The best instant coffee brands for hiking, complete with a beginner's guide to instant coffee - how instant is coffee made, how it compares to ground coffee and how to brew the perfect cup.
Instant coffee is popular on the trail because it is lightweight and easy to prepare in your pack. But, backpackers weren't the first group to appreciate this form of coffee. Instant coffee has a long history that dates back to 1771 when it first was invented in Britain as a coffee compound.
It grew in popularity during the 1800s, so much so that instant coffee cakes were handed out to Civil War soldiers as part of their regular rations. It was only a short time before instant coffee was mass produced by George Constant Louis Washington in 1910 and used widely by soldiers in World War I. The rest is history, and now instant coffee is a permanent part of the coffee culture.
Just like most coffee, instant coffee starts with a green bean that is roasted to perfection. The roasted bean then is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to form a concentrate. This concentrated solution is dried using one of two methods - freeze-drying or spray drying.
Method 1: Spray drying. With spray drying, the liquid coffee mixture is sprayed as a fine mist into hot, dry air. This process causes the droplets to dry as they fall.
Method 2: Freeze-drying is a bit more complicated. The coffee slurry is frozen first into a slushie and then frozen again to -40 degrees F. At this low temp, the coffee turns into a slab of coffee which is then passed through a drying vacuum that vaporizes the ice, removing the water from bean mixture. What remains is a powder that retains most of the aromas of the coffee intact.
Most instant coffee is packaged as a powder for convenience. You scoop out the appropriate amount of powder, put it in your cup, add hot water and presto! You have a cup of piping joe. The powder is easy to use, but it can take up room in your bag as you store it in a leakproof container,
Coffee cubes take the fuss out of making coffee by packing the powder into a single-serving cube that you drop into a cup of hot water. Merely add the cube, stir, and flavor as needed. The cube coffee is very easy to prepare, but you lose some of the fine-tuning that comes with the powder. With a powder, you can always scoop out a little extra for a more robust flavor, but you cant cut half of a cube. At least not easily.
The pour-overs kind of fall into their own category - are they instant coffee or not? They usually are "real" coffee, yet so convenient we consider them "instant". This type uses a pouch that acts as a filter. Put the coffee filter pouch on the top of your mug and pour water through the filter to create a cup of coffee. You then can squeeze the filter to get the last few remaining drops of coffee. Coffee pouches are convenient, but the filter pouch needs to be disposed of properly.
It's easy to make a great cup of instant coffee even on the trail.
Step 1: Boil 7-8 ounces of water
Step 2: Add one to two teaspoons of instant coffee to your cup or mug
Step 3: Stir until dissolved
(optional) Mix in the extras: maybe sugar, milk, etc
Drink and enjoy!
You can modify these directions to suit your taste. Like espresso? Then double the amount of instant coffee or cut down on the amount of water you add to your cup. Want an iced coffee? Then use cold water instead of hot water and stir well until all the coffee is dissolved.
When it comes to backpacking, you have two choices for your coffee - instant coffee that takes a minute to make or brewed coffee prepared from roasted coffee grounds. There is no right or wrong type of coffee here. What you drink depends on your preferences.
Convenience = Much More Convenient!
Instant coffee is still coffee, but its processing makes it a much different product to drink and prepare. First and foremost, it is lightweight to carry because you don't need a filtering device or backcountry coffee pot to make a cup of joe. It also is easy to prepare -- add hot water and drink. There's also no leftover grinds to pack out.
Taste = Usually Less Tasty :(
Most people prefer brewed coffee over instant coffee because of the taste. Brewed coffee has a fuller taste because some of the aromatic compounds that give coffee its flavor are lost in the drying process. Some instant coffee manufacturers also try to keep costs low by using cheaper Robusta beans instead of the more expensive Arabica beans that are commonly used for brewed coffee. The robusta beans have a bitter taste that many people don't like. If you are picky about the taste of your coffee, shop for instant coffee prepared with higher quality coffee beans.
Caffeine amount = ABout Half The Amount
Instant coffee contains on average about half the amount of caffeine as a freshly brewed cup of coffee. If you are accustomed to a kick in the morning from your first cup of coffee, you may want to consider sticking with brewed coffee on the trail.
Cost = Less expensive
The price of instant vs. ground coffee is going to vary depending on the beans and the strength of the coffee being brewed. In general, instant coffee is cheaper because it is made from less expensive beans. At its cheapest, instant coffee costs only pennies per cup. Instant also doesn't require you to purchase disposable filters or a pot for brewing.
