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29 April 2021

How to choose the best instant coffee

Bamboozled by the array of supermarket coffees? Our instant coffee guide explains the different types and how to find your perfect match, with inside tips from our coffee expert
Which? Team

While some people are obsessed with coffee - and have all the fancy kit to prove it - others just crave a good brew without the fuss. That's where instant coffee comes in. 

It may not have the loftiest reputation among coffee snobs, but good old instant has come a long way. There are now a wide range of options to choose from, including rich everyday blends, single-origin, premium instant and espresso-style options.

So, where do you start if you're looking to branch out? To help you make sense of the supermarket coffee aisle, we've put together a jargon-busting guide that explains what you can expect for your money, plus some tips on tasty options to look out for.

We enlisted the help of our long-time coffee expert Giles Hilton to bring you unrivalled insight into what's on the shelf. 

Giles tasted a selection of coffees including big brands and supermarket own-label options from different instant coffee types, in order to comment on the taste profile and promising options to look out for.*

Everyday / Rich Roast instant coffee

Typical price range: 70p - £3

We tried: 
Sainsburys Rich Roast, Tesco Classic, Nescafé Original, M&S Rich roast

These are your entry-level instants, commonly described as Classic, Rich Roast or Original. 

Giles describes the types of coffee you’ll find here as 'pleasantly reliable.' Everyday instants can seem basic in flavour, lacking the sweeter flavours you'd get from gold blend or microground coffees.

Although it's a popular pick at the supermarket, Nescafé Original might not be the best option if you drink everyday instant. Our coffee expert said it was ‘plain – OK but not startling.' It's also light on coffee smell and the flavour tends to get lost with milk.

While own labels from Sainsbury’s and Tesco were a little more satisfying, none of these coffees were overly impressive. We were particularly underwhelmed by M&S Rich roast, which Giles found flat with or without milk.

See how consumers rated instant coffees in our blind taste test: instant coffee reviews.

Gold blend instant coffee

Typical price range: £1.50 - £3.50

We tried: 
Douwe Egberts Pure Gold Coffee, M&S Fairtrade Gold Instant Coffee, Tesco Gold Instant Coffee, Waitrose Gold Roast Instant Coffee, Nescafé Gold Blend Coffee

If you fancy a step up from everyday instant, a pricier gold blend coffee could be the way to go. These coffees tend to be more stylish, richer and sometimes stronger in taste.

Out of the selection he tried, our coffee expert thought Douwe Egberts Pure Gold Coffee stood out from the crowd, offering a rich, full coffee flavour with just a hint of artificial instant flavour that softens as you add milk. It was considered quite strong though, which might put some people off.

Own-brands are worth exploring. Our expert thought M&S Gold Blend instant had a nice sweetness and coffee character. Others weren't considered to be as good though - Tesco Gold Instant Coffee was classed as 'average, but not special' and Waitrose Gold Roast Instant Coffee 'Slightly too mild and flat'.

Just like its everyday instant alternative, Nescafé’s Gold Blend didn't blow us away. Giles described it as 'OK once you get used to it', which isn't exactly a glowing review.

Single-origin instant coffee

Typical price range: £2 - £4

We tried: Sainsburys Taste The Difference Ground Columbian, Nescafé Cap Colombia, M&S Fairtrade Instant Colombian Coffee, Waitrose Colombian Instant Coffee, Sainsbury's Colombian Origin Instant Coffee

Single-origin coffee comes from one specific region and has a distinct flavour unique to the area it’s grown in. That flavour can be influenced by various factors such as soil, climate and altitude.

Our expert tried out five Colombian instant coffees (this is the most popular regional type) and was pleasantly surprised. In fact, Giles said these coffees were 'a leap ahead' from the plainer, everyday instants and the gold blend range.

He particularly liked Sainsburys Taste The Difference Ground Columbian, which he said provided a real coffee aroma and excellent crema. Flavours were enhanced when adding milk.

Nescafe’s Cap Colombia instant coffee drew praise for its ‘bright, stylish flavour’ that ‘stood out as being close to real coffee’. But you don't need to spend more on branded coffee to get a quality drink – M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s own-label Colombian instants were also all considered good options by our expert.

How where coffee is grown affects the taste

There are two main types of coffee bean: arabica and robusta. Arabica is grown on hillsides in Central and South America, Indonesia, Africa and India. It has wonderful flavour, style and character, influenced by where it is grown and in what conditions.

Robusta is a wild and ‘robust’ bush that happily handles the harsh climates of Africa, Vietnam and parts of Indonesia. The flavour is heavier without the sweetness of arabica, and doesn’t show regional differences in the same way. It is a useful ‘filler’ in cheaper blends, and is sometimes added to give that ‘coffee kick’.

Regional coffee characteristics

  • Central and South America - nutty flavours, fruity and rich with hints of chocolate.
  • Africa - mainly from Kenya, bright acidity, crisp and fresh.
  • Indonesia - Rich, luxurious and full-bodied.

Microground coffee

Typical price range: £2.30 - £5.80

We tried: 
Nescafé Azera Americano, Nescafé Azera Intenso, Kenco Millicano Americano Instant Coffee, Sainsbury's Americano Microground, Lavazza Prontissmo Intenso

The shiny metallic packaging might be your clue to this more premium end of the coffee shelf, along with the higher price.

