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The Instant Coffee Taste Test

Not all instant coffee is terrible, but some brews are definitely better than others.

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Not long ago, back when it was actually possible to beat the dreaded Colorado I-70 weekend ski traffic with an early start or make a 14er ski attempt by being at the trailhead hours-before-dawn, I drank a lot of instant coffee. There was no time to brew a pot of java, instead, I sprinkled a packet of Starbucks Via into a road mug with some hot water and out the door I went.

These days, I’m a little less enthusiastic about getting in the car during the wee hours of a Saturday morning to “beat” the traffic, and I’ve been shut down from enough ski mountaineering missions that the passion for super-early starts has waned there too (though not entirely). Even though this means I have time to make proper coffee more often now, I still find myself brewing instant coffee from time to time, especially when I don’t want to deal with spent grounds in the backcountry. I’ve also diversified my instant options, putting brands like Alpine Start and Stoked Roasters into my trusty travel thermos, but I still find myself drinking Starbucks Via more often than not when it comes to getting coffee in a hurry.

A few weeks ago, Jim Lamancusa, the founder of Cusa Tea, told me he was setting out into the world of instant coffee, and I was shocked. His Colorado-based company’s instant tea sachets were made specifically to rival brands like Alpine Start and Starbucks with a product for those who drink tea instead of java. Lamancusa doesn’t even drink coffee. But, being aware of my java addiction, he provided me with a sample of the all-new Cusa Coffee to try.

This new option, combined with some spring cleaning of the kitchen cupboards, inspired an instant coffee blind taste test. I had to remove the Stoked from the test (expired package), but otherwise, I had my quarantine buddy—who also doesn’t drink coffee—brew a cup of Starbucks Via Columbia Medium Roast, Alpine Start Original Blend, Sudden Instant Coffee using Ozo Coffee Company medium roast beans, and Cusa Coffee Medium Roast.

Each sachet was brewed using 8 ounces of boiling water and served black (no sugar or cream). Between tastings, I swished cold water in my mouth to cleanse my palate. Granted, the mugs weren’t all identical in shape, but if you’re drinking instant coffee in the backcountry, there’s probably even more variables beyond your control.

Fourth Place: Sudden Coffee with Ozo Beans

Sudden Coffee’s secret process involves “gently” brewing the coffee (“like a pour-over!” claims their website) before a dehydration process that involves freeze-drying the coffee using a vacuum method. The company works with independent roasters across the U.S., including Ozo, one of my favorite roasters in Colorado.

Ozo Coffee Company is located near the SKI Magazine office, so I drink a lot of their joe. In fact, I often head over to their coffee shop for an afternoon latté. But the Sudden/Ozo instant coffee, made by Sudden Coffee’s freeze-drying dehydration process, didn’t quite work. The aroma reminded me of a Holiday Inn’s lobby coffee that has been on a warmer too long. The taste was weak, bitter, and acidic. Yes, I’d drink it in the backcountry (and, like most things, it would probably taste better there), but I wasn’t impressed with it at home.

I do have to give the Sudden/Ozo brew points for having the most reusable/recyclable container. That said, this was the least enjoyable brew in this taste test.

Third Place: Alpine Start Original Blend

A messy version of the Alpine Start Original Blend.Alpine Start

Alpine Start was founded by a rock climber who was tired of drinking bad instant coffee. This company also dehydrates its coffee, although it’s not specified on their website how this process is completed. I have actively sought out Alpine Start when shopping for instant coffee over the past few years in an effort to support small businesses.

The first thing I noticed in this taste test, however, is that the smell of Alpine Start might have been even worse than the Sudden/Ozo. It reminded me of gas station coffee, the type that barely has taste yet still gives me heartburn. The aroma might have put me off, but once Alpine Start was on my tongue, its status improved greatly. It was a little weak and acidic, but there was barely any bitterness and it was very drinkable. In other words, it’s a solid choice as long as your travel mug has a lid.

Second Place: Starbucks Via Columbian Medium Roast

The way Starbucks originally made instant coffee was mostly by grinding the beans into granules so small, they can dissolve in hot water. They still use this method, but now the corporation combines the micro-ground coffee with some heat-dehydrated coffee crystals as well.

As I’ve grown to enjoy Alpine Start over the past few years, it’s been a while since I had a sachet of Via. In this taste test, the smell of the Via was really pleasant, almost a pot of coffee made from Costco beans in a drip machine (my parent’s favorite). It’s not quite how my favorite coffee shop smells, but miles ahead of the other instant coffees mentioned so far.

The taste, however, is classic Starbucks: Full, strong, but kind of burnt and pretty bitter. There were a few nice notes of chocolate involved, however, and I enjoyed the robust flavor enough to rank it just ahead of the Alpine Start, but just barely.

First Place: Cusa Coffee Medium Roast

Cusa makes its instant coffee without heat. Instead, the brand cold-brews coffee under pressure and then dehydrates the grounds through evaporation. Cusa uses a similar technique to make its instant tea, which is also worth trying. Also, the packaging says, “cold brew,” but the instant packets can be brewed using hot or cold water. I used hot water to keep the test consistent.

A whiff of Cusa Coffee’s medium roast was definitely different than all of the other instant coffees tested. The high-definition aroma was better than the Starbucks, featuring notes of cocoa and nuts. The coffee’s taste was also rich, robust, and tasted like it just came out of a drip coffee machine, not an instant coffee sachet. It lacked any bitter notes and was the best of the test by a long shot.

Cusa Coffee is still in its Kickstarter phase, but will likely be available to the public soon. If you’re anxious to give it a shot, you can help get the product off the ground (and get some coffee in the process) on the Cusa Coffee Kickstarter page.

This list is not meant to be inclusive of all the instant coffee options out there, as there seem to be more brands popping up every month, which is great news for coffee addicts. I hope to taste them all someday, but, until then, the Cusa Coffee really is a step above every other type of instant coffee I’ve had. It’s an option I would encourage any coffee drinker to try, whether you’re still trying to beat weekend traffic, headed out on an overnight backcountry mission, or just want a cup of joe without any fuss.