What Is Instant Coffee?

What is instant coffee? Does it come from the same plant as regular coffee?

Although some might say that instant coffee is a nightmare that happens when you visit your grandma’s house, it’s actually the result of a multistep process the beans go through to turn them into water-soluble crystals.

First, they’re roasted, ground, and brewed with powerful extraction equipment: The beans are passed through pressurized cells to get the most carbohydrates and flavor compounds out of them. Next, the brewed coffee is filtered and treated to create a concentrated extract. Then one of three things happens: The coffee is put through a centrifuge to pull out the water from the extract; the water is allowed to evaporate out before the hot, brewed extract is cooled; or the coffee is cooled until the water freezes, and the ice crystals are then extracted from the concentrate. Finally, the coffee concentrate is dehydrated through either spray drying or freeze drying, and some volatile aromatic elements that have been lost in the process are reintroduced.

The coffee industry is dominated by two species of beans: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta, also known as canephora. The mild and aromatic arabica is grown at higher altitudes in Latin America, India, and Indonesia; takes longer to come to fruit than robusta varieties; and is more expensive. It’s generally used for fresh-brewed, higher-quality coffee. Robusta beans are grown in Africa, India, and Indonesia; and have a harsher flavor. But they’re hardier, more disease-resistant, and cheaper to grow. They’re often used to make less expensive coffees, including instant.

Chicago-based Japanese chemist Satori Kato was the unwitting inventor of instant coffee when, in 1901, he invented a process for making instant tea. Nestlé later applied it to java, bringing us that delicious late-night study tool known affectionately as instant.