Life

The Best Instant Coffee Brands, Blind Tested And Ranked By A True Coffee Lover

I’m not one of those “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning coffee“-types of people (which is to say, not an asshole), but… I sympathize. Nothing kicks off your day like that first cup. It jolts you straight from the serene embrace of slumber and sharpens your mind for the work day. It snaps you to attention, gets your heart beating, and sends energy coursing through your veins (it’s cocaine lite!).

Plus it’s (theoretically) kinda good for you!

But running to grab that coveted morning coffee (or taking the time to properly brew your own) doesn’t always fit in with your routine. Even hitting the drive-thru can become a mission. Which is where instant coffee comes in. Yes, we know how that sounds, but fear not — instant coffee has come a long way. For every jar of basic ass Folgers, there’s a new, sustainably sourced upstart trying to do instant coffee “different.”

Are the bold claims from new brands meaningful or is it all just marketing jargon? To find out, we bought up 14 of the most popular instant coffees on grocery market shelves and available online. From the stuff your grandpa drinks to the coffee they sip at SpaceX, this blind test will make it crystal clear who deserves a permanent spot in your kitchen cupboard for those days that hitting the coffee shop is impossible.

Let’s drink!

Methodology

For this blind taste test, I had each coffee prepared for me following each brand’s specifications. This was to ensure the most consistent concentration of coffee and avoid any issues that might arise from bad math or skewed ratios. I then sampled three sips from each brew in groups of four, swishing lemon water between each sample, followed by a big gulp of plain water to cleanse the palate. Next, I jotted down some tasting notes and then laid down until my heart stopped going nuts.

Each coffee was tasted black with no sugar.

Here are the brands in this tasting:

  • Cafe Bustelo — Espresso Instant Coffee
  • Deathwish Coffee Co — Instant Coffee
  • Folgers — Classic Roast
  • Intelligentsia — Instant Coffee House Blend
  • Maxwell House — The Original Roast Instant Coffee
  • Mount Hagen — Organic Fair Trade Instant Coffee
  • Nescafe — Classico
  • Nescafe — Taster’s Choice House Blend
  • Simply Truth Organic — Instant Coffee
  • Starbucks — Via Instant Pike Place Roast
  • Waka Coffee — Light Roast
  • Whole Foods 365 — Instant Coffee Vienna Roast

What Makes Good Coffee Good?

A lot of things go into making good coffee good. The quality and type of beans, the roast (though this is more preferential), the ratio of water-to-bean, the grind, the brew time, the preparation — there are a lot of variables. Of course, we’re dealing with instant coffee, so the subtleties and complexities are much more muted here.

Most instant coffees play fast and loose with their ratios, using directions like “a rounded teaspoon” or “to taste” or call for an amount of water anywhere between six and ten ounces. That’s sacrilege to a certain sect of coffee snobs, but it’s not a bad thing. Instant coffee knows its lane.

Depending on origin — which is another thing instant coffee doesn’t really concern itself with, for the most part — great coffee can be fruity, earthy, floral, nutty, and/or toasty. A good brew strikes a nice balance between acidity, aromatics, and sweetness. It’s always bitter but shouldn’t be wince-inducingly so. A great brew can recall roasted nuts, deep chocolate notes, floral undertones, rich caramel flavors, and nods to stone fruit like cherries, plums, or apricots (which makes a lot of sense when you consider coffee beans themselves are the pits of a stone fruit). Sometimes, depending on the brewing method, a single bean can present all of those flavors at once. It’s complex stuff, and while instant coffee isn’t quite as nuanced, we’re still looking for a brew that is balanced, offers a layered flavor notes, and takes us on a journey.

The Tasting

Taste 1

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Surprisingly smooth, this coffee isn’t too bitter and has a nice sweet vanilla lift on the backend. It leans on the light roast side, with a brightness to it that never overstays its welcome on the palate.

