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I don’t own a coffee machine and I have no interest in getting one. It’s not that I don’t like coffee — I very much enjoy it. But when I drink it, I only drink one cup, which has never seemed enough to make investing in even a cheap coffee-maker worthwhile. Last year when everything closed down, I was forced to quit my habit of picking up a latte at the café down the street. Not willing to give up my routine or caffeine, I took a chance on Jot, an instant coffee that, to my surprise (and delight), tasted comparable to what I was used to from my coffee shop. Even non–coffee snobs like me know that instant coffee has always had a reputation as sort of the Franzia of the coffee world: a cheap (and cheap-tasting) imitation of the real thing. But my love for Jot — which my coffee-snob boyfriend also approved of — got me wondering if there were other instant varieties that are just as good.
The short answer? Yes. After spending more than a year trying more than two dozen kinds of instant coffee, I now consider myself a bit of a connoisseur. For those who haven’t had it in awhile — or ever — instant coffee now comes in lots more forms than the chalky powder you might think of. That’s not to say there aren’t good powdered instant coffees — there are — but my favorites also come as single-serve bags, concentrates, and even latte mixes (none of which made me react like Ross and Chandler when they tried instant lattes on Friends). Each style has its strengths. Single-serve bags work best for those who seek precise brew strength because you can control how long they steep for. Concentrates work best for those who want a strong cup. And if you’re short on time or particularly lazy (or both), a mix or powder are generally the easiest to prepare without much effort. My 12 favorite instant coffees below should include a variety for most anyone — including the dairy-free, because I’m lactose-intolerant.
Swift Cup Coffee actually produces the instant coffee for many brands, including some that are on this list. According to the company, the proprietary technology it uses to roast and freeze-dry coffee as a powder is why other brands seek it as a production partner. But after trying Swift’s own powder instant coffee along with varieties it makes for other companies, I would say Swift’s is better. The texture is the smoothest of all the instant coffees on this list and every cup tastes café-quality, whether black or with a splash of milk. You really can’t tell it’s instant.
I used to stop into Joe Coffee for black coffee at least once a week when I commuted to the office. The coffee was always so rich and smooth that I never needed to add anything to it. I’m happy to say the brand’s powder instant coffee, served black, tastes just the same. Joe Coffee is actually produced in partnership with Swift Cup Coffee, which explains why it’s of such high quality. Even though it is clearly not fresh — it is freeze-dried coffee powder — somehow this tastes like it was just roasted.
Sometimes I want the taste of coffee but not the caffeine. Decaf coffee of course has its stigmas, one of which is that a lot of it tastes off. I’ve felt this way about both instant and machine-brewed decaf coffees, but Voila is an exception. I’ve tried the brand’s caffeinated coffees, too, and the decaf tastes so similar that I sometimes forget which variety I’m drinking. There’s no weird aftertaste and the powder dissolves seamlessly.
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I spoke to Emma Chamberlain last year after she rebranded her coffee company. Her team sent me samples in preparation for our interview and, despite my preconceptions that she maybe was just slapping her name on anything, I really liked the coffee. I drank it so much that once my samples were gone, I bought more of the single-serve bags myself. I’m typically a medium-to-dark-roast person, but the brand’s Early Bird, a light-roast, is what I enjoyed most, especially on days I didn’t get a lot of sleep. It has the highest caffeine content of all of Chamberlain Coffee’s blends and definitely wakes me up. The taste is crisp, not heavy or rich — another reason why I prefer it on mornings when I’m feeling more tired.
I first heard about this instant coffee from Tan France, who to be fair partnered with Starbucks to promote it. Again, the brand sent me some to try — but they did not send some to my dad, whom I gave a cup to one day when he came over to hang some pictures. He is a loyalist to Maxwell House and uses his Cuisinart coffee-maker to brew it, but when he tried this, he couldn’t believe it was instant. Tan, meanwhile, described it as “exactly like the medium roast you get at a Starbucks store,” and I’d have to agree. Of all the powder instant coffees on the list, this is also the easiest to blend. I only need to stir it for maybe five seconds before it’s good to go.
