What is instant coffee and how is it prepared?

Unlike traditional methods of roasting, grinding, and extracting raw coffee, instant coffee undergoes a more complex industrial treatment that involves processes such as freeze-drying and atomization, which help the coffee obtain higher quality and flavor.

In this article, I will tell you all about the production process of instant (or soluble) coffee and analyze whether it can be of quality or not. I will also evaluate whether its consumption benefits or harms our health.

A brief history of instant coffee

Instant coffee has its roots in the American Civil War when a concentrated mixture of coffee, milk, and sugar was created for the army, known as “Essence of Coffee”. Its consistency was reminiscent of the grease used to lubricate machinery, and it was not very popular among the troops.

However, the first real instant coffee was patented in 1881 by the Frenchman Alphonse Allais, followed by other patents in 1890 and 1901. The last patent was granted to Constant Louis Washington in 1909, who opened his first production plant the following year.

The Nescafé brand, launched in 1938, was a resounding success and has been the leading company in producing instant coffee to the present day.

How is instant coffee produced?

Unroasted coffee beans, also known as green or raw, are first roasted to enhance their natural characteristics and create a desired flavor profile. During roasting, much of the water contained in the beans is removed.

Next, the beans are ground into a very fine powder, a similar process to most coffee beverage preparation methods.

After grinding, the beverage is extracted using pressurized water and a temperature of 347°F. This process extracts the soluble and volatile content from the ground coffee, creating a highly concentrated beverage due to the evaporation of the water at high temperatures and adding other substances.

Finally, the water is removed from the beverage by sublimation, a process in which the water is transformed from ice to vapor without passing through the liquid state. This process is known as freeze-drying:

Preserve (something) by rapidly freezing it and then subjecting it to a high vacuum.


How is the coffee freeze-drying process?

To carry out the freeze-drying of coffee, the following process is followed:

  1. The coffee extract is quickly frozen to avoid the formation of ice crystals or changes in the coffee flavor. Subsequently, it is broken into small granules.
  2. The granules are sieved and sorted by size.
  3. The granules are placed in a drying chamber, where a vacuum is created to accelerate the drying process and improve the quality of the product.
  4. The chamber is heated to create condensation, which causes the frozen water in the granules to expand up to ten times. This creates sublimation condensation, and the water vapor can be removed from the chamber.
  5. The freeze-dried coffee beans are packaged for preservation.

Spray Drying (alternative to freeze drying)

There is an alternative to freeze-drying known as Spray Drying, a cheaper and faster process, although it starts from the same concentrated beverage.

In this method, atomizing nozzles spray the beverage into cylinders with hot air, where the droplets are converted into powder without the aqueous part.

However, the resulting particles are very fine and require further agglomeration to create a size suitable for consumption.

Instant coffee involves more science than it may seem

The production of instant coffee requires time, specialized machinery, and advanced methods to process the coffee before the end user consumes it.

How is instant coffee prepared?

Preparing instant coffee is simple: it is simply a matter of dissolving a determined amount of granules in hot water and mixing.

However, it is advisable to use bottled or filtered water since water is a key component in the taste of coffee. If treated water or water with high concentrations of mineral salts is used, the taste of the coffee can become more bitter and less pleasant.

Is instant coffee bad for our health?

The most debated question surrounding instant coffee is its impact on our health. This fear is partly due to acrylamide, a substance that can cause damage to the nervous and reproductive system and cancer.

However, this substance is formed in many foods exposed to high temperatures, and the limits of acrylamide in coffee (those subjected to high temperatures) are regulated and controlled. If the limits were exceeded, coffee could not be marketed.

Although instant coffee contains more acrylamide than normal roasted coffee, its amount is still assimilable by the body:

  • Roasted coffee: 13 ppb (parts per billion).
  • Instant coffee: 170-500 ppb

As for caffeine, instant coffee has less than roasted and ground coffee, so it is not the best option for getting an energy boost in the morning. Espresso coffee is between 50-80 mg, moka is between 100-120 mg, and instant coffee is no more than 30 mg.

Is instant coffee “really” coffee?

This is a question I have asked myself on several occasions since I am interested in the true quality of soluble coffee compared to freshly selected, roasted, and ground specifically for extraction.

The answer is no. Instant coffee will never be able to match the quality of conventional coffee. Several factors explain this, which I list below:

1. It is a highly refined product

During its production, additives are added to improve its flavor, color, and aroma and prolong its fragrance.

It seems evident that a good, well-prepared coffee does not require additives or unnecessary additional processes. The addition of additives is due to the decrease in quality that results from the transformation.

2. Only low-quality coffee beans are used.

If coffee is of specialty or high quality, no farmer, importer, or roaster will use it to produce instant coffee.

It would be considered blasphemy and a waste to use such perfect beans with an exciting flavor, rich in aromatic nuances, valuable, and with a perfect shape, size, color, and density, to ruin them in the process of converting them into instant coffee.

On the contrary, instant coffee is usually produced from waste beans from large industrial plantations, which are sold at a very low price to keep the costs of the final product low.

3. No control over the extraction phase

As mentioned above, the only control is limited to the choice of water and the amount of instant coffee used. Although these are fundamental variables, they are not sufficient to achieve a quality cup.

Instant coffee options are limited and of inferior quality. It is not possible to select single origins or high-quality blends.

In addition, there is no control over extraction time, grinding, the pressure used, or water flow, among other aspects.


In summary, instant coffee can be a practical and quick solution for those with little time to prepare quality coffee.

However, it is important to remember that the taste and quality of a coffee freshly prepared from fresh beans cannot be compared to that of instant coffee.

Therefore, if you are looking for an exceptional flavor and aroma experience, you should opt for coffee beans, which are carefully selected, roasted, and ground with skill. Ultimately, the choice of the type of coffee will depend on your personal needs and preferences.

Written by Pablo Barrantes Nevado
I am Pablo Barrantes, a coffee lover. I decided to start this website to solve all the doubts that arise every day when preparing our favorite drink: coffee. I am an industrial engineer by profession, but I have worked in coffee shops for many years, where I have learned all the secrets about coffee machines and coffee. My passion for coffee has led me to investigate and study beyond the obvious, and thanks to this, I can offer solutions and give news about coffee and coffee makers. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I research, document and write here.

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