Taste 2

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Awful. This is the sort of stuff coffee snobs imagine when they hear the words “instant coffee.” This is honestly some of the worst coffee I’ve ever had, it’s highly acidic with an overly bitter aftertaste and comes off as dirty. It’s as if the liquid was strained through the roots of a house plant. That might sound like a weird descriptor, but there is an undeniable plant-y quality here that isn’t present in any coffee I’ve ever tasted.

From my notes: “It’s what I imagine mold to taste like.”

Taste 3

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Pretty good and a leap up from the last taste. It has a slightly rich body with warm toasted hazelnut notes but leaves your palate with a thud of bitterness that you’ll want to mask with another sip. That’s not uncommon of instant coffees though and this isn’t bad by any means — a perfectly serviceable cup but nothing to write home about either.

Taste 4

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Nutty on the nose with a toasted flavor and a bit of caramelized brown sugar on the backend. It’s dessert-like and naturally sweet. On its own I don’t love it but it seems an ideal candidate for some milk and cream.

Taste 5

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

This one is really pleasing. On the nose, I’m getting distinct chocolate tones with a really complex body. This tastes very reminiscent of actual dark chocolate, with an intense but sumptuous bitterness that makes you eager for the next sip rather than bracing yourself for it.

From my notes: “By far the best up until this point.”

Taste 6

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Incredibly neutral. It has almost nothing to grasp onto, there are gentle toasted notes, and hints of vanilla, but overall this one comes off a bit flavorless. It’s not off-putting by any means and has a nice smoothness but desperately needs milk, sugar, creamer… something. ANYTHING.

Taste 7

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Significantly darker than the other brews up until this point. Toasted almonds and nutmeg dominate the flavor, which is complex and distinct on the palate but leaves a dull metallic after-taste that is pretty off-putting.

From my notes: “A surprisingly disappointing finish for such a strong start.”

Taste 8

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

A bit creamy with a balanced blend of cocoa and molasses flavors, but, like the last taste, this has a blunt, bitter finish that lingers way too long. There is a slight sourness to this one, but that’s something that I imagine can be easily masked with sugar or creamer.

Taste 9

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Very easy to drink, almost water-like. Light cocoa notes on the nose with a slightly nutty, almond flavor. It’s ultimately kind of boring, I wish those flavor notes were a bit richer. It’s a struggle to really taste this one — it feels noticeably weaker in comparison to the others.

Taste 10

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

The flipside of Taste 9, this one is dark and distinct with a very robust character. I’m getting slight notes of tobacco leaf, chocolate cocoa, clove, and molasses. A real journey of flavors that ends with a pleasingly bitter aftertaste.

Taste 11

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Perhaps this one is suffering from following the bouquet of flavors that was Taste 10, but this one is flat, generic, and lacking character. All I’m getting here is a roasted quality with a neutral aftertaste.

From my notes: “Pretty boring.”

Taste 12

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Bitter and bland. It has high acidity with a slightly sour after taste and a blunt finish. A sad, sad close.

The Ranking

12. Folgers — Classic Roast (Taste 2)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $5.26

The Coffee:

Who is drinking this stuff, cowboys? How is Folgers this big a brand with coffee this rancid? It is by far the worst coffee I’ve ever had. No doubt at all.

Folgers’ Classic Roast is classified as a medium roast. The quality of this coffee is noticeably poor and (almost suspiciously), Folgers doesn’t make any big claims on their site — no words about sustainability, fair trade, or their production methods. What are they hiding from us?!

This is as factory-produced as coffee gets and it tastes like death. Too harsh? Try it. If anything I”m being too nice.

The Bottom Line:

We dare you to attempt to drink this stuff without wanting to spit it out as soon as it hits your tongue. It’s everything bad about instant coffee in a single product.

11. Nescafé — Classico (Taste 12)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $6.39

The Coffee:

Nescafé claims that they use 100% pure coffee (as opposed to what?) from respectfully grown coffee beans that have been “carefully” roasted, but it’s marginally better than Folgers. It’s a much darker roast and that bitterness helps to mask that there isn’t a lot of complexity going on here.

