Instant coffee may not have the best reputation amongst coffee snobs, but it’s a reliable, simple and cost-effective way to get your caffeine fix at home.
Plus, it’s come a long way since the early days and some instant coffees on sale today get ‘close to the real thing’ according to our coffee expert, Giles Hilton.
We asked Giles to taste a selection of supermarket and branded instant coffees to bring you insights into the different types on offer and how to choose the best for you.
Along the way we gained some useful tips on how to choose a coffee style that suits you, decoding strength labels, and how to get the best brew at home.
Read on for our top tips, or head straight to the full guide to choosing the best instant coffee.
Top tips for making great coffee at home
1. Know your beans
This is a good one to have under your belt when choosing coffee – whether instant, ground or beans.
There are two main types of coffee bean: arabica and robusta. Arabica has a delightful flavour and plenty of character – it’s grown in Central and South America, Indonesia, Africa and India.
Compared to robusta coffee, it’s generally sweeter and offers more variation in flavour, influenced by the climate in which it’s grown. It’s thought that Arabica makes up a whopping 75% of the world’s coffee production.
Robusta is a wild bush that’s found in Africa, Vietnam and parts of Indonesia. You can expect a heavier and less varied flavour from robusta, which doesn’t display regional variations as much as Arabica tends to. It’s sometimes added to cheaper blends to give them a ‘coffee kick’.
2. Take note of where your coffee is from and how it’s roasted
Do your research on the regional characteristics of coffee beans and you’ll know what to expect before you even open the packet.
Where Arabica coffee is grown impacts the flavour profile, along with how heavy or light the roast is.
Here’s an overview of how Arabica characteristics differ by region:
- Central and South America – nutty, fruity and rich with subtle hints of chocolate.
- Africa – crisp and fresh with bright acidity. Usually sourced from Kenya.
- Indonesia – rich and luxurious. A fairly high roast brings out the character of the bean.
The strength ratings you’ll see on packets aren’t about caffeine content, but how high the roast is. Typically, the stronger / higher the roast the more intense the flavour.
3. Get clued up on your options
There are lots of different types of instant coffee, including some quite stylish single origin and microground options for when you want something more luxurious than an everyday caffeine kick.
Here’s a summary of the key types you’ll find on the shelf:
|Typical price per 100g||What to expect|
|Everyday instant||70p – £3*||Entry-level instant coffees. Commonly described as Classic, Rich Roast or Original.|
|Gold blend||£1.50 – £3.50||A step up from everyday instant. These coffees are usually more stylish than cheaper rivals and sometimes stronger in taste.|
|Single origin||£2 – £4||Boasts a distinctive flavour depending on the area it’s grown in. Some of these really impressed our expert.|
|Microground coffee||£2.30 – £5.80||These are a blend of instant and finely ground coffee, adding extra depth to your brew, also went down well in our tryout.|
|Coffee bags||£2.70 – £3.80||These are essentially tea bags filled with ground coffee, so more akin to cafetiere coffee. Handy and some were impressive.|
|Decaff||£1.40 – £5.90||Handy if you want an after-dinner drink that won’t keep you awake.|
Our expert was genuinely impressed by some of the instant coffee variations he tasted, and felt they had come on a great deal since the early days of instant.
However, others were underwhelming, including some of the pricier options, so it’s worth reading up on our expert guide to choosing the best instant coffee before you buy.
Best cafetieres and french presses – see our top picks
4. Make it right
Enjoying the perfect coffee at home isn’t just a case of picking the right instant coffee brand.
Tempting as it is to just chuck in the milk and hot water and give it a quick stir, you’ll get better results if you are clued up on water temperature and milk options.
Let’s start with water temperature. It’s best to avoid pouring freshly boiled water onto your coffee as this could cause a harsh, bitter taste. Instead, wait around 10 seconds before your pour. Try not to delay too long, though, as you might end up with a thin-tasting coffee.
The milk you use matters too. While some milk will sweeten and soften your coffee, other variations will have a less desirable impact on the flavour.
Our expert tried a variety of milk options and found that semi-skimmed cow’s milk tended to work better with coffee compared to plant-based alternatives. Full cream milk creates a heavier note, while plant-based options affected the flavour. Oat milk worked the best of the alternatives.
5. Store your coffee properly
Coffee – whether beans, ground or otherwise, should always be stored in an airtight container.
With instant, the container is provided, but it’s often made of glass or plastic, so you need to be careful where you store it.
A cool, dark spot that’s out of direct sunlight is best. By keeping your coffee under those conditions, you can prevent the flavourful essential oils from evaporating. If that happens, you’ll be left sipping a very plain coffee.
Avoid storing your coffee in the fridge or freezer too. Moisture is the enemy, and if your coffee is sat in the fridge, there’s a high chance it’ll absorb other smells lurking nearby.
6. Don’t scoff at own-brand coffee
The big brands may feel like a familiar friend, but some supermarket own-brands can give them a run for their money on the flavour front, so it’s worth branching out from your usual.
Our coffee expert was impressed by several own-brand options in our instant coffee tryout, and underwhelmed by some big-name brands.
This played out in our consumer taste test of everyday instant coffees too, with several supermarket versions matching the big brand on taste in a blind taste test. Get the full results in our instant coffee consumer taste test results.
*prices correct as of 8 April 2021