There’s an argument to be made that coffee is just coffee. After all, both instant coffee and ground coffee do basically the same thing. You know, it’s a brownish liquid that’s a little bitter and serves as a caffeine delivery system.
But, like most things, it’s a bit more complicated than you’d think. Some people drink both interchangeably, others swear on the “real stuff”, while others like the convenience of instant coffee and don’t think the extra effort is worth it. Now, we’re all entitled to our opinions and preferences. But I think there’s a place for both types of coffee.
How Each Coffee Type is Made
Before we tackle the scientific bit, let’s look at ground coffee. All coffee (instant as well) starts off the same way. The coffee plant produces fruit known as coffee cherries, which in turn carry two seeds. These seeds are what we call “coffee beans”.
So, the seeds are removed from the cherry, processed, and dried. At this point, they will likely be tasted and graded. Different types of plants produce different varieties of coffee beans, each with a different level of quality and flavor. Finally, the beans will be roasted. This turns them from a green color to a more familiar coffee brown.
They can be roasted at different temperatures and for different amounts of time, depending on the variety of bean and your intended result. Again, the darkness of the roast is a preference. Aficionados might prefer a lighter roast, which highlights the coffee bean itself, while many people enjoy the bittersweet roasted flavor of a dark roast.
Once the coffee bean is roasted, it is ready for grinding. Now we have ground coffee, which we can use to make a nice cup of joe. Most methods of brewing ground coffee involve either passing hot water through it (filter or percolated coffee) or submerging the coffee in hot water for a few minutes (French press).
So, that’s ground coffee. But what about instant coffee? Well, it actually follows the same process, right until the brew. We can thank the British for this technique, and instant coffee is still popular over there.
The coffee grounds are brewed using a technique similar to percolation, which produces a thick coffee concentrate. Some moisture is removed to further thicken the coffee. The brewed coffee is then dehydrated and broken up into granules. There are two dehydration methods, spray drying, and freeze drying.
To make a cup of instant coffee, simply combine a teaspoon or so of granules with hot water and stir. The hot water will hydrate the concentrated granules and dilute them into coffee. Add milk and sugar and all that jazz, and you can be sipping on your coffee in no time. Just, whatever you do, please don’t eat the granules from the jar. Instant coffee is convenient enough, surely.
How They Compare in Taste
This is where it gets a little contentious. Traditionally, ground coffee has always been considerably better than instant coffee, taste-wise. Anyone who argued differently probably didn’t actually like coffee.
You see, most instant coffee is made with Robusta beans, which have a far higher caffeine content than other beans but don’t taste anywhere near as interesting. This is because turning ground beans into instant granules loses a lot of caffeine, you know, one of the primary reasons people like to drink coffee.
This means that instant coffee is generally more bitter, harsher, and less complex than most ground coffee. You get notes of “coffee” and nothing else, so no nutty or sweet and chocolatey flavors. Anything more complex has been lost. Coffee is a fickle beast, apparently.
However, instant coffee has been improving. Some instant blends use higher quality beans, which results in a far nicer drink that is more akin to freshly brewed ground coffee. Still, there’s no getting past it, ground coffee will always have the edge over instant coffee. You can use a wide range of high-quality beans for ground coffee, and there’s less loss of flavor during the processing phase.
When and Why to Use One Over the Other
After that, it might seem like you should only ever drink ground coffee. Why would you choose to drink a product that doesn’t taste as nice? It’s a no-brainer, right? Well, there’s a time and place for everything.
If time and convenience aren’t a concern, and you just want a really good cup of coffee, then drink freshly brewed ground coffee. It tastes better, you can even make sure your coffee is the perfect roast of a specific bean and ground to your specifications if you like. You have more control over your coffee.
But instant coffee does have its benefits, the most obvious of which being speed. You want a cup of coffee right now? Boil some water and you’re done. Instant coffee is also cheaper and so much easier to use. So, you can do some cool things with it.
Let’s say you want to go camping and you don’t want to miss out on your coffee. Ground coffee needs equipment, which doesn’t mix well with being out in the wilds. But if you can boil water on a campfire, you can make instant coffee.
Instant coffee is also a handy ingredient in baking. Adding a touch of coffee to a chocolate dessert is known to bring out the flavors of the chocolate, so it’s richer and more luxurious. You don’t taste the coffee unless you add way too much. Rather than brewing a pot of coffee and then panicking about the liquid content of your cake, you can just sprinkle some instant granules in and call it a day.
So, if you have the time and equipment and you want a good cup of coffee, go for ground. You can grind it yourself for the best flavor. If you need something quick and easy, go for instant. Also, if you don’t care about the taste of your coffee or you can’t tell the difference, just pick instant for the easier, cheaper option.