Instant coffee is popular on the trail because it is lightweight and easy to prepare in your pack. But, backpackers weren't the first group to appreciate this form of coffee. Instant coffee has a long history that dates back to 1771 when it first was invented in Britain as a coffee compound.
It grew in popularity during the 1800s, so much so that instant coffee cakes were handed out to Civil War soldiers as part of their regular rations. It was only a short time before instant coffee was mass produced by George Constant Louis Washington in 1910 and used widely by soldiers in World War I. The rest is history, and now instant coffee is a permanent part of the coffee culture.
Instant vs. Brewed Coffee
When it comes to backpacking, you have two choices for your coffee - instant coffee that takes a minute to make or brewed coffee prepared from roasted coffee grounds. There is no right or wrong type of coffee here. What you drink depends on your preferences.
Much More Convenient! Instant coffee is still coffee, but its processing makes it a much different product to drink and prepare. First and foremost, it is lightweight to carry because you don't need a filtering device or backcountry coffee pot to make a cup of joe. It also is easy to prepare - add hot water and drink. There's also no leftover grinds to pack out.
Usually Less Tasty :( Most people prefer brewed coffee over instant coffee because of the taste. Brewed coffee has a fuller taste because some of the aromatic compounds that give coffee its flavor are lost in the drying process. Some instant coffee manufacturers also try to keep costs low by using cheaper Robusta beans instead of the more expensive Arabica beans that are commonly used for brewed coffee. The robusta beans have a bitter taste that many people don't like. If you are picky about the taste of your coffee, shop for instant coffee prepared with higher quality coffee beans.
ABout Half The Amount of caffeine: Instant coffee contains on average about half the amount of caffeine as a freshly brewed cup of coffee. If you are accustomed to a kick in the morning from your first cup of coffee, you may want to consider sticking with brewed coffee on the trail.
Less expensive: The price of instant vs. ground coffee is going to vary depending on the beans and the strength of the coffee being brewed. In general, instant coffee is cheaper because it is made from less expensive beans. At its cheapest, instant coffee costs only pennies per cup. Instant also doesn't require you to purchase disposable filters or a pot for brewing.
Longer shelf life: Because of the way it is made, Instant coffee has a longer shelf life than freshly roasted coffee. To preserve its flavor for as long as possible, Instant coffee should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark location. Keep coffee away from direct light or heat as that will cause the coffee to lose its flavor. Don't store coffee in the refrigerator as it may absorb moisture and smells from other food.
Instant Coffee Considerations
There are many ways the taste of coffee can be influenced. The origin of the coffee beans, how they’re grown and processed, and even the way they’re ground up, brewed, and how long their roasted for can all be vital factors in setting one cup of joe apart from the next.
TYPES OF INSTANT COFFEES: POWDERS, CUBES AND POUR-OVERS
Powders: Most instant coffee is packaged as a powder for convenience. You scoop out the appropriate amount of powder, put it in your cup, add hot water and presto! You have a cup of piping joe. The powder is easy to use, but it can take up room in your bag as you store it in a leakproof container,
Cubes: Coffee cubes take the fuss out of making coffee by packing the powder into a single-serving cube that you drop into a cup of hot water. Merely add the cube, stir, and flavor as needed. The cube coffee is very easy to prepare, but you lose some of the fine-tuning that comes with the powder. With a powder, you can always scoop out a little extra for a more robust flavor, but you cant cut half of a cube. At least not easily.
Pour-overs: The pour-overs kind of fall into their own category - are they instant coffee or not? They usually are "real" coffee, yet so convenient we consider them "instant". This type uses a pouch that acts as a filter. Put the coffee filter pouch on the top of your mug and pour water through the filter to create a cup of coffee. You then can squeeze the filter to get the last few remaining drops of coffee. Coffee pouches are convenient, but the filter pouch needs to be disposed of properly.
THE ROAST: LIGHTER OR DARKER?
Considering the roast you like is a good place to start when searching for a favorable instant coffee option. The “roast” refers to how long the coffee beans have roasted for, and this amount of time will directly impact the beans' caffeine level and taste. Coffee is offered in four roast levels:
- Light: Light brown in color, this roast has the highest acidity, the most caffeine, and it will keep the greatest amount of the beans' original flavor.
- Medium: A peg lower in caffeine and a shade darker in appearance, a medium roast puts off a rich aroma, and doesn’t taste as grainy or acidic as a light roast.
