Instant coffee is bad. It tastes like a mix of cardboard and dirt, has the caffeine kick of under-steeped green tea, and doesn’t even particularly smell like coffee in the first place. And, as if that wasn’t enough, ‘single servings’ of the stuff rarely produce enough to satisfy even the occasional drinker. (Yeah, we know. “Such bad food, and what small servings!”) Yet, with all of that being said, instant coffee will always be magnitudes better than the alternative: no coffee at all.
If anyone knows this best, it’s backpackers and hikers who’ve dared venture out onto the trail without bringing any caffeine along with them. Even the mildest of coffee drinkers can experience caffeine withdrawal. Things like headaches, grogginess, and even nausea can result from skipping that daily cup or two (or ten). Unfortunately, though, it isn’t really practical to weigh down your pack with something like a Mr. Coffee or a Chemex. That, in large part, is why we’ve put together a list of what is essentially the best of the worst coffee in the world. In our minds, if you’re going to go for instant coffee, you might as well go for the best instant coffees.
Ok, so right off the bat we’re breaking some rules here. Or at least bending them. This coffee from GEO is not technically “instant” coffee. Rather than being made from freeze or spray-dried coffee concentrate, these packets contain pre-ground coffee measured out into packets that can then be placed into your mug. Think of it as a disposable pour-over brewer. In terms of flavor and caffeine kick, GEO coffee really benefits from this method. That being said, it does take a bit longer than other instant coffees, is a bit more expensive, and creates more waste.
So for as much as we like ragging on Starbucks coffee for being supremely ‘meh,’ this stuff is actually pretty solid. You could even venture to say it is good. Rather than freeze-drying their coffee, Starbucks uses a special micro-grinding process that creates a super fine ground that just about dissolves into your coffee mug. The resulting taste is surprisingly similar to a medium roast from any of the 500+ Starbucks shops in your home town. When you are miles away from running water or electricity, that’s a heck of an accomplishment. The only downside to this method of grinding is that it doesn’t have as long a shelf life as coffee made with the freeze-dried method.
Jiva Coffee Cubes
Looking for something a little novel and possibly on the sweeter side of things? These coffee cubes are a solid pick. Essentially little bricks of freeze-dried coffee concentrate bonded together by sugar, they make for an easy, low-waste cup when thrown in either hot or cold water. And for those who like a bit of variety, these can be purchased in a variety of different flavors.
Kuju Coffee Pocket
Another solid drip-coffee packet. This one is a bit more affordable than the GEO, and comes in either a light, medium, or dark roast. All of the same benefits and drawbacks apply to Kuju, as they do GEO. This will take a bit longer to brew than traditional instant coffee and it will definitely create more waste (if you pack it in, you better pack it out, folks), but it is honestly all worth it if you are as much of a coffee snob as we all are.
Alpine Start Premium Instant Coffee
Made for and by backpackers, Alpine Start positions itself as being a quality instant coffee. Depending on who you ask, they’ve either accomplished this goal with flying colors or they’re just another bad instant coffee. In our opinion, they’ve actually done a pretty darn good job. Instead of making their instant coffee with concentrate brewed from gnarly trash beans, they source higher quality Arabica beans grown in Columbia.
Mount Hagen Organic Coffee
If you are the type of consumer to check packages to see if what you are buying is both Fair Trade certified and organic, this is literally the only coffee out there for you. Mount Hagen is the sole instant coffee (as of writing this article) that checks both of those boxes. But that isn’t all they have to brag about. Their coffee is also made from Arabica beans and is considered by some to be the closest thing in terms of taste to a traditionally brewed cup.
Four Stigmatic Mushroom Coffee Mix
This one is a bit of a rule-bender. Made with an even mix of Arabica coffee and mushrooms (Yeah. Weird. We know.), it’s a kind of coffee imposter. With that being said, it is also one of the best selling instant coffees out there. And for good reason. It has a robust flavor, packs 40mg of caffeine per serving, and doesn’t have that unsettling acidity or bitterness that so many of its peers do.
Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso Coffee
Coffee snobs will enjoy this instant blend in much the same way a craft beer nerd will get a kick out of a can of Keystone. Almost too strong to feature any discernible flavor, it is the morning equivalent to a shot of cheap whiskey. This description may turn you off, but the coffee will definitely get you up and moving. It’s packed with caffeine and, thanks to its affordable price and low-waste packaging, it is a favorite among serious backpackers.
Trader Joe’s Coffee Brewer In The Bag
If you are going camping, rather than backpacking – this is a pretty solid choice. All users need to do with this setup is rip open the top of the bag, pour in some hot water, and let it sit. After waiting a couple minutes, you just loosen the top spout and pour coffee out into your mug. That’s it. While these bags from Trader Joe’s are definitely larger and maybe more cumbersome than some would hope, what is nice about this system is that it allows you to choose how strong you want your coffee by deciding how much water to pour into the pouch.
Blue Bottle Coffee Voyager Pack
If you simply can’t do without specialty coffee on your two or three mornings in the woods – then Blue Bottle’s pre-ground coffee may be for you. This stuff isn’t freeze dried or put in cute little packets; it just comes ground and in an oxygen-free bag to preserve the flavor. The only downside to this method? You either have to bring your french press or you have to use the cowboy coffee method (throwing loose grounds into hot water and letting it sit) to brew it. Worth getting little grounds in your teeth? Yeah, probably.
Sudden Coffee Instant Coffee
Sudden Coffee broke onto the scene last year with a mission to raise the quality of instant cups of joe. Founders Kalle Freese and Joshua Zloof were confident that they could take the sweet, fruity quality of specialty coffee and somehow make it all the more accessible and transportable. Much like Alpine coffee, Sudden has accomplished this by using higher quality beans and a more quality-focused approach.
Libra Coffee Pourtables
We end as we opened: with a rule-breaking non-instant coffee. This one from Portables uses high-grade, organic beans stored in an air-tight package intended to preserve freshness for up to a year. That means you can buy a package and not worry about using them all before they start tasting flat and uninteresting.
How To Brew Pour Over Coffee
Not exactly interested in instant coffee? Maybe specialty coffee is more your speed. If you’re not already familiar, be sure to check out our rundown of how to make pour over coffee.