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 things. 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 by the barista 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 espresso, french press, Aeropress, pour-over coffee, or add to your drip coffee maker. It’s just the whole coffee beans that have been through a grinder.
That might be a bit of an oversimplification 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.
The beans then need to undergo a drying process and have their dry papery skin removed. The dried skinless beans are then ready to be roasted. At this stage, it is called a green coffee bean.
They are then shipped to the roaster. Unsurprisingly, the roaster roasts them. It’s at this point that the beans lose their green color and develop rich coffee flavors and aromas along with their 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 taste like 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 that contains everything which gives coffee its flavor, texture, and aroma.
Some instant coffee brands will mix a small amount of fresh ground coffee into the concentrate to try to give a more coffee-like final product.
The concentrate undergoes freeze-drying then desiccation leaving behind soluble coffee granules or coffee extract. These granules are instant coffee.
How Is Instant Coffee Made?
Instant coffee is a classic case of just add water. One teaspoon of 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 drinkers 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 an instant cup of joe. Some even prefer a cup of 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 likes brewing coffee as quickly 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 (real coffee) 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.
Espresso is one brewing method that 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.
The 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 coffee filters. Unfortunately, some brewing methods like 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, sweeteners, and milk with their coffee. There’s not a wrong way to have it. Everyone has their preference.
Usually, Instant coffee has less 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 brewed coffee, one instant, the other drip coffee. Both containing the same amount of coffee then 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.
High Quality vs Low Quality
Defining what makes quality coffee 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, fewer 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 that the beans go through to make the instant granules. The extra heating, cooling, and then heating again in your mug absolutely impacts the flavor.
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 are an aspect of coffee that probably don’t get enough attention.
Antioxidants are compounds in coffee that 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 cup of coffee made from ground coffee both have similar amounts of antioxidants thus boast similar health benefits.
The Original Type of Coffee 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 beans; Robusta and Arabica. Arabica beans are considered by most coffee lovers 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.
To be honest here, fresh ground coffee is more expensive than instant coffee powder.
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.
Instant is a quick and easy way to make coffee that some people prefer due to the fact it’s simple and requires no equipment. It has a long shelf life and similar health benefits to fresh coffee. The downside is that with all the processing, you do lose a lot of coffee flavors so if it’s a rich and complex brew you’re after then stick to fresh coffee.
Cappuccino vs Frappuccino – 10 Differences Explained
Long Shot vs Ristretto (The Long and Short of it)
'Ristretto' is a small, more intense shot of espresso. 'Cafe Lungo' or 'long shot' is an espresso brewed using water so is larger in volume.
White Coffee vs Black Coffee (What’s the Difference? It’s Not What You Think)
What Is Drip Coffee – 5 Key Facts + Drip vs Pour Over Compared
Is drip coffee the same as filter coffee or pour-over? What about French Press and Americano? What is the difference between these coffees?