A deep dive into the world of fancy, single-serve instant coffee packets
Call it addiction or dependency or desire, but if I don’t drink a few ounces of coffee before noon, I'm in trouble. This has made certain overnight trips to vacation rentals and tea-only friends' homes challenging. The coffee available to me in these moments is typically from an tin of pre-ground grocery store coffee that was opened by someone else probably about five years earlier. It is never good. To avoid this, I’ve started traveling with instant coffee. No, I’m not talking about a jar of dusty Sanka. There's way better stuff out there. The mark of a good instant coffee to me is twofold: 1) it must come in individual packages, ideal for tossing in a toiletry kit or jacket pocket, and 2) it must actually taste like good coffee.
So I set out to find the best of the best when it comes to instant coffee packets. I tried them all black to get the purest experience. Mind you, these are all very good instant coffees, and I would drink any one of them happily.
I mean no disrespect to Starbucks when I put Via in 8th place—in fact, I’ve been carrying at least two packets of this instant coffee in my purse for caffeine-related emergencies since college. Still, the competition was fierce, and the French Roast Via was so strong it bordered on tasting burnt. However, with a good splash of milk, I would drink it without question.
I was slightly disappointed with this one. Perhaps I hold Joe coffee to a higher standard? The Daily certainly wasn’t bad, but it was only nominally better than the Via.
Strikingly less bitter than the previous two coffees, Alpine was fine and good, like drip coffee from a decent cafe. Yet I can’t say it made as big an impact on me as the more highly ranked coffees, so numero six it is.
I remain fascinated by how popular Four Sigmatic, the instant coffee for the wellness generation, has gotten in the last year. The drink combines the age-old (but newly trendy) concept of medicinal mushrooms—which people have found to aid myriad health complications, from inflammation to trouble focusing—with instant coffee. I happened to use their chaga mushroom coffee with cordyceps for this test, but none of these coffees actually taste like mushrooms. It was a good cup of strong coffee, but I was still craving a bit of milk to cut the bitterness.
An older Extra Crispy story ranked Mount Hagen the best of the worst jarred instant coffees. That piece knocked the brand for being significantly more expensive than the others on the list; on this list, it's actually one of the cheaper brands that make individual packets. Plus, the coffee is actually very good—unlike many of the others, it actually smelled like real coffee, and the flavor was strong and smooth.
Unlike the rest of the coffees, which were single-serving pouches, Jiva Cubes are sold as hunks of solid coffee, like large sugar cubes. It smelled great—not necessarily like a mocha latte, but slightly cocoa-y. Pretty mild in strength, it definitely didn’t need any milk. Perhaps the fact that this coffee was sweetened and contained mocha extract screwed up the curve, but guess what, I don’t care.
The San Francisco-based Sudden Coffee partnered with Chicago's Intelligentsia to make their cute little vials of instant coffee (we went more in depth on their background in another story). I know I’d get made fun of if I pulled out one of these at the diner instead of getting drip coffee, but it would be worth it. This cup smelled like a real cup of good coffee from a place that would call itself a “roastery.” It was strong and tasted great.
I didn’t want to like Canyon Coffee as much as I did. Founded by an unfairly good-looking couple with large Instagram followings, based in LA, the brand has the trappings of being hipster bait, like gold squiggle designs and all-lower-case labels. But I’m happy to report that Canyon Coffee is as good as it looks. Slightly floral and more acidic than the other instant coffees I tried, this one was the hands-down winner.