Today I was chatting to a young guy who didn’t know there was any difference between instant coffee and coffee made from ground beans. When I say young by the way, I don’t mean 5 or 6, I mean early 20s! ;-). For whatever reason he just wasn’t aware of of any difference between instant coffee vs ground coffee beans. When he saw me making coffee and throwing away the used coffee grounds, he thought this was wasteful, and clearly didn’t realise the different between instant coffee and ground beans.
Thinking about Nespresso? See: Speciality Coffee via Nespresso?, Best Nespresso Machines 2017, Tassimo Vs Nespresso
I have to say that while I was shocked at first, I’m sure I’ve known since being a kid that there was a difference, but I can’t remember how old I was when I learned what that difference actually was, and I’m still learning about coffee too, every day, I just happen to be slightly ahead of my younger friend.
Anyway, as I was informing him about how instant coffee is made, and the difference between this and “proper coffee”, I thought I’ll bet there are quite a few people who aren’t aware of this either, so I’m writing this post for anyone who is not sure of the difference between instant / soluble coffee, and brewed coffee made from ground coffee beans; if you’re a coffee connoisseur then you really don’t need to read this ;-).
So all coffee starts as a seed in a coffee cherry, and there is a pair in each coffee cherry (except with Peaberries, which are cherries which only have a single seed, which is oval and pea shaped hence the name Peaberry). Coffee grows in warm climates, in over 50 countries, the top ten producers by volume being Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Honduras.
If you want to annoy your friends or family with some useless info, you can tell them that coffee beans don’t actually exist. A coffee “bean” is actually a seed, not a bean. All beans are seeds, but not all seed are beans – only seeds that are part of the bean family (Fabaceae, Leguminosae or Papilionaceae – see wikipedia for more) are beans, which isn’t the case with coffee seeds, so the term “coffee bean” is technically incorrect. Anyway, this isn’t as weird as the fact that cashew nuts come from a fruit!
The Coffee cherries are picked, they’re then dried and processed, and eventually they look like this:
They look like peanuts don’t they?
Looking at bean to cup? See: best bean to cup filter coffee machines 2017
I wouldn’t recommend trying to eat them though, probably break your teeth 😉 they’re like little rocks before they’re roasted. They’re known as green beans, or simply ‘greens’. They’re sold and exported like this, and then are roasted before the coffee we love, can be enjoyed.
Once they’re roasted they look more like what you probably recognise as a coffee bean:
Roasting isn’t as simple as it might sound, it’s a real art; the folk who do this are highly skilled experts, and the better the roaster, the better the resulting coffee. For roasters in the UK see my list of UK coffee roasters, most of them sell their freshly roasted coffee online.
Two things can happen to a roasted coffee bean, it can either be ground to be used to make coffee using various fresh coffee brewing methods (I’m including coffee pods as a fresh brewing method by the way in case you’re thinking I forgot one 😉 ) or it can be turned into instant coffee by instant coffee manufacturers, such as Nescafe, Kenco, Maxwell House and so on, or by instant coffee processing companies who manufacture for other brands.
Instant is brewed concentrated coffee that is dried to be brewed again by adding water. Usually instant coffee manufacturers buy green coffee beans and roast them in-house prior to grinding them also in-house, and then brewing massive quantities of coffee which is then heated and condensed, into a thick concentrated coffee liquid to be dried.
The process of drying the coffee is done in two ways, spray drying & freeze drying.
Spray drying is done by spraying a fine mist of brewed coffee though hot and dry air, in a tall chamber. When the droplets land, they have dried into coffee powder, which ends up in jars of instant coffee. Freeze drying uses the same process which is used to make dry ice, and also the same process which is used to decorate giftware (in which the process is known as dye sublimation) which involves the concentrated coffee being frozen, smashed up into granules, and then heat being applied in a vacuum, which forces the coffee to go from the liquid phase into a solid without going though the liquid phase, in order to dry the coffee granules out with as little aroma loss as possible.
So now you know how instant coffee is made.