- Medium-Dark: Dark brown in appearance with a mild amount of caffeine, this roast is heavy bodied, and is often referred to as “spicy.”
- Dark: Extremely dark in color, this full-bodied option has the lowest level of caffeine. Because the beans have roasted for a long time, the coffee will often give off an oily sheen on its surface, and it may taste bitter or even burnt.
The more heat that a coffee bean absorbs during roasting, the darker that bean will be. As a general rule of thumb for caffeine levels, the lighter the roast, the more caffeine the coffee will have, and vice versa
THE BEANS: ARABICA VS. ROBUSTA
There are two major types of coffee beans produced in the world: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica makes up 70% of the world’s coffee production, whereas Robusta makes up 30%. Although Robusta is higher in caffeine, Arabica is more popular because it contains less sugar and has a more pleasant flavor.
Arabica beans are what you’ll often find used in instant coffee packs, at grocery stores, and even being served up at your local café. The beans grow at elevations of 1,900 feet or higher and derive from a plant that’s native to Ethiopia. The beans themselves are fragile and often smell like chocolate, nuts or blueberries. Arabica beans have a slightly bitter taste which is favorable in coffee. The beans are also rich in antioxidants, even containing small traces of vitamins like magnesium and potassium.
You can find both Arabica and Robusta coffee beans for sale, and since there is a higher demand for Arabica, it will often be the more expensive option.
ORIGIN: AFRICA VS. SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA
A coffees flavor will depend on its country of origin. For example, African coffee beans usually taste more sweet and fruitful, where South American beans are often more earthy and spicy. Central America is popular for its smooth and well-balanced coffee, which is a favorite for many people. Knowing a coffee's origin, and whether you enjoy its taste, can be useful in determining your personal coffee preference.
FLAVORS "TASTING NOTES": THE CONNOISSEUR'S VOCAB'
When talking coffee, the commonplace lingo may leave you feeling like you’re learning an entirely new language. To provide a bit of a cheat sheet, here’s a breakdown of a few common word’s java enthusiasts like to use when describing coffee:
- Acidity or Bitterness: This is the very thing that makes coffee taste like, well… coffee. If your coffee tastes watered down, it’s not very acidic. Most people enjoy their coffee a little bitter to give it that extra punch. (I.e. Sharp, mild.)
- Aroma: Meaning “the scent of the coffee.” A coffee with a darker roast will have a stronger aroma. (I.e. Spicy, fruity, nutty.)
- Body: The body of the coffee is its texture. Is it heavy like syrup, or light like water? Most coffee should taste relatively “thick”, and any good quality coffee will fall between medium and heavy-bodied. (I.e. Thick, balanced, buttery.)
- Bold: Bold is often used to refer to the roast or strength in flavor of the coffee. Often dark roasts are bolder compared to lighter roasts.
- Earthy: No, your coffee shouldn’t taste like dirt. However, since coffee comes in contact with the earth during growing and production, it should taste more natural and not overly processed.
- Fruity: Coffee is described as fruity when its smell and taste gives off hints of berries, citrus, or cherries.
- Smooth or Mellow: A smooth or mellow cup of coffee is well-balanced and easy to drink with no definitive taste notes.
- Spicy: When a coffee is called spicy, it doesn’t mean the coffee has a kick of cayenne or red pepper in it. Instead, spicy refers to the coffee giving off an aroma of cinnamon or cloves.
Best Instant Coffee Brands
Weight (per serving): 0.2 oz
Beans: Bourbon and Caturra Varieties
Flavor: Milk Chocolate, Brown Sugar, Tropical Fruit
Origin: South America
Price: $14 for a six packet box
Swift Cup elevates instant coffee to a new level with specialty blends that range from the standard Mainstay blend with cocoa, caramel, and red fruit to the exotic Geisha Village Natural with fresh berries, floral, milk chocolate. However, don’t let its sweet scent fool you. The coffee holds its own with a hint of bitterness that’s sure to put a pep in your morning step.
For those that like a good cup of straight black coffee to get them going in the morning, this smooth, well-balanced instant coffee fits the bill. Each box ships with six individual packets that contain 5g of freeze-dried coffee.
