Instant coffee is often ridiculed among hardcore coffee snobs. While it’s not amazing, it’s still better than its reputation.
Personally, I think it’s more drinkable than the alternative:
Stale coffee from a drip machine that hasn’t been cleaned in decades.
I have blind-tasted 10 of the most popular options on the market to find the ultimate instant coffee for you. This is the typical blends that you can find in a grocery store, so there’s none of the so-called specialty instant from the small boutique roasters featured in this article.
I’ll be upfront: many brands were nasty 🙅
But a few did stand out in a positive way!
Below you see my top choice. Read on, to see the full ranking.
The blind test top pick
Methodology: Cupping & blind tasting test
Each instant coffees was prepared in neutral cupping bowls by adding hot water and evaluated following the standard cupping protocols as close to CQI standards as possible (with instant coffee there will oviously be some deviations).
The samples were cupped blind; each had a number assigned for later identification.
After the blind test, I performed an un-blinded cupping with the five best-performing coffees to get a more in-depth evaluation of the coffees as they cooled down. The three top coffees in the list above are what I’d recommend to most people.
You can read an individual description of my impression, and flavor notes down below. I recorded the whole tasting session, so I could concentrate on the coffee tasting. It’s for that reason that you’ll see qutotes from myself throughout the article.
Instant coffee blind taste test ranking
|Blind Test Rating (out of 5)
|Balanced, less harsh, full aftertaste
|Intense, burning, licorice notes
|Smooth, clean, mellow aftertaste
|Mellow, complex, sweet aftertaste
|Thin body, mellow, subtle hints of thyme
|Little’s Irish Cream
|Creamy aroma, wine gum flavor
|Nescafé Red Cup Original
|Grains, bad classic instant coffee
|Starbucks Pike Place
|Charcoal, astringent, bitter, unpleasant
|Mount Hagen Fair Trade
|Smoky, spicy, less coffee flavor, expensive
|Nescafé Gold Crema
|Sharp licorice/anis flavor, full-bodied
Nescafé Azera Intense
Nescafé Azera Intense was a big surprise to me. Overall, this was the highest-scoring coffee in the blind taste, although some other coffees were close.
I had never heard about this instant blend before, but it turns out that it’s a rather new invention that includes some ultra-fine “real” coffee in the sample. I think that gives the cup a more “realistic” feeling; it tastes less like instant and more like regular coffee.
I would classify this as a medium-dark roast with a nice body and balance from a layman’s perspective. This coffee can be enjoyed either black or with milk.
(Among specialty coffee people, however, it would be a quite dark espresso roast)
When I tasted this one, what stood out to me at first, was how well-balanced it was compared to the other samples. It’s less harsh with a more clean and full aftertaste.
Of course, this is not going to replace normal coffee for me, but I can imagine that it will taste just as good as the supermarket coffee most normal people brew at home.
Lavazza Prontissimo! Intenso
Lavazza’s blend was another one that tasted more realistic to me; again it turned out to have some real coffee powder mixed into it, so this addition probably works to some degree!
This is a super dark roast, though. It tastes like an espresso roast, so if you like that or you take your coffee with milk, then it’s a good bet.
This is how I described the blend in the blind test:
“We’re almost into charcoal territory here. We also have some more of those licorice notes, but overall I will say this is not mellow or rich. This is more intense, dark, and burning. So if you’re into that kind of destructive nihilistic coffee philosophy and you just want a really dark roast, then this is it”.
For my personal taste, this is too dark, but I could imagine that many people would be into this coffee.
Kenco Smooth lived up to its name. It didn’t really stand out in any noticeable way, but nonetheless, it was decent – and dare you to say – a “smooth” experience.
It tastes like instant coffee but like a good one that wouldn’t offend anybody.
The roast is medium-dark but not too dark.
The aftertaste is pretty clean and mellow. It has some of those licorice notes, but besides that, there’s not a whole lot going on. While this might sound like a criticism, I mean it in a positive way. Many instant coffees have an undesirable grain/corn aftertaste, but you don’t find that here.
The flavor profile is middle of the road but in a good way. I can see many people enjoying this cup.
When I did my blind taste I was a bit too harsh on Davidoff Rich. It was the first cup I sampled, so for that reason, my expectations were unreasonably high. On later evaluations, I realized that this is a fine instant coffee. At first sip, it’s a bit like Kenco Smooth, just a bit more complex.
However, as you get to the aftertaste, it has more sweetness and even some actual hints of fruit. My guess is that this is a blend of both medium roast and darker beans.
Fruity flavors are, of course, very common with light and medium roast specialty coffee, but you don’t see many instant coffees that try to pull it off. Judging from the other “more ambitious” instants I have tried, it seems like the most difficult aspect to replicate.
I think Davidoff Rich is doing a pretty good job with their freeze-dried stuff, considering it’s a commercial instant coffee and not “specialty” per se.
Don’t go for this one if you want a coffee that works with milk; this is more a coffee that should be enjoyed black.
In my blind test, I commented that this was average tasting, and I still stand by that. However, this is not a bad thing.
This is a medium roast, so you get a thinner body and more mellow flavors compared to the other coffees on this list.