Freshly brewed coffee:
Roasters import the green coffee beans, and then roast them ready for either packaging up as wholebean, or to be ground and packaged as pre-ground coffee, or to be put into coffee pods for the various coffee pod machines.
Is there a difference in taste between instant coffee and freshly brewed coffee?
Taste is a subjective thing, but in my opinion there is just no comparison, but then again it depends what you’re comparing. If you’re comparing the taste of instant coffee with the taste of a coffee made from a skilled Barista (a coffee brewing expert who will serve you just about any kind of coffee you can imagine, at a specialist coffee shop), then I think unless there is something very strange going on with your taste buds, you would not believe the two drinks were related.
If you’re comparing instant coffee with filter coffee or espresso made at home from someone who has made a terrible job of it using poor quality stale coffee, wrong temperature water, dirty equipment etc., then the difference may not quite be the same.
It’s not just about the taste either, there is something magical to me about freshly brewed coffee, the whole experience including the wonderful aroma, it’s not the same when you just pour hot water over a spoonful of instant coffee. I think it’s probably to do with the freshness of all the naturally occuring compounds and the amount of caffeine, see this recent post for more about that.
Commodity coffee Vs. speciality coffee.
It’s not as simple as instant vs fresh brewed however, as there are different types of wholebean and pre-ground coffee beans. I’m not talking here about the type of bean, such as Arabica vs Robusta, or the coffee tree varietals, I’m talking about two completely distinct industries: commodity coffee, and speciality coffee.
Commodity coffee is coffee which is imported and roasted in vast quantities to be packaged (either wholebean or pre-ground) and sold via retailers, mainly via supermarkets, either in bags or in individual pods for the various coffee pod / disk machines.
Some of this coffee will have fancy labels on, some is even called “single origin” and is made to look like speciality coffee, when really it’s just cleverly marketed commodity coffee. It usually has a stamped shelf life of a year or longer, and doesn’t have a “roasted on” date, and you don’t usually have any idea of how old the coffee is when you buy it, or even by the time it ends up on a shelf ready to be purchased.
Speciality coffee is a completely different kettle of fish to commodity coffee. The farms that are growing the coffee for this market are usually smaller growers or cooperatives, who grow, pick and process their coffee beans completely focused on quality of the resulting cup, rather than being focused purely on production. The location of the farms, the coffee tree varietals, and everything else all the way through to sacking up the dried beans, is all done purely with quality in mind. It’s called speciality because everything is done with quality in mind rather then production and price in mind, similar to with commodity wine vs. fine wines.
The speciality coffee roasters who import this coffee, sometimes directly and sometimes via brokers, are also just as focused on quality. They are usually small batch roasters, that is, they roast in small volumes, so that they can remain completely focused on roasting the best possible coffee, as roasting in big volumes can be better for price but with a reduction in the quality of the resulting cup of coffee.
The coffee they roast is single origin, or even single estate meaning that it has come from the same farm or the same co-operative, and they are experts who know exactly what flavour notes they should be getting from the beans.
The coffee they roast is usually packaged up for sale only a day or two after roasting, and the only reason for this delay is to allow the carbon dioxide to escape the roasted beans, which is known as “de-gassing”. You will usually find a “roasted on” date on packs of speciality coffee, and with some of the more popular roasters you will also often find that they supply speciality coffee shops, as well as retail. If you’re lucky enough to have a roaster locally to you, you’ll probably find that as well as supplying you with great coffee, they will also provide great brewing advice, and information about the coffee you’re buying.
While commodity coffee is often more heavily roasted, speciality roasters are much more careful to ensure that the flavour notes that should be distinguishable with a particular bean from a particular origin, are there, and this often means a light or medium roast. If you have only ever tasted supermarket coffee in the past, and then you taste speciality coffee, your taste buds are in for a treat! Even if you have bought “single origin” coffee from a supermarket in the past, if it’s over roasted and then sitting in a bag for several months or even longer, it’s unlikely (in my humble opinion) that the flavour notes that are synonymous with that region are going to be all that noticeable in the resulting cup.
