Coffee: some people drink it for its fantastic flavor, others for its ability to perk you up. But regardless of why people drink it, no one can deny that there are many different ways to enjoy a nice cup of Joe. Sometimes the wait for your coffee can prove to be just too long, or maybe you're super busy and need it in a pinch, so something like instant coffee may seem like the perfect alternative to your go-to pick-me-up.
However, is instant coffee really the be all end all of the fast coffee? And is having a faster coffee actually better in the end? In this article, I go into depth about the differences between classic ground coffee and the speedy alternative of instant coffee.
What is ground coffee?
Ground coffee is made by grinding up roasted coffee beans. After grinding, it can vary in texture anywhere from almost a powder to very coarse and grainy sand. Some people grind it just enough to make a chunky result, too. It can then be brewed in a number of ways, such as cold brew, espresso, good ol' coffee pots, and more. What you pick mostly depends on your coffee preference, as there isn't really one true way to have coffee. The different variations in the size of ground coffee work better than others in different brewing techniques. For example, a fine grind works best for espresso, while a thick and chunky (medium to coarse) grind work best for cold brew.
Ground coffee is probably the most popular form of coffee, and the one that most people think of when they hear the word coffee.
What is instant coffee?
Instant coffee is made by brewing coffee like the average American: in giant vats. I'm kidding of course. Instant coffee is the world's answer to the question “How do I get my coffee fix in seconds?”
The difference between instant coffee and normal coffee is that this kind is brewed extra concentrated, practically too concentrated to drink straight up. After brewing, this strong instant coffee is transported to chambers where it is either spray-dried or freeze-dried, then ground into powder or very small crystals. There are also some versions of instant coffee that come as more of a super concentrated coffee paste. Warning to my readers: do not lick the coffee goo; tempting as it may be, it is not worth it. Yuck!
Instant coffee isn't nearly as popular as ground coffee is, but it does get the job done and significantly faster than ground coffee does.
Instant coffee flavor profiles and options to choose from
How something tastes can sometimes be the deciding factor on why it's chosen. So, figuring out what has those magical flavors to tantalize your taste buds, and which only provide the taste of sadness will be our first topic. You know, for those of us who don't care for the taste of sadness.
One of the many great things about ground coffee is its delectable and varied flavor profiles. Mind you, those flavors are not just from all the different types of coffee beans there are to pick from, either. While it's true that there are many different roast types, bean types, and even flavored coffee to choose from, each one also happens to have its own unique notes once brewed. Some are nutty, others are fruity, and some taste like dirt for some reason. It's also interesting to note that the way you brew the coffee, the kind of water you use, and the length of time you steep it all play a role in changing the flavors.
Instant coffee, while it retains the most basic flavors of ground coffee, loses those more nuanced notes that tie together coffee's unique taste. Not only that, but the general consensus people seem to have about instant coffee's flavor is that it tends to taste somehow both weak and burnt at the same time.
Why does instant coffee taste burnt?
The reason for instant coffee's burnt flavor is likely because of the process that instant coffee undergoes in order to make it instant. All that extra prep time can actually end up cooking the coffee for longer than it should be, which leads to that burning flavor. Not only that, but since the coffee has already been prepared, and at an unknown time, those delicate flavors can sometimes evaporate before the coffee is preserved, making them no longer present when you re-hydrate the coffee.
Why is instant coffee so weak tasting?
The weakness might be a combination of either too little coffee mix, too much shelf time, or it may have just been the victim of a bad batch. Too much drying time, bad packaging, and poor quality control can make instant coffee weak, too.
What beans are used in instant coffee?
A lot of instant coffee manufacturers tend to use cheaper Robusta beans to make their coffee. These beans are known for their more bitter notes. Add that with all the things I said above about their brewing, and you have a recipe for some pretty bitter, yet weak, tasting coffee.
