Courtesy of Alpine Start Foods

How hanging from a cliff inspired the invention of this (very good) instant coffee

Charlie Heller
January 11, 2018

When it comes to instant coffee, Alpine Start’s origins are literally a cut above. “We were probably 1,000 feet off the ground,” says co-founder and professional rock climber Matt Segal of an expedition in Canada of the moment that inspired him to get into the instant coffee business. But he wasn’t just climbing, he was sleeping there, in a type of hammock called a portaledge, which suspends the sleeper cliffside (seriously, look at it).

Upon waking up, Segal began the same routine millions of people around the world do every day: making coffee. Now, any method of brewing coffee in a suspended portaledge would be difficult enough. But since this was around the same time Segal was getting seriously into coffee, all his group had for coffee was an Aeropress, which is not exactly ideal for the terrain.

“If you’ve ever made coffee with an Aeropress you know you need to push on it,” he tells Food & Wine, recalling the struggle to brew the day’s first cup: “You're waking up in the morning in your sleeping bag and there's no flat surface, so my partner is holding the cup, and I'm trying to squeeze and spilling coffee everywhere… and I was like okay, I think we need to figure out a better method here.”

That method, it turned out, was to develop a better instant coffee, an idea he brought to longtime friend and fellow Boulder, Colorado, resident Alex Hanifin, whose background in the food industry and operations and marketing experience at companies like Boulder Brands made her the obvious choice for CEO as soon as she got on board (which was quickly). From there began the process of figuring out which coffee to actually use—a six-month-long journey which saw them try over 100 types, most of which were, in her words “so bad," until finding a supplier in Colombia whose Arabica beans met their standards.

Named after a mountaineering term for starting the day early, Alpine Start got their own start by focusing on friends in the outdoor industry, whose need for decent coffee to be as easy-to-make as possible while climbing mountains is pretty self-explanatory, but found that it was also being used for less outdoorsy purposes. While they’re not expecting you to abandon your French press morning ritual, or replace that daily visit to your favorite coffee shop, they believe they and other smaller, newer “third wave of instant coffee” makers can change what instant coffee is for.

With average American coffee drinker drinking around three cups per day according to the FDA, Alpine says they aim to become your second or third cup. “Maybe you’re at the office and it’s not the best,” Hanifin says, “or traveling in hotels, or at home trying to get the kids to school, and trying to simplify your day a little bit.”

Currently, that simplification only has one option: the distinct, earthy flavor of its medium-dark roast does taste like the kind of coffee you’d want on the mountains of Colorado. But with some planned additions to its line this March, there’ll soon be more choices for time-pressed coffee lovers at any altitude.

Alpine Start Premium Instant Coffee, Original Blend, 8 servings, $9 on Amazon.com