Almost all of us began our coffee journeys with instant coffee. That first sip of milky, sweet, strong instant coffee made at home wowed us and got us hooked to it for life, sweet memories, aren’t they? Either that, or the traditional South Indian filter coffee. And yet, instant coffee is quite a touchy topic for coffee aficionados everywhere. Some call it fake, some call it weak, some will even judge you for it. Well, to each his own, we believe everybody is free to drink a brew of their choice, instant or otherwise.
But the question that boggles us is how does coffee become ‘instant’ coffee? You keep ground coffee in an open container on a humid monsoon evening, and it would still be free-flowing and won’t stain. I can say this with full confidence because just last year I had quite some amount of coffee ground to fine Turkish coffee size spilled by someone, I was a witness, and it could be easily brushed off & cleaned up. In contrast, you can wrap your bottle of instant coffee in multiple layers and seal it in the tightest container you find, and still, the next time you open it, you will find big, dark lumps that used to be instant coffee granules.
What exactly causes this transformation? How does coffee go from being absolutely insoluble to becoming extremely hygroscopic?
Curious? Read on.
There are two ways instant coffee is generally produced –
- Spray drying
- Freeze drying
Spray-Dried Instant Coffee
For this, a strong liquid coffee concentrate is first prepared. This is then passed through a spraying apparatus located at quite a height and has very small holes, converting the liquid concentrate to a fine mist. This mist is exposed to very, very dry hot air at about 480 degrees Fahrenheit. To put this into perspective – the normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, while the water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes coffee to dry up instantaneously and form crystals as all water gets evaporated. These crystals are devoid of moisture and are meant to be extremely hygroscopic (will absorb moisture in seconds, basically, without any effort).
Spray drying is the most commonly used process for making instant coffee.
Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee
Needless to say, freeze-drying is a more expensive and more tedious process compared to spray drying. Coffee is cooked to form a coffee extract. This extract is cooled down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit to form what you could call a coffee slushy (sounds delicious, doesn’t it?). This coffee slushy is then chilled further using a belt, a drum, or a tray to a temperature of -40 degrees Celsius. This yields slabs of frozen coffee. The slabs are then broken down into granules which get dried in a strong vacuum, where the moisture (ice) would be vaporized and separated, leaving behind the delicious instant coffee granules, ready to use.
Simply put, to make instant coffee, the coffee is first processed, roasted, ground, brewed, and then dried to make it ‘instant’. And since it is already brewed once, it is considered as weaker or ‘fake’ coffee (It is not fake, though). The instant coffee market thrives on consistency and convenience, so you won’t get the beautiful notes that ground coffee would give you in the cup. However, with instant coffee, you have the scope of adding delicious flavors to the coffee while manufacturing, as well as later, while brewing your cup. Popular flavors include – vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, cinnamon, chocolate, etc. As a rule of thumb, instant coffee would likely have lesser caffeine than regular ground coffee. But it has roughly twice as much of a very harmful compound called acrylamide, which forms when coffee gets roasted. However, its levels are still well below the safe-level, so drinking instant coffee in moderation is not going to be harmful.
I personally gave up on instant coffee a long time ago. The more I learnt, the more I realized that there’s so much to learn and understand about coffee that instant coffee would never make the cut for me. For me, instant coffee was just a cup of coffee, and after all these years, I still can’t make a cup of instant coffee well. I never know how much sugar or how much milk or how much coffee to add. Even today, I ask my sister to add in the things in the cup when I am home and coffee is being made for everyone. And I probably might still choose to have a cup of Bournvita over instant coffee. Bournvita, I can make.
Compared to this, I find coffee beans more welcoming, more interesting, more complex, more mysterious, and more intriguing. Every since I began exploring this world, there has been no looking back. There’s so many variables at play, and there’s so, so much I don’t know. Each cup reveals something different about the coffee – the roast, the brewing method, the brewing time, the brewing temperature, the type of water used, where the coffee was grown, how it is processed, being just some of the variables that can change the cup I am having. Each time I try something new, I get nervous, wondering if I am tasting the coffee the way the planter and the roaster intended it. It has been a great journey so far, I hope to keep progressing on it further. I would recommend you to try it too, if this is something you find interesting.
What do you think? Do you like the coffee beans or would you rather stick to instant coffee? Tell me in the comments below, or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie.