The rise of specialty instant coffee

Deniz Karaman
September 21, 2021
specialty instant coffee

Throughout the history of specialty coffee, instant products have traditionally played a bit part role. Instead, roasters have tended to opt for whole bean and ground coffee only, believing that instant lacks the high level of quality and flavour to be deemed “specialty”.

However, with a global market value of more than $12 billion, the instant coffee sector is becoming an increasingly attractive prospect for specialty roasters.

The opportunities of a brand extension and a growing pool of consumers in emerging countries have led a number of roasteries to add instant coffee products to their main product line.

And as more people take an interest in these products, its quality has inevitably improved, challenging preconceived ideas about what soluble coffee can be. To find out more about the rise of specialty instant and why roasters have decided to offer it, I spoke to several leading coffee brands.

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Nescafé brought soluble, freeze-dried instant coffee to the masses

From “coffee cake” to freeze drying

The first form of instant coffee can be traced to 1771, when the British government awarded a patent to John Dring for “coffee compound”. This is believed to have been dried, brewed coffee pressed into a cake.

Almost 100 years later, instant coffee – marketed as “coffee cake” – was handed out to soldiers fighting in the American Civil War.

In 1909, instant coffee entered the mass market, and, by 1914, it had gained widespread popularity, particularly among the US military. During the harsh conditions of the First World War, its caffeine content provided a much-needed boost to soldiers.

However, it wasn’t until Nestlé entered the scene that instant coffee truly took off. After partnering with the Brazilian Coffee Institute to help tackle a post-war coffee surplus, the Swiss brand launched its iconic powdered coffee, Nescafé, in 1938.

The convenience and extended shelf life of Nescafé made it enormously popular during the Second World War, again among the US military, who ordered more than a million cases of it for their troops.

Although the original instant coffee contained equal portions of soluble carbohydrate and coffee, the process was constantly being improved.

In 1963, Maxwell House made history when it launched its freeze-dried instant coffee with characteristics more comparable to fresh coffee. This would come to dominate the market, and, by the 1970s, around a third of all coffee imported into the US was turned into instant.

The emergence of “second wave” coffee shops, such as Peet’s and Starbucks, hit the instant coffee market hard, as consumers began to show a preference for drinks made from freshly roasted beans.

However, the market had already started to grow elsewhere, with countries such as China and Russia buying instant as an affordable first step into the world of coffee. According to Mintel Food and Drink’s associate director, Daisy Li, 32% of Chinese consumers reported drinking instant coffee in 2016.

Specialty instant coffee is a good option for those with on-the-go lifestyles

Why do specialty roasters offer instant coffee?

On-the-go lifestyles

A few years ago, the idea of a “specialty instant” would have been unthinkable for many. Yet today, growing numbers of roasters have added high-quality instant options to their product range. So what’s driving this trend?

Andrés Piñeros is the founder of The Boy & The Bear, a small chain of independent specialty coffee shops in California. He tells me that the decision to create an instant coffee was made while on a trip to Las Vegas.

“My friend Camilo is a farmer and he brought over this mind-blowing coffee when he came to visit me in Los Angeles,” he says. “While he was here, we went on a trip to Las Vegas and took the coffee with us. But when we got to the hotel, we realised we’d forgotten everything we needed to brew it.

“So we ended up using things like a paper towel as a filter paper and a microwave to heat up the water. It was literally the worst way you could brew coffee. Yet, when we drank it, it was still amazing. At that moment, I realised that it was very difficult to ruin a coffee if the raw ingredients themselves were great.”

This led Andrés to explore the possibility of instant coffee sachets. Not only would it bring The Boy & The Bear to new corners of the market, it would allow people to enjoy their coffee on the go.

“We realised there was demand for great coffee for those who like the outdoors a lot to still have access to coffee without having to bring all the equipment,” Andrés explains. “I want to be hiking and get to a rock in the middle of nowhere and still be able to brew my coffee, without having to bring all the equipment you need to do so.”

Minimising the number of brewing steps means customers experience the coffee the way the roaster wants them to

Controlling variables & brand extension

While many still maintain that instant is an inferior way of consuming coffee, others argue the complete opposite. Founder of Yardstick Coffee, Andre Chanco, explains that for him, instant coffee is a way for roasters to ensure their coffee is enjoyed at its best. 

“You might source an expensive SL 28 or geisha, but the chances of someone dialling that coffee correctly might be low to medium,” he tells me. “If we control all those variables right the way down to brewing, whether it’s a capsule or a freeze dried coffee, it reassures me that the customer is tasting the coffee the way we think it should be tasted.”

It also acts as a brand extension, helping to knock down perceptions of specialty coffee as an exclusive product and make it more widely accessible.

“At Yardstick, we see these formats as a brand extension for existing customers and to attract new customers with the idea that they might eventually find themselves moving onto whole beans,” Andre says.

“If you look at all the roasters from around the world, it’s nice to keep on sourcing competition coffee, all these unique lactic fermentation coffees etc. But I feel that only speaks to a specific audience. We started Yardstick to enlarge the pie for everyone.”

The quality of instant coffee is improving as more and more specialty roasters enter products into the market

Whether you’re looking to promote your main product line or make them the focal point, instant coffee products are becoming an increasingly popular option for specialty roasters. In addition to being compact and convenient, they offer customers a quick, on-the-go fix without the need to carry lots of coffee-making equipment.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options for specialty coffee roasters, including instant coffee packaging and design. We can help you create the perfect coffee bag for your brand using sustainable materials and eye-catching design.

You can select coffee bags made from eco-friendly materials including kraft paper, rice paper, PLA, and LDPE. Our packaging can also be customised with additional components, such as resealable zippers and degassing valves, helping preserve the freshness of the coffee.

For information about our customisable coffee bags, contact our team.

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Deniz Karaman
Deniz Karaman

Deniz has been a writer for MTPak Coffee for several years and is very passionate about her craft.

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