My favourite suppliers of speciality coffee by the way are currently Adams & Russell, Pact Coffee, Hasbean, Bounbeans & Decadent Dedaf. I’m not affiliated with any of these roasters in any way, and I don’t make any commission or profit of any kind by recommending these companies.
I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, from my own experience, that the best possible way to enjoy speciality coffee, is to grind your own. You just can’t get the same taste from freshly brewed freshly ground coffee from pre-ground, as the taste begins to diminish only minutes from grinding.
If you do buy pre-ground, at least if you’re buying from a speciality roaster, they will give you a grind specifically for the brew method you plan on using, that is you can buy it ground for cafetiere, or for drip filter, V60, or Espresso. If you’re buying pre-ground supermarket coffee, it tends to be more of a one grind size fits all approach, and grind size makes a big difference to the resulting cup of coffee.
Want to brew fresh coffee at home? This is what you’ll need:
A pourover dripper and filters.
The drip filter brew technique is used to freshly brew coffee by mixing ground coffee beans and hot water in a paper filter, the resulting extracted coffee drips through into the cup below.
Depending on which you go for, the dripper can be bought from about a fiver, and another fiver for enough filters to make 100 cups. V60 is a hugely popular pour over dripper, I’m a big fan of the V60, and they’re very inexpensive. Kalita Wave is another popular dripper, and Chemex is a very popular choice, and good for making bigger pots rather than single cups.
You can go for an electric dripper if you prefer, just keep in mind that if you get one with a warming plate, that the longer you leave it keeping warm, the worst it’s going to taste by the time you drink it. I prefer to make filter coffee using the pourover method and drink straight away. A great thing about this method as well as the taste of the coffee, is that the equipment is very inexpensive, and it’s very portable; you can take it anywhere with you, on holiday, to the office, camping… All you need is hot water, you don’t need electricity as long as you have some other way to heat water such as a flame, meaning it’s good for camping or brewing on the beach for example.
Filter coffee is lighter and cleaner than other brewing processes, in terms of mouth-feel and taste. If you get the extraction right (i.e. the grind size is right and you’re using the right water to coffee ratio) you should end up with a very enjoyable cup, as long as you’re using decent fresh coffee beans that is, but I’ll talk about that shortly.
Cafetiere, also known as French Press, or press pot, is a pot with a plunger attached to a mesh filter. You mix ground coffee with hot water, leave it for about 4 mins, then plunge gently to separate the grounds from the extracted coffee. You can walk into most supermarkets and pick up a cheap cafetiere if you want to try it out first before investing in something a bit better, I have a stainless steel cafetiere which is great.
Just keep in mind that when the manufacturer tells you the number of cups you can make each time with their cafetiere, they seem to be basing this on teeny weeny cups! The average coffee mug holds about 10 fluid ounces or 284 ml, so when they tell you you’ll get 8 cups from a 1000ml capacity pot, even if we assume you’d fill to the brim and don’t account for the lost capacity due to the coffee grounds in the bottom, we’re still only talking about 125ml or 4.4 ounce cup, which is a very small cup of coffee.
Cafetiere coffee tends to have a heavier mouth feel than filter, as the mesh filter doesn’t filter out as much of the coffee oils, and I find the overall mouth feel and taste to generally be darker and heavier than filter. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, in fact some time I’ll crave the heaviness of cafetiere coffee and nothing else will do.
Aeropress is a great coffee brewing method which has become hugely popular in quite a short space of time, there are even world Aeropress championships, which is really something given that it was only invented just over 10 years ago!
With Aeropress you put ground coffee beans into the chamber of the coffee maker, add hot water, stir and then plunge. When you plunge, unlike with cafetiere where you’re just separating the grounds from the coffee, you’re actually generating some pressure, which causes some of the coffee extraction.
