Instant coffee doesn’t have a great reputation, and we all know why
Who among us hasn’t suffered through a cup of bitter sludge that tastes like hot cardboard? The simple fact is, a lot of the most readily available instant coffee—lookin’ at you, Starbucks—is pretty bad.
But the convenience of instant coffee can’t be denied. It was invented in the 1700s, and became part of American soldiers’ rations starting in the Civil War. There’s a good reason for that. When you’re on the move, you need coffee that’s lightweight and doesn’t require any bulky equipment to make.
For that very reason, a lot of us rely on instant coffee when we’re hiking or backpacking. It’s just lighter and more convenient than “real” coffee.
The other good news is, a lot of instant coffees are actually good. A lot of advancements have been made in recent years, and we have a lot more options when it comes to instant coffee for hiking than we had just a decade ago. I was excited to try some of them out.
The following is a diverse field of instant coffees. They range from finely crafted specialty coffee to everyday supermarket staples. After the arduous and over-caffeinating process of taste testing and ranking each one, here’s how they line up:
I had already heard good things about Voila instant coffee. It’s made in small batches in Bend, Oregon, and I ordered a box straight off the Voila website.
As soon as I opened the package, the first thing that struck me was that it actually smelled like coffee. So this was a clear frontrunner right out of the gate. And you know what? It’s good! Out of all the instant coffees sampled, this one tastes the most like real coffee.
It’s clear from everything about the packaging and marketing materials that Voila is going for an “artisanal” vibe—there are tasting notes listed on the packaging for goodness sake—but they’ve really created a good product.
I get notes of almond and dark cherry, as well as a pleasant amount of acidity. I would honestly drink this again, on the trail or off. Voila offers a handful of different varieties (the one I tried is a Columbian coffee roasted in Oregon by Megaphone Coffee Co.) as well as a variety pack.
If there’s a downside to Voila instant coffee, it’s the price tag. You get 5 packets of instant coffee in a box that costs more than just about any other brand on this list. But you’re the type who’s willing to shell out a few extra bucks for quality, then this is the coffee for you.
The box says, “Instant coffee that actually tastes good.” A bold claim! I was eager to find out if this brand lived up to their advertising.
Long story short, I liked this coffee quite a lot. Alpine Start is based out of Colorado, and I sampled the Original Blend which, although labeled as a medium roast, tastes and feels much more like a dark roast. It’s full-bodied and flavorful, made from high altitude Columbian Arabica coffee beans.
Something about the flavor of Alpine Start reminds me of diner coffee (that’s not a bad thing). It’s bold with just a touch of bitterness, and thankfully lacks that strange aftertaste that makes a lot of instant coffees so difficult to stomach. Overall, it packs a lot of flavor without any of the negatives that one tends to associate with instant coffee.
I can definitely see this being a good cup of coffee to start the day on the trail, so I suppose the name “Alpine Start” is apropos. Alpine Start also makes a latte blend that I’d be curious to try.
Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee Mix
Coffee made with mushrooms? I’ll be the first to admit that I nearly wrote this off as hipster nonsense, but I’m glad I ignored my gut and decided to try this one. Turns out, Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee is quite tasty.
Fortunately, Four Sigmatic doesn’t taste overwhelmingly like mushrooms, which is a relief. It has just a hint of—for lack of a better word—mushroomness, which comes from the lion’s mane and chaga mushroom extracts that are blended in with the organic instant coffee.
Lion’s mane and chaga are both purported to have some significant benefits for health, energy and focus, and they give this coffee a pleasant earthiness. There’s something just a bit herbal about the flavor as well, and the coffee packs what feels like a pretty strong caffeine punch.
Four Sigmatic is rich, flavorful, and has a good medium-bodied mouthfeel. The vinyl verdict: I would drink this again… but not every day. The hints of mushroom flavor are interesting, but more of a novelty. I would throw a couple sachets of this into my pack on a backpacking trip, and have a cup on days when I’m a little tired of regular coffee.
Based out of California, Waka Coffee makes an all-around solid cup of instant Joe. A well-balanced medium roast, it has a smooth, rich, nutty flavor with just a hint of acidity. I don’t think anybody would be fooled into thinking this wasn’t instant coffee, but it comes pretty close.