Weight (per serving): 0.74 oz
Flavor: Non-Dairy Coconut Creamer Latter
Price: $9 for eight packets
Reviewed as “too good to just drink while camping,” this sweet treat of an instant coffee is the perfect dairy-free latte you’ll likely want to indulge in on and off the trail. As its name implies, Alpine Start coffee was started by climber Matt Segal who was tired of drinking crappy coffee. Sourced from Colombia, Alpine Start uses 100% high altitude arabica beans.
Its vegan creamy richness is tasty without being overly sweet, and although it might taste like it’s stocked full of sugar, it comes in at only 4 grams. After a long day of hiking, the Alpine Start Coconut Creamer latte, or equally delicious Alpine Start Dirty Chai Latte—which smells like Cinnamon Toast Crunch by the way—might just be the dessert coffee you deserve to start or end your day with. You can purchase each flavor individually or grab a variety pack to try all three.
Weight (per serving): 0.11 oz
Flavor: Medium Roast, cocoa and toasted nut
Origin: Latin America
Price: $5 for eight packets
Starbucks Via takes the company's signature coffees and packages them into single-use packets that are great on the trail. Just pour a packet into your mug, stir in some hot water and wait 10 seconds before enjoying that first sip.
Capable of dissolving in both cold and warm water, this bold, sharp instant coffee has a great fresh-brewed taste. It has a rich medium roast flavor with a sweet aroma of cocoa. The Starbucks Via can be a great cup of consistent coffee you can count on, and it's even been said to be so strong that a single packet can be divided to make two cups of coffee.
Flavor: Medium roast, chocolate/fruity tones
Weight (per serving): .11 oz
Price: $10 for 12 single-serving cubes
Type: powder and cubes
Jiva is a blend of 100% Colombian Coffee, raw sugar and USDA Organic extracts that are compressed into a single-use cube. Just drop a cube into eight ounces of boiled water, wait 45 seconds for the cube to dissolve, stir and enjoy.
Dark and sweet, this coffee will get you up and moving in the morning. It has a slight acidic flavor that’s complemented by fruity notes and a bit of sugar. Be sure to stir the coffee properly while drinking it, otherwise the sugar and granules can settle on the bottom making those last few sips… surprising. When mixed up correctly, the low acidity in this instant coffee makes for a smooth drink with a sweet aftertaste.
Flavor: Medium-bodied and fruity
Weight (per serving): .9 oz
Price: $15 for 10 packets
If you are looking for a unique coffee, look no further than Four Sigmatic's mushroom coffee. Made with 100% organic Arabica coffee beans, the instant coffee blend includes lion's mane mushroom, Chaga mushroom, and Rhodiola Root.
Packed in tiny, convenient packets, this unique mushroom-influenced instant coffee tastes all coffee, hold the mushrooms. With an earthy, medium-bodied flavor, Four Sigmatic is said to improve focus and attention while also boosting your immune system. For those that are sensitive to caffeine, this mild option will perk you up without giving you the shakes, since it only has half the amount of caffeine as a regular cup of coffee.
Flavor: Mild and naturally rich favored coffee
Origin: “Plantations from the best cultivation areas in the world.”
Weight (per serving): .7 oz
Price: $9.35 for 25 single-serving packets
Mount Hagen uses choice highland Arabica beans that are organically grown on small farms and under shade trees for the best flavors. They are slow roasted and then freeze-dried without any preservatives or additives.
If you’re looking to pack a lot of coffee for the trail that won’t take up much space, then Mount Hagen organic German coffee is the brand for you. There are 25 single-serving sticks to a box, and the whole box weighs in at only 1.76 oz. The coffee itself has a rich, strong aroma accompanied with a smooth, mild flavor that makes for a straightforward, reliable cup of black coffee to start off your day.
Copper Cow Coffee
Flavor: Dark espresso roast, bold smooth and creamy
Weight (per serving): 5.6 oz
Price: $12 for five packets
Copper Cow coffee lets you create a Vietnamese style coffee with little fuss. A rare find in the instant coffee market, this coffee brand comes with a pour-over filter pack that hooks to the sides of your mug, along with a pouch of sweetened condensed milk to add for taste. The coffee itself is strong-bodied and bold, and the California sweetened condensed milk tastes natural, and makes for a welcomed accompaniment. You'll get a better tasting cup of joe without having to drag a french press into the backcountry.
Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee Packet
Flavor: Mild coffee with cream and sugar
Weight (per serving): .42 oz
Price: $15 for 30 packets
Trader Joe’s Instant coffee packets are a one-step coffee - add water, and it's ready to drink. Each pack contains 100% Arabica coffee along with cream and sugar, making for an easy all-in-one travel packet if you like coffee with all the fixings. However, the actual amount of coffee in each packet is small compared to other instant coffees on the market. So, if you like bold, full-bodied coffee, this mellow, sweet brew will probably not be for you.
Flavor: Dark roast with rich, bold flavor
Origin: Latin America
Weight (per serving): .07 oz
Price: $20 for 84 sticks
One of the largest instant coffee makers in the world, Nestle has been producing instant coffee under the Nescafe brand since 1938. The company's coffee-fueled Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their record-breaking expedition to Mount Everest in 1953.
Its latest product, Nescafe Classico, uses 100% Colombian Arabica coffee beans and is available in sticks, powders, and packets. Nescafe Clasico is a dark roast, freeze-dried coffee with a bold Latin flavor. Being that this coffee is a dark roast, it has a lower amount of caffeine than some other brands on our list. To make this coffee more strong-bodied, you can add less water or double up when mixing in packets. Note these are better known for their price, not their quality!
Folgers Coffee Singles
Flavor: Medium-classic roast
Origin: Central America
Weight (per serving): .6 oz
Price: $8 for 19 bags
The Folgers name is synonymous with instant coffee. Founded in 1854 by J.A. Folger, the company focused on acquiring the best coffee beans possible. Its first instant coffee was a flop, but the next one was a big hit. Since then, Folgers has expanded its product lineup to include a variety of instant coffees, including these singles which are ideal for hiking.
Unlike the other filter or pour-over instant coffee options, Folgers Medium-bodied singles come in the form of a “coffee tea-bag.” The coffee in these tea bags is ground and not freeze-dried like most instant coffees. For those that like to control how weak or strong their coffee is, this brand is a great option. To make a bolder, fuller-bodied brew, just leave the tea bag soaking for a few extra minutes. If you want your coffee lighter and more mellow, then soaking the tea bag for under a minute will do.
Kuju Pocket Pour Overs
Beans: Arabica beans
Flavor: Oak, chocolate, honey
Origin: Indonesia, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea
Weight (per serving): .5 oz
Price: $22 for 10 packets
Kuju Pocket PourOvers system makes it possible to enjoy a cup of gourmet coffee anywhere you have hot water. Roasted from 100% arabica beans, the bold, dark flavor of this pour-over coffee has a full-bodied finish with an earthy cocoa and dried berry aroma.
The coffee takes about 1-2 minutes to brew, and you can strengthen your coffee or weaken it depending on how long you leave the filter sitting in your mug. The single-serve filters are eco-friendly - when you are done brewing, squeeze the excess coffee from the pouch and dispose of it properly. Moreover, the Nitro-Flushed packaging keeps out oxygen to ensure a fresh cup of coffee every time. Although it takes a bit longer to make, a pour-over cup of Kuju is like having your very own mini-French press right out on the trail with you.
Hikers Brew Venture Pouches
Beans: Brazilian beans
Flavor: Dark, heavy and bold
Origin: Guatemala Blend
Weight (per serving): .37 oz
Price: $13.99 for four pouches
Type: brewed (portable, but not instant)
For those that just can’t get past the thought of instant coffee, Hiker’s Brew Venture Pouches offer freshly roasted gourmet coffee in travel size. Hiker's Brew uses only organic as well as fair-trade coffee beans and offers a variety of flavors that are packaged into small compostable packages for backpacking. Each Hiker's Brew Venture pouch brews up to four 6-ounce cups of coffee.
Their coffee selections come in a variety of flavors including ones like S’mores, French Vanilla, Carmel Canyon and Dark Roast. Although this option must be brewed, you can do so by using a drip filter, French press or just about any other method.
Flavor: Medium Roast with notes of citrus
• Origin: Colombian
Weight (per serving): .1 oz
Price: $11.99 for eight pouches
A well-balanced medium roast coffee that ends with fruity notes of citrus, WAKA’s favorable taste has been compared to a good quality cup of drip coffee. It has a rich flavor that’s mellow and smooth, and the crystals dissolve so quickly and easily, you may not even have to bust out your spoon to stir them in.
