I have had a jar of Douwe Egberts instant coffee in my cupboard for years now. I feel quite bad that it’s there. I don’t really remember buying it. I have always been a fan of fresh coffee. The fresher the better.
It’ll seem obvious to most that a mug of instant coffee and a mug of fresh coffee from a bean are not the same thing. It really got me wondering; what are the differences between instant coffee and ground coffee?
In short, the answer is processing. Ground coffee is what we are served in a coffee shop; it is a roasted coffee bean. Instant coffee once was a coffee bean but it has gone through a unique brewing process and then dried out to make a water-soluble coffee granule.
What Is Ground Coffee?
Ground coffee, also called just plain old coffee beans, is the fresh coffee we use to make an espresso, drip, or pour over coffee.
That might be a bit of an over simplification though. Ground coffee has been grown on a farm.
Coffee grows on a coffee plant as little coffee berries. The plant grows little red cherries, called coffee cherries. When they are ripe, they are picked, and the fruit and pulp are removed from the bean inside.
Then bean then needs to be dried and have its dry papery skin removed. The dried skinless bean is then ready to be roasted. At this stage it is called a green coffee bean.
It is then shipped to the roaster. Unsurprisingly, the roaster roasts the bean. It’s at this point that the bean loses its green color and develops rich coffee flavors and aromas along with its characteristic brown color.
After roasting, the beans have to be left to rest. They will outgas CO2. Once they have given off the majority of their carbon dioxide, they are ready to grind and brew your coffee.
Whether they are sold as whole beans or pre-ground; this is ground coffee.
Instant coffee doesn’t stop there.
What Is Instant Coffee?
The process of making instant coffee picks up where the ground coffee process finished.
To turn ground coffee into instant coffee, it is put through a special brewing process to extract all of the flavors that make coffee coffee.
This brewing process is not how you would brew coffee at home or in a coffee shop. The aim of this process is to create a concentrated liquid which contains everything which gives coffee its flavor, texture, and aroma.
Some instant coffee manufacturers will mix a small amount of fresh ground coffee into the concentrate to try to give a more coffee-like final product.
The concentrate is then dried, desiccated, leaving behind soluble coffee granules. These granules are instant coffee.
How Is Instant Coffee Made?
Instant coffee is a classic case of just add water. One teaspoon if instant coffee granules, plus hot water, equal one mug of joe.
Pro tip: add a little bit of cold water first and dissolve the granules in it before adding hot water. Makes for a better brew. Not sure why.
Is Ground Coffee Better Than Instant Coffee?
Ask a load of coffee fans and the resounding response will probably be that coffee made from fresh ground beans tastes best.
Ask random people from around the world and you will probably find a lot of people saying they quite like instant. Some even prefer instant coffee.
I suppose it depends on what people are looking for in their coffee. If instant coffee is what a person has always drunk, then asking them to wait on a pot of drip coffee brewing would seem silly and unnecessary.
If someone wants their coffee as quick as damn possible, then instant is probably what they prefer.
If you are looking for the tastiest mug of mud then fresh ground coffee beans are your route to bliss.
Ground Coffee vs Instant Coffee: What Are The Overall Differences?
Brewing fresh ground coffee can take a bit of time. The rule of thumb for a French Press is to give it 4 minutes before pressing the plunger down. A massive jug of drip coffee can take as long as ten minutes to come out of the machine.
An espresso is one brewing method which is designed to be fast. Express. In some places around the world, waiting longer than one minute for an espresso at a coffee shop is considered a long wait.
Instant coffee on the other hand takes as long to make as it takes you to spoon some granules into a mug and add hot water. Instant.
Making coffee from ground coffee does leave waste behind. Yes, you can absolutely compost your old grounds and filters. Unfortunately, some brewing methods, like with pod machines, leave a lot of waste behind.
Coffee pods are becoming increasingly common at landfill sites. Many are not recyclable and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
Instant coffee leaves minimal waste behind besides a jar. This is at least, in your home. It is hard to gauge the exact amount of waste caused by the process of producing instant coffee.
We would have to get into an instant coffee factory to see exactly how much waste the process makes overall. We can hope it is mainly just used up coffee grounds which can go on to make excellent compost.
The general opinion, and I can add to that, is that a mug of fresh ground coffee tastes far better than instant coffee.
With that said, I have genuinely come across people who have said they prefer instant coffee over fresh ground coffee. Heathens, I know!
Some might not even notice the difference much because they like to have lots of sugar and milk with their coffee. There’s not a wrong way to have it. Everyone has their preference.
Usually, Instant coffee has a lower caffeine content than fresh ground coffee. That is, if you follow the instruction on the instant coffee jar. You can always add more instant granules to your brew, if you think it needs more kick, but then you will definitely make it taste more bitter.
Don’t just take my word for it though, here are the numbers.
- An 8oz mug of instant coffee will have about 63mg of caffeine.
- An 8oz mug of drip or filter coffee will have about 145mg of caffeine. It usually falls in the range of 115mg to 175mg because there are quite a lot of different variables which can affect it.
- An espresso, which is 1oz, will have about 64mg of caffeine.
If you have two mugs of coffee, one instant, the other drip coffee. Both in the same size of mug. The Instant coffee will likely have less than half the caffeine content of the drip coffee.
Then again, an 8oz mug of instant bean juice will still have about as much caffeine as an espresso.
Defining what makes quality can be a bit hand wavy sometimes. Ultimately you could just ask which is better?. It’s about as vague.
Instant coffee is usually made with Robusta coffee beans. They have about twice the caffeine, less sugars and fats, and are usually considered less tasty. Robusta beans taste far more earthy and bitter than their counterpart, Arabica beans, which we are served in coffee shops or we buy as fresh ground coffee. Robusta beans are also cheaper.
Then there is also the process which the beans go through to make the instant granules. The extra heating, cooling, and then heating again in your mug absolutely impacts the flavour.
Fresh ground coffee has been heated with water. Instant coffee has had an extra round of heating, cooling, and who truly knows what else done to it in making the granules. It’s hard to argue that, with the extra processing the instant goes through, it is exactly the same drink.
Antioxidants is an aspect of coffee which probably doesn’t get enough attention.
Antioxidants are compounds in coffee which help protect your body against free radicals. Free radicals are molecules, atoms, and ions with one or more unpaired electrons, ahem, which are particularly reactive and can cause damage to cells in your body. Antioxidants are good for you.
As it turns out, a mug of instant and a mug of coffee made from ground coffee both have similar amounts of antioxidants.
The Original Type of Bean
Like I said back at the Quality section instant coffee is made from Robusta coffee beans. Mainly because they are cheaper.
There are two main species of coffee bean; Robusta and Arabica. Arabica beans are considered by most people to be the tastier bean.
An Arabica coffee bean will taste sweet and soft. It is what you will be served in a coffee shop or buy in a bag of coffee beans; whether whole beans or pre-ground. Arabica beans also have about half of the caffeine content of a Robusta bean.
A Robusta bean on the other hand tastes strong, harsh, and bitter. Robusta is usually a hardier plant, so it is easier to grow and thus cheaper.
Being honest here, fresh ground coffee is more expensive than instant coffee.
One jar of instant coffee could potentially make over a hundred mugs of joe. One typical 227g bag of coffee will make maybe 20 mugs at best. Certainly less in my house. If the jar and the bag are both priced similarly then the instant is clearly the better value buy.
I’ll still argue it’s worth it for the tastier fresh coffee beans but that’s my opinion.