The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that K-cups aren't just instant coffee in a little vacuum-sealed plastic cup. This is a thing that I believe, and I believe it even more now that we know that the Juicero is nothing more than an elaborate device that punctures a bag of fruit pulp. There are plenty of reasons to not want to actually make real coffee. It takes like ten minutes and some people (like me until I was 26) are intimidated by the prospect of using a coffee maker. But, for those of you who don’t want to make your own coffee or buy it at a coffee shop, there is a third way that doesn’t involve dropping $75 on a Keurig. That third way is instant coffee, a product that has existed for nearly 140 years and has a reputation of being gross as shit.
But is this reputation unearned? I wanted to find out. So, I bought six brands of instant coffee––four from Walgreens, two from Whole Foods––and put them to the test. My extremely unscientific taste-test method involved following whatever directions were on the back of the jar, having at least a sip, and hoping it wasn’t too terrible. On the whole, I’d say the best instant coffee is about as good as whatever you’re going to get from a Keurig, and since it’s a fraction of the price it is therefore better.
I have ranked these instant coffees from best to worst, though the drop-off as the list goes on is enough to give you whiplash.
Mount Hagen Organic Fair Trade
In addition to having the words organic and fair trade in its name, Mount Hagen claims on its label to be "delicious" and also "perfect." While it was neither of those things, it was definitely the best thing I tried in my intrepid adventures. But also, it costs ten dollars and it calls for boiling water to make the whole thing worth putting in your body. This is approximately the same amount of time, money, and effort it takes to make a real coffee that tastes similarly fine. While it tasted slightly better than Ferrara Instant Espresso (see below), it is wayyyyy more expensive. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself if you’re putting too much effort into making instant coffee and if you should just say "fuck it" and make actual coffee. Mount Hagen Organic Fair Trade Instant Coffee exists at this crossroads. Yes, it is good, but its high price renders it not worth actually buying in the way that Ferrara Instant Espresso is.
Simply by dint of good product design, Café Bustelo has tricked more hipsters into drinking shitty drip coffee than Starbucks has. But is the instant coffee version of the PBR of coffee any better? I took elements of the café con leche and iced coffee recipes on the container and decided to make an iced coffee with a bunch of milk in it. When I added cold water to my Café Bustelo cup, the thing started bubbling over like a middle-school science experiment. I topped the thing off with some ice and milk, and voila! I made an iced coffee that was slightly better than a McDonald’s iced coffee. It was so good that I finished the whole thing, despite the fact that I had to drink five more cups of instant coffee over the next hour.
Ferrara Instant Espresso
For the coffees that I bought from Whole Foods––Ferrara Instant Espresso and Mount Hagen ––I decided to really go for it. This meant actually boiling water in a pot. Like its name implies, Ferrara Instant Espresso is meant for making espresso, but because I am bad at pouring things I ended up making myself something that was halfway between an espresso shot and a full-on Americano. It was sort of a revelation. There were “notes” underpinning the Ferrara that extended beyond “coffee” and “gross.”This one definitely wins the award for being something someone might actually want to drink without masking its flavor with milk, but I also own a coffee maker so I’d prefer to use my Café Bustelo to make an iced coffee.
The thing about Nescafé is it's supposed to be kinda good, right? This is what I was led to believe, mainly because it's name sounds European. After two rounds of just pouring warm water from my sink directly into a cup full of instant coffee powder I decided to mix up my water game, this time boiling some water in the microwave to see if it would make my ostensibly sophisticated Nescafé pop. Turns out, they should call it "Nescaf-okay," because this stuff is totally OK. It didn't really have much of a taste, but after my experience with Folgers and Maxwell house I was extremely fine with that. Unlike the other coffees I'd reviewed so far, Nescafé wasn't trying to be a half-assed simulacrum of coffee—it was just kinda doing its own thing. There's honor in that, though I still probably wouldn't drink this unless I'd gotten paid to.
I think we can all agree that coffee is not brown sugar. Yet, Maxwell House's instant coffee smells exactly like brown sugar. Unfortunately, Maxwell House's instant coffee just tastes like "generic brown." If we lived in a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic hellscape where there were no more coffee plants and we were all just getting by on instant coffee, I guess I would drink this. If we weren't, then I wouldn't.
Folgers Classic Roast
This tasted like how that roadside motel where everybody gets murdered in No Country for Old Men probably smelled. Never in my life have I had a wet substance in my mouth that also felt dry. To further erase any evidence that I had ever had this noxious substance in my house, I threw away the jar of Folgers, as well as the coffee cup I drank it out of.