, beautiful nature, and then have crappy coffee. So, we taste tested six boutique brands in various roasts, and pitted them against Folgers, to see which is the best tasting instant coffee. And, whether they’re worth the premium price over the grocery store staples…
How we tested these instant coffees
By tasting them all, obviously. But there’s more to it than just getting all jacked up. A quick search for “instant coffee” on Amazon will give you hundreds of options. We looked for instant coffees that met several criteria: Organic and/or Fair Trade; sold in bulk packs (because single-serve sticks create a lot of trash); were a Light or Medium roast; and/or had some unique take on the category. Not every coffee met every standard because we felt there were some brands, like Starbucks, that should definitely be included because of their popularity and widespread availability.
We brewed them all according to package instructions, poured samples into our cups, and took notes. Then, after trying them all, we discussed what we liked and didn’t like to determine an overall ranking. Below, we explain what we liked and disliked about each so you can compare our tasting notes to your own preferred flavor profile and find the best instant coffee for your trips.
Best Tasting Instant Coffees
Best Overall: Republica Classic Medium Roast
Republica is a Medium roast that’s organic & fair trade. Tasting notes included “smooth & velvety”, “would make a nice ice coffee” and “pleasant aroma, warm and chocolatey”. Overall, it has a mild flavor that should appeal to Light Roast fans, with a smooth mouthfeel and flavor that’s very similar to brewed coffee.
There are no mixing instructions on the label, so we matched the others at about 2 rounded teaspoons per 8oz. Like all of the bulk options here, it’s easy to adjust to your personal preferences.
- Roast: Medium
- Servings per container: ~28
- Cost per serving: 46¢
- Organic: Yes
- Fair Trade: Yes
PROS: Our overall favorite by the numbers, it ranked highly on all of our scorecards even if it didn’t take everyone’s top spots (it did on mine).
CONS: It comes in a glass bottle to preserve freshness, though the top pops on and off rather than twisting, so it’s not 100% air tight once the seal is broken. And, you can’t compress the package size as you go through it, like you can with bags.
2nd Favorite: Starbucks Dark Roast
We were all kind of surprised we liked this one so much, and here’s why: None of us really like Starbuck’s regular brewed coffee at their stores…it’s overly dark, usually burnt tasting, and too bitter. And I actually meant to order the Blonde Light Roast to test, but clicked the wrong button.
So we tested the Dark Roast, and were pleasantly surprised by how smooth it was. It’s dark, but not bitter, and had the least “instant” taste and smell. Not everyone loved it, but no one hated it. If you’re a fan of Starbuck’s regular coffee, you’ll likely love this one.
- Roast: Dark
- Servings per container: ~22
- Cost per serving: 41¢
- Organic: No
- Fair Trade: No
PROS: Great for instant, pretty good for Starbucks, with a flavor that should please most coffee drinkers. Small container is great for travel, in an easily recyclable aluminum can.
CONS: Lid doesn’t thread on, so keep it upright. Sold in 3-packs, so a bit more expensive upfront. Not organic or fair trade, but they do say it’s “ethically sourced”.
3rd Favorite: Mount Hagen
We’ve taken Mount Hagen on a couple of multi-week road trips and it did the job every morning, We thought it was fine mixed with our coconut cream, but during un-mixed testing it still held its own. It’s a lighter roast with a lighter flavor. One tester said it’s “light, like a blanket with holes, it almost does the job, but not quite.” The caveat to that is when mixed per instructions, it is a little weak, so just make sure to round those teaspoons.
If you just want a good, single-origin, freeze-dried instant coffee that’s affordable, organic, and Fair Trade, this one does the trick and should appeal to most everyone in your camp.
- Roast: Not specified (we’d guess Medium)
- Servings per container: ~57
- Cost per serving: 35¢
- Organic: Yes
- Fair Trade: Yes
PROS: Solidly pleasing basic coffee flavor, resealable packaging, freeze dried, and single origin.
CONS: Nothing really, but also nothing really stood out…which is maybe a good thing?
