Good news: Starbucks Via is no longer the pinnacle of the instant coffee market. Coffee’s third-wave innovators (think hipster baristas who hand-brew single-origin selections into mason jars) have breathed new life into the category, creating portable packs that deliver on convenience without sacrificing taste. If you’re hooked on the convenience of Via but want to move past the big brand to the world of independent tastes, the time couldn’t be better.
Instant coffees come in three main varieties: soluble crystals (i.e. traditional instant), single-use pour-overs, and steep-able sachets. Some are pricey, some fall short on flavor complexity; but the plethora of options nearly guarantees a variation to satisfy every palate and budget.
These tea-inspired coffee sachets brew in a cup of hot water. However, like tea sachets, you’re still left with a dripping bag of coffee grounds to dispose of or stow. Having to pack out the wet grounds isn’t ideal for adventures when pack weight matters, but the bag format gives the user the flexibility to choose their preferred brew strength.
Produced in the United Kingdom, Bean Bags come in a Colombia-Guatemala blend, single-origin decaf, and single-origin El Salvador. The Colombia-Guatemala blend drinks clean, with mild notes of chocolate and caramel, but is relatively simple in flavor. At £4.50 to £5 for a box of 10 sachets, the price per cup is less than what you’d pay at a coffee shop.
Developed by Santa Cruz Coffee Company, these sachets are compostable and come in roast levels ranging from light to extra dark. The aroma is remarkably consistent with freshly ground coffee; the cup is clean and bright, marked by mild citrus and rich chocolate flavors in the brewed coffee. At $14 for a box of 10, the price per cup is on the low end of coffee shop prices.
Most single-use pour-over filters contain traditionally roasted coffee but offer convenience and portability similar to many instant varieties. The brewing experience recreates a pour-over made at home; however, you’re left with a filter full of spent grounds that must be disposed of somehow. Tip: use a vessel that’s tall and narrow to keep the filter steady and prevent it from falling into the brewed coffee below.
One by Intent Roasting
Portland, Oregon-based Intent Coffee Roasting developed a single-use pour-over packet using their own roasted coffee. The narrow filter takes some patience, as it can hold only about an ounce of water at a time, but the resulting brew has a delightful aroma and smooth, chocolaty flavor. Priced at $20 for a pack of 12, or $2 for a single pack.
Pourtables by Libra Coffee
These portable packets contain organic coffee from Tolima, Colombia and Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Libra delivers delicate flavors consistent with traditionally brewed coffee, and origin-specific tasting notes are present in each of the different blends offered (nuts and chocolate for the Colombian, black tea and stonefruit for Ethiopian). $20 gets you 10 packets.
Soluble crystals are instant coffee in its truest form—just add hot water and you’re done. With minimal footprint and waste, packets are an ideal option for outdoor adventuring.
Alpine Start was co-founded by professional climber Matt Segal, who was inspired to develop a better portable coffee solution after drinking one too many crappy packets of instant while hanging from rock faces. The Colombian coffee is rich in notes of nuts and chocolate, with hints of caramel; it drinks easy and smooth. At $9 for a box of eight packets, it’s one of the better price points offered in premium instant products.
Voîla founder Kent Sheridan had visions of introducing customers to specialty coffee without the need for fancy grinders and brewing equipment. At $20 for a pack of five, Voîla definitely has a craft-quality price tag, but the coffee is nuanced and complex, just as you would expect from a cup brewed by any of the specialty roasters Voîla has on its roster (Coava, Ruby, and Huckleberry, to name three).
Stoked Roasters branched out to offer organic packets of soluble coffee, “for adventurous souls on the go.” The Hood River, Oregon-based roaster offers both a medium- and dark-roasted version of Stix. At $9 for a box of eight packets, the price is competitive, but flavors are simple. For those that trend toward more traditionally dark-roasted coffees, this is for you.
Co-founded by Finnish barista champion Kalle Freese, Sudden was designed to bring convenience to the specialty coffee experience. The company introduces new variations each quarter, hitting on different origins and flavor notes. Each tube brews clean and complex, making it easy to forget you’re drinking instant coffee—a desirable result for an eight-pack priced at $19.
Swift Cup offers an instant version of coffees roasted by a host of craft roasters from around the country. The integrity of origin flavors maintained through their proprietary process is noteworthy: The Burundi was delicate and tea-like, with flavors of stonefruit and peach and a bright acidity. Swift Cup retails at a range of $16 to $19 for six packets, ranking it among the more costly of instant products.
Roasted, processed, and packaged in Crested Butte, Colorado, First Ascent’s line of instant packets includes an everyday blend and single-origins from Ethiopia and Honduras. The Ethiopia packs impressive complexity and acidity, while the other offerings are milder in flavor and body. At $19 for an eight-pack, First Ascent comes with a price and flavor associated with craft quality.
Parlor Coffee: Instant
The New York roaster offers two variations of its classy jar-o-instant. Prospect is a Colombia-Ethiopia blend and Wallabout is a Colombia-Peru blend. Prospect leans fruitier, while Wallabout comes through with classic South American flavors of toffee, caramel, and bittersweet chocolate. Each jar sells for $15 and contains six one-cup servings.