What’s the Difference Between Instant Coffee & Regular?

Instant coffee has gotten a bad rap over the years. But these days, there are a lot more coffee snobs than in decades past who wouldn’t even consider instant coffee. But what’s the difference between instant coffee and regular coffee?

The differences between instant coffee & regular coffee are instant coffee becomes drinkable the moment hot water is added, whereas regular coffee requires brewing that can take several minutes before being ready. But instant coffee has also been previously brewed into a concentrate and dried.

Most of us had that grandparent with the giant tin of instant coffee on their counter. And we avoided it like the plague!

But why is instant coffee so bad?

This type of coffee involves a drying process is either freeze-dried or hot air-dried. However, many instant coffees also use the inferior robusta coffee bean compared to the Arabica bean used in higher-end brands.

Many people believe that instant coffee is inferior to standard ground and brewed coffee. I would definitely be among them.

It may not have quite the same depth of flavor or require the same craftsmanship as a cup of brewed coffee. But modern brands of instant coffee can still find their place in most homes around the world.

And certain brands of instant coffee can still make a decent cup of coffee if you are in a hurry. And it works great for camping or road trips where a nearby Starbucks may not be available.

But let’s get more into the details of the differences. We’ll explore why those giant tins at grandmas house taste so bad, and which modern brands can actually cut it when it comes to flavor.

Let’s take a sip!

Is instant coffee as good as regular coffee?

Instant coffee will not taste as good as freshly brewed regular coffee even if a high-quality instant coffee is used. However, instant coffee will have less caffeine but contains the same number of beneficial antioxidants as regular coffee.

Believe it or not, instant coffee is very popular in various areas around the world. In fact, almost half of the world’s population claims they prefer instant coffee over the traditional brews!

Most of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand (as well as Mexico, the UK, and a few countries in South America and Africa) make up for the majority of those who prefer instant coffee. Actually, you can say that the majority of countries who prefer a cup of tea as their hot drink of choice also prefer instant coffee.

Overall, it is cheaper, faster, and easier to make, which are all important factors when you are trying to run out the door for work or even make yourself that mid-afternoon cup at your desk.

However, despite its popularity in the east, much of the western world still prefer the fresh stuff, especially those who have refined palates for coffee. In fact, according to an article in The Washington Post, the U.S. is the only real exception to the instant coffee craze.

When it comes to health benefits, there are some areas in which instant coffee may be stronger.

Some types may contain higher amounts of antioxidants due to its concentrated form. It may also be lower in caffeine, which may not be what you want when you need a pick me up. But it could be a positive aspect for those who are looking to lower their caffeine intake.

When it comes to flavor, those with refined coffee palates will be able to detect the difference between regular and instant coffee almost instantly. This is mainly because fresh coffee maintains all its essential oils and chemical components, giving it a fuller flavor.

This, combined with the larger variety in flavor with fresh coffee, gives it a more subtle flavor than most instant variations.

And if you’re looking for that morning jolt, there’s no denying that fresh ground coffee (ie: real coffee) starting with whole coffee beans and brewed with quality coffee machines or an espresso machine will not only give you a vastly superior flavor, but you’ll get higher caffeine content too!

Can I use ground coffee as instant coffee?

Regular ground coffee will not turn into instant coffee upon adding hot water. The coffee, even if ground using the fine setting on a grinder, will still be too coarse and the grinds would end up floating in the brewed coffee.

Instant coffee is essentially coffee powder that dissolves in water.

If no coffee maker is available, grind the coffee finely, add hot water, allow to steep for a few minutes, and then strain through a paper filter or cheesecloth.

At first glance, some instant coffee blends can look just like regular coffee grounds. However, they are not the same thing.

But you can’t really substitute ground coffee for instant and vice versa.

You can’t expect to pour hot water over coffee grounds and have them dissolve in the same way instant coffee will. If you have the right tools, you can still make a decent cup of coffee.

But without some sort of filter, you will have some gritty coffee.