Awakn Instant Collagen Coffee Infused with MCT Oil
Beans: Collagen Coffee
Flavor: Instant Collagen Coffee
Weight (per serving): .87 oz
Price: $37 for ten pouches
Type: brewed (portable, but not instant)
Packed with Collagen protein and Infused with MCT oil, this mix-in packet of coffee goes the extra mile in keeping you in tip-top shape. On a day where your planning to put in long miles, the added calories and protein in this instant coffee will help push your body through, while the coconut MCT oil will support your cognitive function and energy levels. This delectable, protein-packed coffee won’t likely taste like any other option on our list. It has a mellow flavor with a full-bodied creaminess that strikes a distant familiarity with a sweetened-up cappuccino.
How to Make Instant Coffee
It's easy to make a great cup of instant coffee even on the trail.
Step 1: Boil 7-8 ounces of water
Step 2: Add one to two teaspoons of instant coffee to your cup or mug
Step 3: Stir until dissolved
(optional) Mix in the extras: maybe sugar, milk, etc
Drink and enjoy!
You can modify these directions to suit your taste. Like espresso? Then double the amount of instant coffee or cut down on the amount of water you add to your cup.
Specific instructions on how to make instant coffee are usually indicated on the packaging.
Instant Coffee Tips and Hacks
Instant coffee’s gotten itself a bad rap over the years. And although it’s come a long way since the freeze-dried insta-packs that were so popular in the 70s, why should we settle for good when a few tricks can turn a packet of instant coffee into something GREAT?
Here are four great instant coffee hacks you can try right out on the trail:
Strengthening the aroma: Mixing your instant coffee granules with a spoonful of cold water first helps turn them into a paste. This paste pulls out the natural flavor, making the coffee more robust.
Mocha recipe: Add in a spoonful or two of sweetened or unsweetened cocoa and you’ve got yourself an instant coffee mocha.
A taste of Christmas: Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh cinnamon? Adding cinnamon to your instant coffee is a great way to give it a sweet and spicy kick, while also making your mug smell like a giant Christmas hug.
"Iced" coffee: Wanting an iced coffee for those sweltering days hiking the desert? No problem. Many brands offer hot or cold instant coffee options. All you have to do is mix your packet with some cold water, give it a stir or shake, and wait a few minutes for the granules to dissolve completely.
Storage: For preserving your instant coffee, making sure that it’s sealed airtight will help to prolong its shelf life while out on the trail. This is why individual packs are so handy, as they usually are made with an aluminum layer that helps to keep moisture and heat away. Under these conditions, instant coffee can last anywhere from 10 to 20 years.
Is Instant Coffee Bad for You?
Instant coffee and cancer: coffee contains acrylamide, a chemical common in cooked starchy food that has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in rats. While brewed coffee contains 179 mcg/kg, instant coffee has double that amount most likely due to the heating process that is used to dry the coffee beans and turn them into a powder. But don’t give instant coffee the boot just yet! The acylamide level in coffee is low enough that it does not cause any known health effects, and according to the European Food Safety Authority, it is safe to consume. Moreover, while acrylamide is harmful to rats, it hasn't been shown to cause any harmful effects on human health.
Kidney stones and cholesterol: Instant coffee hasn’t been linked to any substantial impact on kidney stones or raising cholesterol. Just be sure to stay properly hydrated while out on the trail, and maybe don’t plan on drinking 10 cups of instant coffee (or regular coffee) a day. After all, too much of anything is usually not a good thing.
How about the good stuff? Instant coffee contains all the antioxidants that are present in brewed coffee. It also contains small amounts of minerals and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, and niacin (vitamin B3). No matter which type of coffee you drink, you are still getting similar health benefits.
How Is Instant Coffee Made?
Just like most coffee, instant coffee starts with a green bean that is roasted to perfection. The roasted bean then is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to form a concentrate. This concentrated solution is dried using one of two methods - freeze-drying or spray drying.
- Method 1: Spray drying: With spray drying, the liquid coffee mixture is sprayed as a fine mist into hot, dry air. This process causes the droplets to dry as they fall.
- Method 2: Freeze-drying: Freeze-drying is a bit more complicated. The coffee slurry is frozen first into a slushie and then frozen again to -40 degrees F. At this low temp, the coffee turns into a slab of coffee which is then passed through a drying vacuum that vaporizes the ice, removing the water from bean mixture. What remains is a powder that retains most of the aromas of the coffee intact.