It’s not poison, but it’s not enjoyable enough to warrant a grocery store pick up.

The Bottom Line:

This is Nescafé’s bottom of the barrel blend. The brand sells a more flavorful and distinctive brew for just a few dollars more and it’s worth every penny, whereas this isn’t worth a cent! Skip it.

10. Waka Coffee — Light Roast (Taste 11)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $11.99 (8 Single Servings)

The Coffee:

Waka is a brand that loves its buzzwords. The coffee is single-origin from India and made from 100% Arabica beans which are supposed to offer a rich and complex flavor. The coffee is freeze-dried to preserve maximum flavor. That sounds great on paper, but unfortunately, you can’t really taste any of it. I’m not saying those terms are meaningless, but when it comes to this brand’s actual flavor, all of those terms don’t make it taste any better or more noteworthy.

The blend we chose for this blind taste testing was the brand’s light roast, so… maybe try the dark?

The Bottom Line:

If you want to feel good about the coffee you’re buying, sure, give Waka a try, but for the money, there are better brands.

9. Maxwell House — The Original Roast Instant Coffee (Taste 8)

Blind COffee Taste Test
Maxwell House

Average Price: $4.98

The Coffee:

Maxwell House offers about the same quality as Folgers but the flavor is a lot less offensive. The blend is based on Maxwell House’s Original Roast ground coffee, but I can’t speak to how well it mimics the flavor as I’ve never had the ground version. According to Google, the brand’s instant coffee was discontinued in 2018 but it can still be found at a whole host of retailers which I’d take as a pretty bad sign overall.

It’s still not the worst coffee in this line-up. It’s a bit more distinct and characterful than the Waka brand, but the aftertaste is pretty unpleasant and dull.

The Bottom Line:

It’s still not the worst coffee in this line-up. It’s a bit more distinct and characterful than the Waka brand, but the aftertaste is pretty unpleasant and dull.

8. Simple Truth Organic — Instant Coffee (Taste 9)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $5.94

The Coffee:

Simple Truth is organically grown, fair trade certified, kosher and doesn’t feature any preservatives or GMOs. It’s part of Kroger’s Simple Truth organic label which produces just about everything, from plant-based meats to pasta sauces. Being under such a vast umbrella of products might be why this blend lacks distinction, but it’s a step up production-wise compared to brands like Folgers and Maxwell House and tastes better too.

The Bottom Line:

Much better in production practices than the big brands like Folgers and Maxwell House and similarly priced. We’d still say this brand isn’t worth your money though.

7. Starbucks — Via Instant Pike Place Roast (Taste 4)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $5.38 (8 Single Servings)

The Coffee:

This is the first brand on this ranking so far that we’d actually recommend you spend money on. It’s far away from my favorite but I have to admit, as someone who thinks Starbucks makes some pretty awful coffee, this is easily one of the better instants. According to Starbucks the medium roast coffee is ethically sourced and ethically grown and is made using 100% Arabica beans. It is named after the Starbucks Seattle location in Pike Place.

The Bottom Line:

A bit sweet but all-around pleasant. If the other Starbucks Via Instant blends are half as good as this one, we’d say Starbucks has a pretty strong roster of instant coffees. If only their ground coffee was this good.

6. Nescafe — Taster’s Choice House Blend (Taste 3)

Blind Taste Test Coffee
Nescafe

Average Price: $7.49

The Coffee:

This one truly surprised me. Nescafé’s Clasico blend is so acidic and bland that I was expecting this to be a marginal step up but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this “Taster’s Choice” brew has a lot to offer. This roast is much lighter than the Clasico, presenting toasted notes of hazelnut, and it doesn’t suffer from the slightly sour qualities of the cheaper blend.

The Bottom Line:

Noticeably light with a nice and pleasing nutty body. One of the best brands for the money.