Instant coffee is desired for its convenience. You can make your morning cup of coffee within minutes without needing to wait for a whole pot to brew. What you may not realize is that you can still get a really great cup of coffee within minutes even if you only have coffee grounds.

All you need is a French press.

Now, of course, a Keurig coffee maker can also make a cup of coffee in just a few minutes; it is actually quicker than a French press. However, if you are looking for smooth and pure coffee flavor, a French press is the way to go.

You can read more about French press coffee in a recent article. In this article, I go over the pros and cons of having a French press as well as how to make the best French pressed coffee.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

What is considered instant coffee?

Instant coffee is made from regular coffee that has been brewed with a high amount of water content and then either freeze-dried or air-dried. The result is then ground up coarsely and packaged.

Now, you may be asking yourself what dried coffee extract is, especially since we’ve already established that ground coffee is different from instant coffee.

The manufacturing process for instant coffee starts by brewing coffee in pretty much the same way you would brew regular coffee, only in a much more concentrated “dose.”

After the coffee is brewed, the water is then removed to create dry fragments or powder that will dissolve when water is added.

Water is removed from the extract and turned into instant coffee in one of two ways:

  • Spray drying: concentrated coffee extract is sprayed into hot air to dry the droplets quickly and turn them into a powder or small granules.
  • Freeze-drying: With the freeze-drying process, coffee extract is frozen and cut into small pieces to then be dried at a low temperature in some sort of vacuum-controlled container.

Both of these methods help to preserve the quality, aroma, and flavor of the original coffee so you still get a good cup of coffee simply by adding hot water.

What are coffee crystals?

Coffee crystals refer specifically to the freeze-drying method of making instant coffee. The spray-drying method results in coffee powder rather than a crystal.

Why is instant coffee so bad?

Instant coffee is bad as many brands use the inferior Robusto coffee bean instead of Arabica beans, resulting in an inferior flavor. But also the process of making instant coffee also increases the amount of acrylamide in it which is a chemical found in studies to be harmful.

Acrylamide is a chemical that is used in many industrial processes.

This includes the production of paper, dyes, and plastics. It can also be produced when coffee is brewed and possibly even found in other foods like potatoes (fries, chips, etc.), canned black olives & prune juice.

Though more research needs to be conducted, it is believed that excessive intake of this chemical can increase your risk for certain cancers as well as cause damage to your nervous system. (source)

While drinking coffee has not been proven to increase your risk of developing cancer, you do want to be careful of overexposure to this chemical if you drink quite a bit in a day or if you primarily drink instant coffee.

It is believed that due to its high concentration, instant coffee may contain up to twice as much acrylamide as regular coffee. Again, nothing to be overly concerned with, but something to be aware of.

Of course, even though regular coffee has its health benefits, it still has its downsides. Because it is a crop, non-organically grown coffee beans will have been exposed to pesticides and herbicides.

If you are concerned about toxic chemicals in your coffee, organic coffee may be a better way to go, as explained in a recent article. I get into all the downsides of non-organic coffee. But I also bust one of the biggest myths out there in terms of pesticides and coffee beans.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Is instant coffee made from arabica or robusta coffee beans?

Generally speaking, most instant coffee, is made from robusta beans. Robusta is an inferior bean to the higher-priced Arabica coffee beans. So the brands that do use Arabica proudly state that on the front of their labels.

So, aside from acrylamide, another big reason a lot of instant coffee tastes bad is the inferior bean they often use to make it with. Coffee is either made from arabica beans or robusta beans.

Arabica beans are vastly superior. So in this section, let’s explore that further.

The arabica shortage of 2011 also caused many companies to switch to robusta beans. So while instant coffee sales in the US are pretty flat, overall robusta sales increased 7% following the shortage. (source)

So what’s the difference between robusta beans and arabica beans?