4th Favorite: Anthony’s Organic
Anthony’s Organic Coffee was, um, OK. Some testers thought it tasted burnt, others thought it had a “fruity, light roast”. Opinions ranged from “still tastes instant but with a higher quality” to “bold flavor, weak aroma”, and several thought the flavor lingered a bit too long on the tongue.
Which made it hard for us to come to consensus – it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. What keeps it on this list is that it’s super affordable, with the lowest cost per serving in the bunch. So, it’s worth a shot if you’re on a budget, and worst case is you can just keep it around for baking or blend with your favorite milk (or “milk”) for an ice coffee or protein shake.
- Roast: Not specified (we’d guess medium-to-dark)
- Servings per container: ~110
- Cost per serving: ~14¢
- Organic: Yes
- Fair Trade: No
PROS: Cheap and organic, palatable enough, and comes in a resealable bag.
CONS: Hard to pin down the flavor profile, some may find it has a slightly burnt taste.
5th Favorite: Death Wish
The only coffee in our initial test that’s not available in bulk, Death Wish Coffee Co. is having a moment so we wanted to try it. It blends organic Arabica with the cheaper Robusta beans and then adds organic green coffee bean extract to boost each single-serve packet to a whopping 300mg per serving. Typical coffee is about 80mg per 8oz cup, so you probably don’t wanna double up and make a giant tumbler’s worth.
Tasting notes included “smells like a campfire, but in a good way” and “a little chocolatey” and “very strong tasting, slightly bitter, fruity”. While none of that sounds bad, we also thought is was just a bit too much, both in flavor and strength, to be fully enjoyable. This is the coffee you get when you just need the biggest boost possible, cost and flavor be damned.
- Roast: Not specified (we’d guess dark)
- Servings per container: 8
- Cost per serving: $1.87
- Organic: Yes
- Fair Trade: No
PROS: Super high caffeine levels for those who need a serious boost. Flavor should appeal to those who like really dark roasts.
CONS: Not sold in bulk. Expensive, yet mixes in cheaper beans. Uses extracts to boost the caffeine…personally, we’d rather just drink more coffee.
And for comparison… Folgers
Let’s just state for the record: We don’t recommend this one. But we wanted to see how an inexpensive, mass-produced instant coffee compared to the others. Afterall, wouldn’t it be great if we could pop into any grocery store along our route and grab something worth drinking? Unfortunately, Folgers Classic Roast instant coffee is not it.
It started off well by having one of the best aromas out of the jar, but that’s where the compliments stopped. Several of us thought it tasted like dishwater, other called it plasticky. It comes in a plastic jar, so… who knows. Either way, if you actually enjoy coffee, you probably won’t enjoy this. Not a single one of us would choose to drink it, and in fact, we’d be tempted to just skip our morning routine altogether if this was all that was available.
Frequently Asked Questions about Instant Coffee
How do I know if an instant coffee is any good?
You can take our word for it, or you can try them for yourself. Most instant coffees have lots of reviews, so it’s easy to crowd source opinions. The key criteria we’d look for is a light or medium roast, organic, fair trade, and single origin. Very few instant coffees hit all these marks, but it’s worth looking…the only one we tested that does is Mount Hagen.
Is instant coffee real coffee?
Yep. But you can check the ingredients labels to make sure there’s nothing else added. If you can’t find the ingredients label online, we wouldn’t buy it.
How is instant coffee made?
The coffee beans are harvested and roasted like normal, then brewed. From there, two methods are used to create the coffee powder. Freeze Drying is the best and tends to retain the most aroma, flavor, and caffeine content. Basically, coffee is frozen, then it’s put into a drying vacuum where the ice vaporizes out and leaves behind coffee crystals.
The other is spray drying where the coffee is sprayed at extremely high temperature into an extremely fine mist. As it’s sprayed, the moisture evaporates out and the coffee simply dries into a powder as it floats down.
Why is the cost per serving different that what I paid?
Because Amazon’s pricing fluctuates, so the prices here were accurate at the time this story published. Use them as a general idea of how expensive each cup of coffee will be compared to the others. All are based on a single 8oz serving.
Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in the comments, we’re always looking for more great ways to start our day! And we have a couple more in the queue and will add them here if they prove worthy…
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