Not all instant coffee is made with cheap beans, though. Some have higher quality options available to try. Some are even made with fancy Arabica beans (see Amazon), which tend to have more complex flavors to them. While these options still aren't going to taste nearly as good as the freshly ground version, they'll probably taste much better than those cheaper alternatives.
If you're just drinking coffee for the caffeine hit then this probably wouldn't be much of an issue. But if you're someone who enjoys the flavor of coffee, then instant coffee's weird flavor may be too disappointing for you. Its flavor complexities are sometimes akin to that of a car seat.
But before you caffeine concerned connoisseurs pick up some instant coffee for that faster kick-start to your day, we should discuss…
Caffeine content comparison
Okay, so maybe not everyone is concerned about the fancy flavor profile that a cup of coffee has. Maybe you are instead more concerned if it can wake you up from maximum brain fatigue. If that's the case, then you're in luck, as I'll be covering that right now!
If you want something to wake you up fast, then you should avoid instant coffee. Why? Instant coffee, while it is typically made with Robusta beans, still loses a significant amount of the caffeine during its production. If we were to compare two equal amounts of both prepared instant coffee and some freshly brewed coffee made with coffee grounds, the instant coffee would have about half as much caffeine as the fresh coffee.
If you just need coffee in a pinch though and aren't too upset over the loss of caffeine in instant coffee, then it's probably fine. There are even some kinds of high caffeine instant coffee types out there. While they still won't have quite as much caffeine as fresh coffee, the option exists.
Price comparison of instant coffee and ground coffee
Instant coffee and ground coffee have very different price points that should be taken into consideration when deciding which to get. After all, you wouldn't want to spend way too much on coffee if it's not that big a part in your life, or alternatively you wouldn't want to be stuck buying cheap and low-quality coffee forever.
The quality of coffee you're getting usually coincides with the price. That means that your delicious batch of coffee may also be a burden on your wallet, while that cheap cup might be offensive to your tongue. While you can find some reasonably priced grounds, most fancy coffee grounds can cost a pretty penny.
However, when you start looking at higher-end instant coffee, it doesn't typically come anywhere close to the prices that ground coffee comes at. While instant coffee goes through more production time to create, the beans they use tend to be cheaper, so they can lower the price more than other coffee can.
If you're looking for a cheaper alternative to ground coffee, then instant coffee could be what you seek. However, if the price is of no concern to you, then ground coffee is probably a safer bet, on account of all the things its better at.
Brewing and preparing instant coffee vs ground coffee
For some, preparing their coffee is akin to a sacred and delicious ritual. For others, though, they just want the coffee in them as soon as possible. The faster the better.
Ground coffee has a wide selection of preparation techniques, all of which have their own set times they're usually finished at, some can even be fairly quick. You can have a look at my previous article for more preparation techniques: 8 DIFFERENT WAYS ON HOW TO MAKE COFFEE AT HOME
However, it can also sometimes be a pain to get it right. If you're new to the coffee scene then perhaps you've run into this problem before, where you're attempting to make your first cup and it turns out… Less than ideal. Definitely not what other people have been saying about the magical bean water you've heard of, or some of the other coffee you've tasted yourself.
Depending on the form of coffee you're trying to make, it can be a little difficult to remember all of the things you have to do in order to make the perfect cup. You also have to consider the time you have to put into not only preparing the coffee, but your coffee making tools as well. It can be overwhelming.
Instant coffee is, well, instant. Just dump the specified amount of powder, crystals, or paste into hot water or milk and bam, coffee. The inherently speedy nature of this kind of coffee is what makes it so tempting. You mean I can have my coffee right now? Yes, please!
Not only is instant coffee fast, but as I've said, all you have to do is measure out your preferred amount of whatever form and then stir it into some hot water or milk and you've got your coffee. It's fool proof. Even the most zombie-headed of sleepy people could do it.
