Welcome to a little bit of a diversion for Bear Essentials, those of you who follow us will know that my blog pieces talk a lot about coffee in detail, where it comes from, how to brew it well, how it tastes and a lot more.
This particular article though is about something a lot more fundamental. Why spend the time and money on fresh coffee rather than instant? In short what’s the big deal about fresh coffee and is it really better than instant?
Preface: I would love to see this article hit some new viewers, especially those who are interested in fresh coffee and wondering what to do to find out more about it. So if you are reading this and you are already a big coffee fan, do me a favour and share it on your Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, anywhere you like really. Just give us a tag if you see we are active on that platform. Let’s see if we can bring great coffee to more people.
So I get asked pretty regularly why someone should care about fresh coffee so much, surely coffee is just coffee? Now in my head the answer is so ingrained that I regularly have to check myself to avoid coming across as pretentious or overbearing. Lord, how much I wish more people in the industry would do that.
Seriously the number of people I have met who felt too intimidated and judged when trying to get into fresh coffee, that they backed off before they even got started, actually hurts my soul. Folks if you are a coffee pro, just remember that we all started the journey somewhere and more importantly we don’t all have the same destination in mind, some people just want a decent coffee at home and that’s no bad thing.
From the Top: What is this Fresh Coffee Jazz all about?
Many people I speak to have only ever experienced coffee two ways. From a shop as part of their daily routine, and at home from a jar. Many also wonder about why the difference in taste is so pronounced between the two and how to improve their coffee at home.
Firstly I am not in the habit of bashing instant coffee. Do I think it’s less than ideal? Yeah I do, I’ll never hide that opinion. However contrary to popular belief I do recognise its place in the market and in the day to day lives of people.
I’d love to see everyone able to access fresher, better and more tasty coffee at home, and I will always work to make that possible (hell that’s a huge part of Bear Essentials mission). But I’m not going to say instant should vanish, the reality is that for some people and in some circumstances it is the only way to access coffee.
Anyway, first things first, let’s address the question of what exactly instant coffee is?
Making Instant Coffee
Coffee for those who are new or don’t know is actually the dried and roasted seed of the coffee plant, ground down and brewed in hot water. As a natural product coffee has a shelf life, fresh coffee doesn’t last forever. So of course humans, being humans, someone had to find a way to extend the life of coffee at home, and they certainly did. But this isn’t a history lesson, so moving on.
Instant coffee is pretty simple to explain, yet complex to produce. It’s freeze dried granules of intense coffee flavour that can be easily dissolved into hot water.
To make instant coffee, coffee beans are roasted just as in fresh coffee, but then water is used to extract the coffee flavours in a more mechanical fashion than most brewing methods. The resulting liquid is heavily concentrated through evaporation or freeze concentration, to get an intense coffee “essence”. That essence is then freeze dried and dehydrated to create the funky little granules that you get in your instant coffee jar.
The upside of all this is that the resulting coffee granules have a long shelf life and can be brewed with nothing more than the addition of hot water and some stirring. Pretty magical really, and no small achievement.
Instant vs Fresh: Why Switch?
Ok so all that science and technology produces a convenient, affordable, easy to use, and long lasting coffee product. So why would you use anything else? Well here are some of the reasons I have come across in my years in coffee. These, by the way, are not my reasons, nor are they an arbitrary list of theories, but rather they are real reasons people have expressed to me when asking about making a change to fresh coffee at home.
The single best reason in my humble opinion, and also the most common motivation people bring to me. The fact is that to most people, fresh coffee just plain tastes better. Indeed the difference in flavour between instant and fresh coffee really is night and day, the process of dehydration and freeze drying may be convenience friendly, but a lot of flavour is lost along the way.
The reason is, at heart, pretty simple. Coffee is a delicate product and produces it’s best results when roasted and brewed with care and time. Neither of these is (usually) at a premium when roasting and brewing for instant coffee production.
Put bluntly, the coffee used in the making of instant is not often of a particularly high standard, and there are really good reasons why. Not only would the price be an issue, but the more complex and fruity tastes of some coffee just don’t do well through the processes used to make instant granules. Many people I have come across have done a little research, and are concerned about this, they want a better quality product.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of coffee used in the production of instant is robusta, basically an easier to grow and higher yield type of coffee plant. This makes a lot of sense for a commodity product, but robusta doesn’t have the best reputation for flavour, it can be pretty flat and over bitter. So yeah, the reality is that in most cases the coffee beans used in instant coffee are of a lower quality than those used to make fresh coffee.
Ok so this one crosses into dangerously complex territory. Ethics and coffee are a hot topic, and they should be. But this reason comes up so often that I would be an idiot not to discuss it.
The reality of the sourcing of coffee for instant manufacture is that price becomes critical, as a result the highest of standards are not easily attainable, and often not a major consideration. Instant coffee needs to sell in volume and at an accessible price, considering the number of hands a coffee bean goes through to get to a shelf in a shop this is not an easy balance. Still ethics matter and they should, this is a place where coffee needs to improve, a lot, and frankly quickly.
The hard truth is that in some places along the coffee trade low wages and child labour are a reality of life. If you want cheap you have to cut costs somewhere, and sadly it’s all too easy to make those cuts when the impact is so far away from your doorstep. Now the industry has a lot of folks who are working hard to change this reality, and I am not accusing every instant coffee brand of being complicit in these practices. But the reality is that they are, and have to be, price conscious and that fact alone, significantly increases the risk that the place your produce comes from may be darker than you’d like.
Another common reason that people want to move to fresh coffee at home is concern over the damage done to the environment in the growing of coffee plants. Is the issue a real one? Yup. Just like ethics this subject is a hard reality that coffee as an industry needs to deal with. If you want to know more check out Coffee and the Environment for some more of my views.
For the purposes of this subject though, the exact same reasons that ethics can fall by the wayside in the sourcing of coffee for instant production, apply to environmental practices. The financial pressures of the market make it necessary to keep trade prices low. The farmers have to set their practices to meet demand and price requirements, so clear cutting and the like can seem very appealing.
No really, this actually is a reason I come across pretty regularly. There is always something rewarding about making something by hand. I have met many people who gain as much joy from the process of making fresh coffee at home as they do from drinking it.
There are so many different ways to brew fresh coffee that most people will be able to find one that works for them and that they enjoy. From a simple cafetière to full blown home espresso making, coffee making is a wonderfully wide world.
So. Get Fresh?
There you have it, some of my honest views on instant versus fresh coffee. So this is where I tell you how everyone should change their habits, and get fresh coffee at home right?
Well no, not exactly. As I said above, I do acknowledge the value of instant coffee in the marketplace. Not everyone can afford the time and money to make the change to fresh home brewing. I am not interested in pressuring anyone to make a change they can’t sustain or afford, not at all. I do encourage everyone to do some research into the coffee they are buying, instant or fresh, to be aware of the issues above and look to support better practices.
Still for those who can, do I think the change to fresh is a good one? Well hell yeah, I’d be pretty hypocritical to say otherwise. After all, look at what I do. The world of home brewed fresh coffee is amazing, and I would love for as many people as possible to experience it.
But this was never about a simple choice, the subject is much more complicated. What I really want this article to do, is to provide a decent and honest window into the factors that may affect a choice between fresh and instant coffee, to allow everyone to understand more about what they are drinking and where it came from. In the end I believe that the best decision is an informed one that suits your personal circumstances.
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Thanks, – Bear