You don’t get any flavor notes that this indicates that this is an Ethiopian coffee until it’s cooled down to room temperature. At that point, you do find hints of thyme and earl grey tea, pointing to the Ethiopian connection. However, this is very subtle.
What stands out to me about this coffee is that it’s a true medium roast with a clean flavor profile. You won’t encounter many instant coffees like that!
Little’s Irish Cream
This flavored coffee from Little’s is very unique. The aroma is creamy and boozy in a cheap and cheerful way.
Unfortunately, the cup profile doesn’t quite live up to the promising aroma.
To me, it tasted like wine gums mixed with generic medium-roast coffee.
While this sounds bad, it’s still a lot more interesting than most instant coffees.
If you don’t like the flavors of dark roasts, and you want something to cheer you up in the morning, then this is a fun one!
Nescafe Red Cup Original
The classic house blend profile from Nescafé only got 1 star in my blind test.
This is how I described it:
“This is just grain all the way through. You don’t get any of that nice dark chocolate that you get with some of the other ones. I would say this is a classic instant coffee but a pretty bad classic instant coffee.
“This is the kind of coffee I would imagine could have some low-grade Robusta in it as well. It’s definitely not 100% arabica.”
Starbucks Pike Place instant coffee
I didn’t enjoy this coffee from Starbucks at all. At the same time, it was one of the most expensive coffees in the line-up. Maybe this is due to being sold in single-serve packets.
This was my comment on the aroma and flavor:
“It’s a little bit like a used kitchen cloth.”
Of course, Starbucks is famous/notorious for roasting really dark, but this was more than I had expected.
“This is basically like drinking charcoal soup. Charcoal essence. Yeah, the aftertaste is just very astringent, very bitter; this one almost hurts a little bit in the throat,” was my reaction after blind tasting it.
Unless you like charcoal brewed on a dirty old coffee maker, I wouldn’t recommend this one.
Mount Hagen Organic Fair Trade Blend
I had high expectations for Mount Hagen. The name and logo evoked a certain old-world seriousness, and the fact that it’s organic and fair trade also shows some ambition.
However, when I tasted the coffee blind, it was a disappointment. Here’s my reaction.
“It kind of reminds me of a barbecue rub. It’s kind of roasty, and then it goes into some kind of spice territory. I get a little bit of X-Factor wildness to it. But to me, it just tastes more like smoke than coffee. So yeah, if you’re after coffee flavor, then maybe this is not the best one to go for.”
The fact that Mount Hagen is also rather expensive is another argument against it. There are cheaper and better ways to get your caffeine hit!
Nescafé Gold Crema
This was another disappointment. I thought Nescafé was a pioneer in this area, but this performance was pretty poor.
First impression: It smells like coffee from a vending machine!
Second impression: It’s full-bodied, but not in a rounded way. It’s got that sharp licorice/anis flavor. Definitely not chocolate. It could have some robusta.
Conclusion: I don’t enjoy it, so I’d recommend one of the other options on this list.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR?
Choosing among the best instant coffee brands takes some due consideration. As you can see, each of our top picks is slightly different. Here are some aspects you should consider while settling on the one that suits your needs.
Robusta or Arabica coffee beans make all instant coffees. Arabica has a recognizable smoother taste with more layers, and it is slightly sweeter. Most people usually go for the Arabica bean-based instant coffee for its superior quality.
Roast & Taste
The roast of the coffee can be light, medium, or dark roasted. However, in reality, almost all instant coffee is somewhere from medium to extremely dark. The more roasted, the more intense the flavor. The instant coffee’s packaging displays its roast so you can choose the intensity more fitting for your taste. If you’re trying to make the most flavorful instant espresso, you should go for a darker roast packet.
Instant coffee is supposed to be convenient to make and drink. The container your favorite coffee comes in has to make it easier for you to make your morning cup of coffee with as little hassle as possible. Add a scoop and a few ounces of water, and you’re good to go.
💡 Pro tip: Ice coffee!
Making iced coffee with instant coffee mixed with cold water is a quick and easy way to enjoy a refreshing beverage on a hot day.
To get started, you will need a jar or glass with a lid, instant coffee, cold water, ice cubes, and any additional flavorings or sweeteners of your choice.
Begin by adding a few spoonfuls of instant coffee to the jar or glass. Next, pour in cold water, leaving enough space to add ice cubes. Stir the mixture until the instant coffee is dissolved. At this point, you can add any desired flavorings or sweeteners to enhance the taste.
Once you are happy with the flavor, add a generous amount of ice cubes to the mixture and close the jar or glass tightly with a lid. Shake the jar or glass vigorously for about 30 seconds until the mixture is well combined and the ice has started to melt.
Finally, pour your iced coffee into a glass filled with more ice cubes, and enjoy.
While instant coffee will probably never reach the same level of deliciousness as your favorite coffee shop even just a decent manual brew at home, there are still many interesting options on the market today. If you’re too busy (or lazy) to go for a regular brew, one of the options in this taste test might make your morning a tiny bit more comfortable.
I have to admit that some of the offerings from the well-known brands were disappointing and frankly too expensive. However, in the end the winner proved to be a surprisingly realistic tasting coffee.