Aspect Arabica Beans Robusta Beans
Flavor Profile Sweeter with balanced acidity. Similar overtones to a nice glass of wine A harsher flavor that can be described as bitter with peanut overtones
Caffeine Levels Twice as much as arabica beans Half as much as robusta beans
Price Generally, much less expensive due to how much easier they are to grow and how much faster these trees bear fruit. Under $4.00 for 12 oz of ground coffee from Folgers Usually a lot more expensive. 12 oz. from Starbucks would be about $6.00, so roughly 66% more expensive
Areas Grown Almost exclusively grown in Africa and Asia Primarily grown in South America, but some in Africa too

What is the best instant coffee to buy?

Here are a few brands and blend recommendations for those who may be looking for a new instant coffee to try:

  • Waka Coffee – An Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews. Decaf or regular, medium or light roast
  • Starbucks Via (hot and iced variations) – Starbucks practically invented the gourmet instant coffee trend with these long slender individual packets. These are my go-to when camping
  • Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Coffee – Amazon’s Choice product with hundreds of great reviews. You’ve probably seen this on the shelves at Whole Foods.
  • Nescafe – Yes, they no doubt make some terrible ones too. But this Nescafe is 100% arabica and has great reviews.
  • Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso   – Great reviews and another Amazon’s Choice product. Most of their products are indeed 100% arabica, but this one doesn’t actually say it on the label, so I’m not certain
  • Café Altura Fair Trade Organic Coffee – Another one like Mount Hagen that combines 100% arabica beans, fair trade, and organically grown into an instant coffee that can’t be beaten! Also an Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews.

Click any of those links to check them out on Amazon, read reviews, and see the current price.

How many different types of coffee are there?

There are 4 different types of coffee beans (not counting roast type and country of origin). Those 4 are:

  • Arabica 
  • Robusta
  • Liberica
  • Excelsa 

Having said that, chances are, you’ve never had the last 2.

Arabica is considered the best and it’s the most commonly seen bean at your local coffee shop and on grocery shelves; especially in the US.

Robusta is definitely inferior to Arabica but tends to be more popular across Eastern Europe and Africa. It is also less expensive.

Liberica beans tend to come from the Philippines. But due to steep US economic sanctions, you rarely see these beans anywhere. They are a good-quality bean though.

And lastly, we have a variation of the Liberica bean called an Excelsa bean.

The flavor tends to be very unique and while not bitter, can be a bit tart and have overtones of fruit flavors. But as with Liberica beans, you’re unlikely to find it.

Are coffee pods and K-cups better than instant coffee?

As a general rule, almost all brands (at least in the US) of coffee pods and K-cups are made from arabica beans. So considering most brands of instant coffee use the inferior robusta bean, yes; K-cups and coffee pods will give you a better cup of coffee than a cup of instant coffee.

But there’s a catch.

Most coffee machines like the Keurig have multiple size settings. And since in the US, we apparently love to supersize EVERYTHING, we all tend to hit the largest size available (usually 10 oz.).

But the standard K-cup is designed for 4oz.

That means, in order to really make a good cup of coffee using a Keurig or other pod coffee maker, you need to use 1 K-cup per 4 oz. But most Keurig’s small button is 6 oz; someone really wasn’t thinking (kind of like when you buy hot dogs and hot dog buns and it’s never the same number).

So your best bet is to brew two 6oz cycles with 1 K-cup each. And IF you do that, you’ll get a decent cup of coffee and it will be superior to instant coffee.

But getting the coffee-to-water ratio wrong is only ONE of the reasons Keurig coffee might taste bad. See all of the other reasons (and solutions) in my recent article.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Final thoughts

I hope this answers all of your questions about the difference between instant and regular coffee.

For those who want a quick cup of coffee in the morning or midday, there is nothing wrong with instant coffee. You can save money by avoiding the trip to Starbucks and make it just about anywhere with just hot water.

However, if you are looking for depth and variety in flavor, fresh coffee is the way to go.


As an Amazon Associate I may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases if you click to Amazon from my site and choose to make a purchase. You can read my complete affiliate disclosure for more details.

Jeff Campbell

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