Taste Test: The Best Instant Coffee

Instant Coffee Brands That Stack Up To The Real Stuff

If you're too cheap to buy a coffee maker and you love your morning java, instant coffee might be the way to go. Sure, it doesn't get any of the respect of traditionally brewed coffee, but it saves you time and money. The real question is, what's the difference?

The good news: Our tasters found that the top 5 finishers in our taste test weren't discernible from regular coffee.

But what exactly is lost in the process that turns regular coffee into those shiny, crystal-like granules? Health-wise, it turns out, not much. Flavor-wise, it's completely subjective (that is, after all, why we're conducting this taste test). A big difference is in the experience. There's something to be said for the slow savoring of your morning cup o' joe -- the leisurely drip and the slow sip vs. the five-alarm panic of the daily grind.

The stigma surrounding instant coffee is perpetuated even by its manufacturers. In a 1983 Folgers Crystals commercial, the coffee is glamorized as "dark, sparkling" crystals, but diners at a high-end restaurant have to be tricked into drinking it. The tagline, "Folgers Crystals: Coffee rich enough to be served in America's finest restaurants," indicates there was reason to doubt the product in the first place.

Instant was invented in 1901 by a Japanese scientist in Chicago, but the business boomed during World War II thanks to a lucky coincidence -- the same technology that produces penicillin and blood plasma, which was developed during the war for military use, is what makes instant coffee.

So what's instant coffee made from? The same beans you'll find in traditionally brewed coffee, roasted using the same method -- plus two additional steps. Not all brands use the exact same method, but most manufacturers A) dissolve the roasted beans in water to concentrate the coffee solution, and then B) dry that product out by either freeze-drying or spray-drying. That final step is what creates either crystals or a powdery substance.

Essentially, adding hot water to instant coffee just rehydrates the granules. And voila, you've got a cup of coffee. (We should also mention that instant coffee is credited as making a pretty decent cup of iced coffee.)

But not all instant coffees are created equal. We blind-tasted 20 brands to find out what tastes the best. See the results below.

What's your favorite instant coffee? Leave us a comment!

#1: Starbucks Via Colombia
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "It's got a classic, enjoyable aroma." "This tastes like real, normal coffee." "Bitter and earthy tasting." "Rounded finish but lacking taste upfront." "Very balanced -- even complex. Chocolate overtones." "Smells like real coffee. Very strong and bitter, in a good way." "So close to tasting like a good cup of coffee!"
#2: Jacobs: Kronung
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
(made by Kraft Foods Deutschland)Comments: "Oaky aroma and flavor." "Not bad -- tastes like regular coffee." "Inoffensive and fine, but a little bitter." "Totally drinkable!" "This is instant? Not bad!"
#3: Starbucks Via Italian Roast
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Intensely rich." "Real coffee flavor." "Nice nutty flavor." "Watery but highly drinkable." "Very bitter, but possibly good with sugar." "Smells like real coffee." "Watery but not offensive."
#4: Bustelo Supreme
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Tastes like an average cup of regular coffee." "Nice aroma!" "Starts okay but finishes harshly." "Reminiscent of diner coffee." "A strong roasted bean flavor."
#5: Mount Hagen
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Inoffensive." "This tastes like normal coffee to me." "The flavor is nuanced and sweet. Solid." "Burned and complex." "A solid cup of coffee, but very bitter aftertaste."
#6: Giraldo Farms
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "This left a powdery coating on my tongue." "Caramel flavor." "Watery but not wretched." "Nice and mild." Note: In a previous version of this story, this brand of instant coffee was mistakenly called 100 % Colombian, when it should have been Giraldo Farms.
#7: Medaglia D'Oro Instant Espresso Coffee
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Smoky finish." "Bold flavor." "A little nutty." "Funky." "Very dark but not enough coffee flavor."
#8: Chock Full O'Nuts
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Bitter and slightly chemical." "Unpleasant aroma but okay taste." "Weak." "Potable. Some light sweetness." "I might not have known this was instant."
#9: Tchibo Family
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
(made in Germany)Comments: "Tastes dirty -- actually like dirt." "Bland." "A little too weak." "Pours dark, but the taste is average." "Starts good, but it has a very bitter aftertaste." "Smells like instant." "Looks like a nice dark roast, but the taste is weak."
#10: 365 Everyday Value
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Neutral and nutty." "Harsh, yet thin." "Fairly good, not too bitter." "Tastes rancid to me."
#11: Starbucks Via French Roast
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Smells like a forest fire." "Burned! This must be Starbucks." "Too strong, with a bad aftertaste." "Sandy and acrid." "As bitter as aspirin." "Smells like espresso. Very strong flavor." "Smells like burned drip coffee or a very old coffee pot."
#12: Mountain Blend
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Mild and earthy." "Average." "Fine, but definitely tastes like instant." "Smells acrid and tastes bland." "Dishwater."
#13: Sanka
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Tastes like poison." "Too thin and watery." "Bitter!" "Complex aroma, decent brew." "Not pleasant." "Sour!" "Strangely sweet."
#14: Jacobs: Cronat Gold
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
(made by Kraft Foods Deutschland)Comments: "Very acidic." "Almost no flavor at all." "Sweet and watery." "Thin and bitter." "On the bitter end of the spectrum." "Too sour and watery." "Fairly prominent chemical aftertaste."
#15: Cafe Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Foul raisin odor." "Tastes like soggy paper." "A little on the weak side." "Bitter, chemical smell." "Tastes like cheap red wine, or over-brewed black tea." "Not really drinkable."
#16: Folgers Classic Roast
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Sour and chemically." "Terrible, sweet lingering aftertaste." "Toxic nose -- hard to bring oneself to drink." "Some bright, fruity notes."
#17: Nescafe Clasico
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "An odd flavor that I can't place." "Really gross. Far too sweet." "Industrial chemical aroma, and harsh taste." "Undrinkable." "Watery and awful." "Smells like alcohol, and tastes like the last watered down sip of an overly sweet cocktail."
#18: Maxwell House Original
Comments: "Smells startlingly sweet, like artificial sweetener." "No coffee flavor at all in this." "Offputting aroma, wretched taste." "Awful aroma." "Smells atrocious. No coffee taste, all chemicals."
#19: Taster's Choice: House Blend
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Potent!" "Awful. Tastes like weird chemicals and raisins." "Acrid. Smells acidic." "A little grainy and bitter, but good strength." "Extremely artificial tasting." "Bitter!"
#20: Ferrara Instant Espresso Coffee
Joseph Erdos/The Huffington Post
Comments: "Tastes like tar. Sludge-like." "The worst! Gross sludge." "Gross, thick and bitter." "Pours like tar. Smells like livestock. Foul." "Tastes like tea made of charcoal." "Looks and tastes like sludge. Just terrible."
WATCH: How to Make an Instant Iced Cappuccino
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