The box suggests that the coffee’s flavor profile includes “notes of citrus,” which I must confess, I struggled to perceive. But overall it’s bright and flavorful, with just a touch of bitterness on the back end (I don’t consider that to be a bad thing, within reason).
Waka Coffee makes three varieties (Colimbian, Indian and Columbian Decaf) all of which are made using 100% Arabica freeze-dried coffee beans. I tried the Columbian, and I liked it enough that I’m curious to try the others. Larger bags are also available in addition to single-serve packets.
One thing to note is that the box suggests miching one packet with 8 to 10 oz. of water. I used 8 oz. and found that to be just barely strong enough. It’s a matter of personal preference of course, but I wouldn’t push my luck with 10 oz.
The fact that Mount Hagen’s instant coffee is organic and 100% Fairtrade certified already sets it apart from the pack. This is an instant coffee that a lot of people seem to like, so I was excited to try it.
Made from Arabica beans, Mount Hagen is a German coffee company, and they seem to be genuinely invested in making quality instant coffee that’s ethically sourced. With that in mind, the real question is, how does it taste?
Overall, it’s smooth and rich. Nothing about the flavor really jumps out, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Mount Hagen is a pretty ordinary, forgettable cup of coffee. On the other hand, it lacks the bitterness and odd aftertaste that plague so many cheap instant coffees. That in and of itself makes it something I would drink again.
Mount Hagen also gets points for being reasonably priced. With 25 sachets of coffee in each box, this is an economical option that lasts a long time.
Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals
We’ve come to the ubiquitous Folgers. I’ve had this one before—I think most of us have at some point—and I didn’t have the fondest memories of it. So I was surprised, upon tasting it again, that it’s really not that bad.
It’s not great, mind you, but it’s a perfectly okay cup of coffee. It tastes more or less like what you would expect instant coffee to taste like. But it’s not bitter. It has no discernible aftertaste to speak of, and it goes down smooth. I wouldn’t drink it every day, but as trail coffee goes, I can’t say it’s half bad.
Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals also have the advantage of being dirt-cheap, and available in practically every supermarket in America. So if you’re backpacking and need to stop for a quick supply run, this stuff is easy to get your hands on.
Buyer beware though, it’s pretty weak (the instructions on the box suggest mixing a packet with a dainty 4 to 6 oz. of water) so you should just assume you’ll end up using two packets in each cup of coffee.
Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee Packets
As the packaging of Trader Joe’s instant coffee proclaims, this variety comes “all dressed up with creamer and sugar.” So right away, you’ve probably already made up your mind if this is for you or not.
Personally, I can go either way when it comes to cream and sugar in my coffee. The problem I discovered with Trader Joe’s instant coffee is that it has A LOT of cream and sugar in it. I found it to be way too sweet for my palette, which is a shame, because the coffee flavor that was able to make its way through the murk of cream and sugar was actually pretty good.
Bottom line: if you like your coffee very sweet, this might be for you. It certainly gets points for convenience (what hiker wants to carry around coffee, creamer and sugar separately?) but overall it’s just too darn sweet.
I must say, it’s a little weak too. The instructions say to combine one packet with 4 to 6 oz. of water, which means for a decent-sized cup of coffee you’ll need at least two packets. Come to think of it, you might get a better balance by using one packet of this mixed with one packet of another non-cream-and-sugared coffee.
Nescafe Taster’s Choice Hazelnut
I had no intention of drinking the hazelnut version of this particular coffee. Unfortunately, it was all they had at my local supermarket. So for the sake of science I bought a box of hazelnut flavored Nescafe Taster’s Choice. How bad could it be?
Turns out, it can be pretty bad. This is the only instant coffee on this list that I vowed never to drink again.
Now look, I’ve had regular, unflavored Taster’s Choice before, and it’s fine. It’s a perfectly passable not-bad-not-great instant coffee, roughly on par with Folgers. But this hazelnut stuff is bad news. Its biggest problem is that it tastes overpoweringly of hazelnut, so much so that I can barely make out the taste of coffee.
It also has added sugar, which I don’t really care for. Maybe bring a few packets for that one guy in your hiking group who doesn’t like regular coffee? This won’t be coming with me on my next hike, I can tell you that.