Even with all that said, some people swear by their coffee rituals, going as far as saying it adds to the fun of the whole coffee experience. My mother is one of those coffee scientists who spends a good ten minutes each morning crafting the perfect cup. It's weird to watch, but fascinating all at once.
I have to admit after you know how to properly make the coffee of your choice, it does start to become like a ritual. It gives the coffee a kind of soul in a way, adding to its character. Something that's missing from the monotonous “adds water to the powder in your cup” deal with instant coffee.
Cleanup and waste management
When picking out a type of coffee, not many people think about the cleanup or the management for each choice, even though both of these are important to take into consideration. For instance, if you live somewhere that has poor or expensive waste management, then you may wish to limit your waste potential. Or maybe you live somewhere with someone else and just want to limit the mess you make.
Ground coffee, no matter your brewing method, is going to leave behind the soggy and unwanted coffee grounds after you're done. You're also going to have to wash and maintain the equipment that you used to make your coffee. While it's true that coffee grounds are perfectly acceptable additions to a compost pile, not everyone lives in a place where that is feasible, so they may have to toss them in the trash.
So, what about instant coffee? What do you have to do for that in terms of cleanup and waste management? Well, after you're done with your coffee, you're going to have to wash both the cup and spoon you used to make it. That's it. Pretty simple, huh?
Guess that makes instant coffee our winner for the overall convenience and cleanup factor. Although, as a quick note, both are going to have their respected packaging to deal with when you've finished all of it. Remember to pick one that comes in a package that you can deal with properly.
Effects on health
Coffee has gotten a bad rap over the years, with large claims of its ill effects on your overall health. Some people even claim it could cause cancer. But what if I told you that coffee was actually not the worst thing ever, and may actually have some sweet health benefits?
Plain ground coffee has quite a few very good effects on the body, surprisingly enough. In only 8 oz of tasty bean water you're getting about 11% of the Daily Value for Vitamin B2, 6% of Vitamin B5, 2% of Vitamin B1, 2% of Vitamin B3, plus a myriad of other essential vitamins and minerals.
You may be looking at those numbers and thinking something like “that's not very much”, and you'd be right. But keep in mind those are for only 8 oz of coffee. Now I'm not sure about you, but I definitely don't drink just 8 oz of coffee every day.
Now, I'm not saying coffee should be counted as a “super food”, but I am saying that it isn't quite as unhealthy as some people freak over.
Of course, all of this goes out of the window if you happen to smother your coffee with added sugars, like the kind of coffee that a coffee shop might have.
But how does instant coffee fair against ground coffee? Instant coffee goes through much more processing than ground coffee does, which can sap some of those nutrients out, making instant coffee nutritionally lacking when compared to freshly made black ground coffee.
Another thing to note: remember when I talked about how instant coffee doesn't have a very pleasant flavor? Well the easiest way to combat that is by adding extra sugars to it. You can probably see where I'm going with this. Just like ground coffee, adding a bunch of sugar and additives to instant coffee kind of defeats the purpose of all those healthy bits.
Instant coffee Vs. ground coffee: pros and cons
Before we finish this journey, I bring to you this pros and cons list for instant coffee and ground coffee, to help tie the whole thing together. Enjoy!
|– Really fast prep|
– Cheaper than ground coffee
– Very convenient on-the-go options available
|– Significantly less caffeine content than ground coffee|
– Weak, sometimes burnt flavor
– Fewer nutritional benefits than ground coffee.
|– Wonderful flavors when brewed properly|
– Plain, black coffee has been shown to have numerous health benefits
– Many different flavors, roasts, and brew types to choose from
|– Much slower prep times than instant coffee|
– Some of the really good types of ground coffee can be expensive
– Can sometimes be easy to mess up
So, if you crave the extra effort to create something that's tasty, good for you, and complex, then ground coffee is where it's at. But, if you just want a quick little something to carry you through the day and you don't care about what it tastes like, then instant coffee has got you covered. While in the end the choice between ground coffee vs instant coffee