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Though small, the specialty instant coffee market seems poised for growth

Tim Nelson
September 11, 2018

Thanks to a proliferation of preparation methods and a saturation of shops, buying and/or making coffee has arguably never been easier. At the same time, an improved global supply chain has placed a greater emphasis on artisanal beans and gourmet blends.

Anyone who’s ever worked in an office with a Keurig wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that convenience and quality are mutually exclusive when it comes to coffee. But a growing movement of third wave coffee roasters is teaming up with scrappy instant coffee startups to prove that a quality instant cup truly is possible.

What separates the cutting-edge of instant coffee from the Folgers and Maxwell Houses of the world is an emphasis on well-sourced raw materials and an innovative process. For example, San Francisco company Sudden Coffee is working with Chicago roasting company Intelligentsia, uses a single-origin coffee from Peru as its base. To start, a small batch of the coffee is brewed as normal. But instead of applying heat to transform the coffee into dry crystals, Sudden Coffee’s method involves freeze-drying in a vacuum at temperatures as low as -80ºF before dehydration. Though complex, this method maintains its distinct flavor profile and aroma in a way that mass producers simply cannot.

In Sudden and Intelligentsia’s case, the end result is Rayos Del Sol, sold in airtight single-serve tubes. With a retail price of 4 for $13, it’s more expensive than mass-market instant coffee, but cheaper and more convenient than a high-end pour over. Competitors like Voila and Swift Cup also hover around a price point of $2-$3 per serving.

Between the sourcing and the processing, Sudden CEO and co-founder Joshua Zloof of Sudden admits making a worthwhile instant coffee is a challenging process. “It was much harder than we thought it would be,” Zloof told the Chicago Tribune. “The challenge is in the brewing and freezing. We had to develop new processes around both.”

But based on what Sudden and competitors in the nascent space like Swift Cup and Kickstarter-backed Voila have to say, the extra effort is worth it. Not only because the coffee itself tastes good, but because the specialty instant coffee process forges new partnerships between roasters and coffee tech companies that can make their blends accessible to a wider audience.

“From the start, I had felt that instant provided an amazing potential to explore several different roasters all in your back pocket,” Voila founder Kent Sheridan told the Tribune. “Our customers get so excited to try all of the different roasters we’re partnered with. It keeps things fresh and spreads the love.”

For the moment, the size of the market is still small. But with market research company Euromonitor reporting that nearly half of the coffee the world drinks is instant, the opportunity to bring excellent yet simple coffee to the masses is hard to understate. It’ll likely take a little while longer for supply to catch up with hypothetical demand, but don’t be surprised if pouring a tube of crystals into hot water someday yields the best damn cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.  

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