Storage = Longer shelf life
Because of the way it is made, Instant coffee has a longer shelf life than freshly roasted coffee. To preserve its flavor for as long as possible, Instant coffee should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark location. Keep coffee away from direct light or heat as that will cause the coffee to lose its flavor. Don't store coffee in the refrigerator as it may absorb moisture and smells from other food.
Health = unknown
All coffees contain acrylamide, a chemical common in cooked starchy food that has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in rats who were given the compound in high dosages. No such cancer risk has been found in humans, so acrylamide is considered to be safe to consume. While brewed coffee contains 179 mcg/kg, instant coffee has double that amount most likely due to the heating process that is used to dry the coffee beans and turn them into a powder. This acylamide level is low enough that it does not cause any known health effects.
Instant coffee still contains all the antioxidants that are present in brewed coffee. It also contains small amounts of minerals and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, and niacin (vitamin B3). No matter which type of coffee you drink, you are still getting similar health benefits.
Price: $14 for a six packet box
Swift Cup elevates instant coffee to a new level with specialty blends that range from the standard Mainstay blend with cocoa, caramel, and red fruit to the exotic Geisha Village Natural with fresh berries, floral, milk chocolate. Each box ships with six individual packets that contain 5g of freeze-dried coffee.
Price: $9 for eight packets
As its name implies, Alpine Start coffee was started by climber Matt Segal who was tired of drinking crappy coffee. Sourced from Colombia, Alpine Start uses 100% high altitude arabica beans. It is available in several flavors, including an original blend, a latte with coconut as the creamer and a Dirty Chai Latte. You can purchase each flavor individually or grab a variety pack to try all three.
Price: $5 for eight packets
Starbucks Via takes the company's signature coffees and packages them into single-use packets that are great on the trail. Just pour a packet into your mug, stir in some hot water and wait 10 seconds before enjoying that first sip.
Price: $10 for 12 single-serving cubes
Jiva is a blend of 100% Colombian Coffee, raw sugar and USDA Organic extracts that are compressed into a single-use cube. Just drop a cube into eight ounces of boiled water, wait 45 seconds for the cube to dissolve, stir and enjoy.
Price: $15 for 10 packets
If you are looking for a unique coffee, look no further than Four Sigmatic's mushroom coffee. Made with 100% organic Arabica coffee beans, the instant coffee blend includes lion's man mushroom, Chaga mushroom, and Rhodiola Root.
Price: $9.35 for 25 single-serving packets
Mount Hagen uses choice highland Arabica beans that are organically grown on small farms and under shade trees for the best flavors. They are slow roasted and then freeze-dried without any preservatives or additives. Each packet contains enough coffee for one cup of joe.
Price: $12 for five packets
Type: pour over
Copper Cow coffee lets you create a Vietnamese style coffee with little fuss. The pour-over style coffee uses a single serving bag that sits in your mug and is used to filter brew your coffee. You'll get a better tasting cup of joe without having to drag a french press into the backcountry.
Price: $15 for 30 packets
Trader Joe’s Instant coffee packets are a one-step coffee - add water, and it's ready to drink. Each pack contains 100% Arabica coffee along with cream and sugar.
Price: $20 for 84 sticks
One of the largest instant coffee makers in the world, Nestle has been producing instant coffee under the Nescafe brand since 1938. The company's coffee fueled Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their record-breaking expedition to Mount Everest in 1953. Its latest product, Nescafe Classico, uses 100% Colombian Arabica coffee beans and is available in sticks, powders, and packets. Note these are better known for their price, not their quality!
Price: $8 for 19 bags
The Folgers name is synonymous with instant coffee. Founded in 1854 by J.A. Folger, the company focused on acquiring the best coffee beans possible. Its first instant coffee was a flop, but the next one was a big hit. Since then, Folgers has expanded its product lineup to include a variety of instant coffees, including these singles which are ideal for hiking Each tea-like bag contains just enough coffee to make a great cup of joe.
Price: $22 for 10 packets
Type: pour over (portable, but not instant)
Kuju Pocket PourOvers system makes it possible to enjoy a cup gourmet coffee anywhere you have hot water. Each pocket includes the perfect amount of coffee for a single. Best of all, when you are done brewing, squeeze the excess coffee from the pouch and dispose of it properly.
Price: $13.99 for four pouches
Type: brewed (portable, but not instant)
Hiker's Brew uses only organic as well as fair-trade coffee beans and offers a variety of flavors that are packaged into small compostable packages for backpacking. Each Hiker's Brew Venture pouch brews up to four 6-ounce cups of coffee. This is not instant coffee so you will need to carry along a french press.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.