5. Cafe Bustelo — Espresso Instant Coffee (Taste 7)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $2.19

The Coffee:

I’m not at all surprised that a majority of the top five brands on this ranking are on the pricier end. For the most part, coffee is like whiskey — the more money you put into it the more distinct the character and the better the overall experience. But it doesn’t explain how Cafe Bustelo, which is easily the cheapest brand on this list, has ranked this highly. Yes, the aftertaste is dull, bitter, and overstays its welcome but on the palate this coffee is full of character, offering deep hazelnut notes with a chocolatey finish.

The Bottom Line:

It doesn’t taste the best but it truly punches above its class and offers the best value on this list. In a pinch it gets the job done.

4. Mount Hagen — Organic Fair Trade Instant Coffee (Taste 6)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $14.99

The Coffee:

When I reached out to friends about their favorite instant coffee brands, the name Mount Hagen came up again and again. I get it, it’s pretty good and the production practices are great. The coffee is organic and fair trade certified and the brand touts that every granule was planted, cultivated, harvested, processed, and packed by workers that are paid both fairly and respectfully.

Just hearing that makes you want to believe it tastes better and it does taste a lot better than a lot of the other brands on this list, but it didn’t have enough of a distinct character to really win me over. This is a neutralness to this coffee that I just found a bit boring flavor-wise.

The Bottom Line:

It’s definitely worth picking up, especially if you’ve always been curious about this brand. Flavor-wise it’s a bit too neutral to earn top-three status though, but it’ll probably work great if you don’t drink your coffee black.

3. Whole Foods 365 — Instant Coffee Vienna Roast (Taste 1)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $6.49

The Coffee:

I never like Whole Foods branded products, so when it was revealed to me that Taste 1 was Whole Foods I was pretty shocked. The coffee isn’t organic and Whole Foods makes no mention of fair trade practices but it is certified Kosher and features a medium-dark roast full of character and distinct flavor.

The Bottom Line:

It might be just a bit overpriced for what you get, but the flavor is on point and is one of the best brands you can find under the $10 mark.

2. Deathwish Coffee Co — Instant Coffee (Taste 10)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $14.99 (8 Single Servings)

The Coffee:

Death Wish Coffee Co’s instant coffee was invented specifically for astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket, meaning when you drink this stuff, you’re drinking the coffee of astronauts. I have to admit that’s pretty f*cking cool, but I also wanted to hate this brand for charging $14.99 for an 8 count of single-serving packets.

That’s almost $2 per packet, which is absurd when a brand like Cafe Bustelo exists. Money aside though… this stuff is pretty damn good.

The Bottom Line:

It’s a bouquet of flavors with a strong kick that will literally help you power through a space mission. This brand comes with a lot of hype and I’m happy to say that it’s all justified. The price isn’t, but we can’t deny that this was one of the best-tasting brews in the lineup.

1. Intelligentsia — Instant Coffee House Blend (Taste 5)

Instant Coffee Blind Taste Test
Dane Rivera

Average Price: $14 (5 Single Servings)

The Coffee:

Here we are at the number one pick. This coffee comes from the Chicago-based company and retailer, Intelligentsia, which also has a pretty strong presence in Los Angeles. According to the brand, Intelligentsia’s coffee moves from the farm directly to the roasting works in Chicago and LA, where the brand produces over fifty single-origin coffees annually. The instant coffee is based on the brand’s House Blend and overall offers a more distinct journey of flavors than Deathwish.

As soon as we took a sip of this brew we knew it had the number one spot on lock, it’s that good. Yes, Intelligentsia is easily the most “hipster” brand of coffee, beloved by LA coffee snobs and priced ridiculously high to the point of being offensive, but… we have to give it to the hipsters, they know their coffee. This is the best instant coffee you’ll ever drink and single-handedly makes the case for the very existence of instant coffee itself.

The Bottom Line:

It’s like dark chocolate melted down into caffeinated perfection. It’s toasty, sweet, distinct, and completely palatable black, with no cream, sugar, or milk necessary. Adding those ingredients will take it to another world — one that I personally didn’t think could be reached by instant coffee at all.

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