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Steeped Coffee offers all sorts of instant-coffee blends, from French roast to light roast. Of the two I’ve tried (medium and dark), I recommend the dark for its chocolatey, caramel-y notes. The instant coffee comes in single-serve bags and, to me, tastes a bit fresher than other bagged varieties. Apparently this is due to a patent-pending process that involves nitro sealing each bag to preserve the freshness of the grind, according to the brand. Each bag is also sealed without glue or staples, elements that prevent other single-serve tea or coffee bags from being compostable. So this instant coffee is a bit more environmentally friendly, too.
This one bugged me at first because each time I made it, it tasted bitter and almost burnt. I wrote it off as just a bad instant mix until my sister and sister-in-law told me that the temperature of the water you use to brew matters. Not being a coffee snob, I didn’t yet know this. But once I did, I gave the latte mix another go with 200-degree water instead of the 212-degree temperature I usually let it rise to. The lower temperature made all the difference: That cup, and each one since, has tasted like a real latte. Because this is a latte mix, you don’t have to add any milk — it already has oat powder in it that turns very creamy as soon as the water touches it. It foams a little on it’s own through stirring, but you won’t get any intense froth. You also have to vigorously stir it for longer than the few seconds the brand suggests to make sure it doesn’t clump (or use a frother if you have one). Even so, it’s worth the extra effort for those who love their lattes.
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A lot of instant latte mixes require you to foam your milk outside of the latte if you want real froth. The best part about this mix from Clevr is that you don’t need to add anything to it to get a frothy latte. You do, however, need a frother — but given how perfectly foamy this mix gets each time, buying one would probably save you money on coffee-shop lattes in the long run. Just add eight ounces of water to three tablespoons of the mix, blend it with a frother for ten seconds, and the included oat milk and coconut cream make it foamier and creamier than any other instant latte I’ve tried. To those who don’t have (or want) a frother, I’ve also stirred this together and it works. But the resulting latte isn’t as foamy.
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You usually have to plan ahead in order to make cold brew because it has to sit for at least 12 hours. Lucky Jack solves that problem: Because it’s a concentrate, you just mix it with water and you’re done. I’ve tried it hot, but I think this really shines when served cold. They also have different varieties, like vanilla and caramel, if you prefer your cold brew with a little flavor.
Jot, the instant coffee that got me hooked on instant coffees, still holds a place in my lineup. It’s a concentrate like Lucky Jack, but I think it’s slightly more versatile because it tastes as good brewed hot or cold. I’ve determined this is due to the consistency; Lucky Jack is thinner than Jot, which makes it taste kind of weak served hot. Because of its thicker consistency, Jot also requires less of the concentrate in order to get a strong taste.
I normally don’t love creamers. They often have an awful aftertaste that can instantly ruin a cup of coffee. The reason I gave this powder instant coffee that includes a creamer a shot is because Strategist editor Maxine Builder wrote an ode to the brand’s creamer years ago; if she liked it, I figured I might like the coffee. I’m happy to say that Maxine did not lead me astray. The instant coffee is creamy without being heavy and, more importantly, does not have a bad aftertaste. When you add water, don’t be alarmed if unappetizing clumps of powder float to the top: An intense stir (you really need to stir this one) blends it all into what tastes like a normal cup of coffee.
Flavored coffee can often taste too sweet and leave my stomach feeling uncomfortably heavy after drinking a full cup. To be honest, I saw this brand on Amazon and took a chance. I liked that it contains no chemicals and is sweetened by monk fruit, which is subtler and less saccharin than sugar. And I love chocolate. This is by far the best of the handful of mocha-latte-type instant coffees I tried. The powder instant coffee is rich to be sure, but not heavy enough that I feel queasy after drinking it. The chocolate and sea-salt flavors taste natural, too. I like it so much that I plan to try the brand’s salted caramel and vanilla varieties when I finish this bag.
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