The result is a fantastic tasting freshly brewed coffee which I describe as being somewhere between filter and cafetiere. It’s a very versatile brewing process though, you can do it standard or inverted (upside down), and you can make a very concentrated espresso style coffee which you can enjoy as is, or dilute with water or milk to make a wide range of different coffee drinks. You can use the paper filters, or a reuseable metal filter, and this will also impact on the taste and mouth feel.
As with pour over, all you need is hot water and ground coffee beans, and the Aeropress is very portable. So, as the photo to the left shows with Bear Grylls and Stephen Fry, a camping trip doesn’t have to involve instant coffee! If you’re going on an adventure with Bear Grylls, you really need fuelling with proper coffee! 😉
A moka pot / stove top pot.
This is a small metal pot that brews concentrated, espresso style coffee. Moka pots are a fairly inexpensive in comparison to espresso machines, and although it isn’t “true” espresso as not enough pressure is involved, it still makes a good espresso style coffee, in my opinion. I have an espresso machine, so I wouldn’t choose to use a moka pot, unless I was camping for instance. Since what you make with a stove top is espresso style, this is also the same with the drinks you would make with it. For instance you can drink it neat, or you can dilute with water to make an Americano, or dilute with textured milk to make flat white, cappuccino, latte etc.
A Pod / Disk Coffee Machine
Nespresso, Tassimo & Dolce’ Gusto are the most well known pod / disk coffee machines. They’re very clever, and very convenient. Just stick the pod in, and press the button. With the possible exception of one or two of the pods or disks for specific coffee drinks, coffee pods and disks are ground coffee beans and not instant coffee, so you are usually drinking freshly brewed coffee when you drink coffee from a disk or pod machine. There’s also ESE coffee pods which work in most of the lower end consumer espresso machines that come with pressurised portafilters.
I did have a Tassimo for a while, and a very good friend of mine swears by Nespresso, so I’ve had many of these while round at his. I don’t use the Tassimo any more, and I chose not to go for a Nespresso as I like to try different speciality coffees – having said that, some speciality coffee roasters are now selling nespresso compatible pods, and pods / disks which are compatible with other machines. There are also Seal Pods, which allow you to grind your own speciality beans to be used with Nespresso.
Update, May 2017:
I do now use a Nespresso machine, as yet another method of enjoying speciality coffee, see this post to find out why.
An espresso machine.
Espresso is a versatile coffee that you can of course enjoy neat, or mix with water or milk to make most of the coffee drinks you’ll be aware of (Americano, cappuccino, cortado, flat white, latte, long black, macchiato…).
This is the most expensive end of the range when it comes to budget, you can spend anything from around a hundred quid to several thousand. When it comes to espresso machines, you can go for a traditional machine similar to the kind of machine you’d see in a coffee shop, or you can go bean to cup, which is where you put the beans in the top, press a button, and you get whatever coffee you’ve selected. I really like using a traditional espresso machine, so after a week using the Sage by Heston Blumenthal The Oracle (on loan while I reviewed it), I bought the Gaggia classic, which is more within my budget. As I mentioned in this post, I bought a used one locally for £100, and it’s brilliant!
You’ll also need a coffee grinder. You can always buy ground if you prefer, whether you’re buying from a shop, a local roaster or a speciality coffee supplier, you can select to buy pre-ground. I’ve found though that having a grinder and being able to grind your own coffee beans as you use them, really adds to the whole experience most importantly when it comes to the taste. Coffee beans start to go stale as soon as they’re ground, so grinding your own is best if you’re after the best fresh tasting coffee possible.
I used the Hario Skerton for a while, which is a hand powered grinder – but I got sick of grinding by hand, quite quickly ;-). Firstly I hacked it by using a cordless drill, and then I spent some time trying to decide which electric grinder to go for, and ended up going for the Sage smart grinder pro, which I absolutely love!
Thinking of going for an espresso machine? See: Espresso machines reviews 2017, best low cost espresso machines, my week with Sage the Oracle.
So anyway there you go, if you weren’t sure of the difference between instant coffee and freshly brewed coffee, you should be now.
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