But although you'll have to pay more for a taste of these coffees, which are a blend of instant and ground coffee, it's worth considering the trade-up if you're after a high-end home brew.

Our coffee expert was impressed by this corner of the coffee aisle, describing the microgrounds as ‘a great creation. The blend works very well, increasing the coffee character and flavours. The fineness of the ground coffee prevents any gritty effect, and they all brew easily and cleanly'.

Nescafé's Azera Americano got good remarks – Giles described the aroma as 'good and smooth', also noting it took milk well. This one has a genuine taste as there's 'no bitterness' and 'no real instant flavour'.

Sainsbury’s Americano microground went down reasonably well too, so there’s no need to rule out slightly cheaper own-label options.

But our expert wasn't 100% convinced by Lavazza Prontissmo Intenso. Giles said this coffee lacked character and it was slightly too plain when drunk with milk.

Coffee bags 

Typical price range: £2.70 - £3.80

We tried: 
Taylors Hot Lava Java Coffee Bags, Sainsbury's Fairtrade House Blend Coffee Bags

Coffee bags are essentially like tea bags, but filled with ground coffee. They offer an easy, mess-free way to make a quick cuppa. They aren't a new idea, but have had a bit of a renewed push lately, with some more premium single-origin style options coming through.

You need to shop savvy, though. Our coffee expert describes coffee bags as 'quite hit and miss', with deliciousness totally dependent on what’s gone into the blend. Giles says: "Put quality ground beans in and you get richness, flavour and style out."

Taylors Hot Lava Java Coffee Bags impressed on this front. Our expert noticed a 'clean, dark appearance' and a 'good sweetness.' That flavour stuck around even after adding milk to the drink.

The Sainsbury's Fairtrade House Blend Coffee Bags by contrast had a 'mild, soft aroma'. Adding milk made the drink a lot milder.

Decaff instant coffee

Typical price range: £1.40 - £5.90

Decaf coffees are handy if you’re someone who enjoys a coffee but would rather avoid the caffeine buzz that comes with it – or need an after-dinner option that won’t cause sleepless nights.

The caffeine is removed before the beans are roasted. It can be drawn out in a variety of ways, for example through using solvents that bond with the caffeine or dissolving the caffeine in carbon dioxide.

There aren’t quite as many options to choose from as with non-decaff, but there are still a variety of brands and own-label options covering everyday and premium instants.

Instant espresso powder

Typical price range: £2.25 - £4.50

The instant coffee up for grabs at the supermarket comes in either powdered or granulated form. Instant coffee powder is formed from the spray drying process, which is quick and uses high heat. This produces fine particles or powder. 

It's stronger and more intense-tasting than standard instant coffee powder, designed for those who like a shorter espresso-style drink with a slight crema on top. It's handy for baking purposes too as it's stronger and doesn't need to be dissolved before use.

There aren't too many to choose from, and most are branded options.

Coffee strength and roast levels explained

Coffee brands don't have a standardised system for rating strength, but understanding typical types and terms should help you navigate the aisles successfully.

Terms such as ‘rich’, ‘smooth’, ‘balanced’ and ‘golden’ simply give an indication of the style of coffee. The level of roast (ranging from light to dark) is important to consider as this affects the coffee’s flavour profile.

Unfortunately, there is no consistent scale for coffee strength. Some labels will use a 10-point system (with a 'level 10' being strong and a 'level 1' being mild), others just use fancy written descriptions to draw you in.

Strength refers to the level of roast the beans were subjected to, not how much caffeine is in it. 

A medium roast will typically be lighter and smoother-tasting compared to a heavier 'continental' or Italian roast. High roasts should not be burned, although you'll notice some high roast beans do look darker in colour. This is the essential oils escaping to the surface of the bean.

How to make the best instant coffee

1. Don't use boiling water

Don’t pour freshly boiled water straight onto your coffee, as it can lead to a harsh, bitter flavour.

You don't need to wait ages, or buy a fancy multi-temperature kettle for the best results. Instead, just wait 10 seconds or so after boiling before you pour. When our coffee expert tried this out, he found this amount of time gives a rich, smooth style – but warns against waiting too much longer as you could end up with a thin taste.

2. Choose the right milk

The choice of milk these days can seem endless. Our coffee expert experimented with dairy and plant-based options, and found all of them will sweeten and soften your coffee, but some will cause subtle changes in flavour.

Semi-skimmed cow’s milk worked better with coffee than plant-based milks, adding smoothness without swamping the character of the coffee. Of the plant-based milks, oat went down best.

Giles says: 'Full cream is the richest option and creates a heavier, creamy note, while semi-skimmed milk is good as it's smooth and doesn't dominate the coffee.'

3. Store your coffee properly

Store all types of coffee in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight. This will help to prevent the flavourful essential oils from evaporating.

Contrary to popular opinion, don’t keep your coffee in the fridge or freezer - the moisture can cause it to absorb other smells, and dampen the flavour.

* Availability/lockdown restrictions affected products we were able to include. Typical prices per 100g. Prices correct as of 7 April 2021