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Breaking down the process behind instant coffee—and how to do it better.

Charlie Heller
January 11, 2018

With newer third-wave instant coffee companies like Alpine Start and Sudden Coffee making the convenience beverage increasingly appealing to aficionados, it’s worth wondering just why advancing instant coffee offerings has taken so long. The reason, according to Alpine Start co-founders Matt Segal and Alex Hanifin, is the manufacturing process.

“The simplest way to describe it,” says Segal as he holds up a packet of the dry powder, “is that this was once a cup of coffee.” So really, the only difference between regular coffee and instant is that the latter has been brewed, and then dehydrated. And while the dehydrating step does pose its challenges itself, other steps are just critical to making good instant coffee as they would be for your standard joe.

 “People harvest the beans, they roast the beans, they brew it in the coffee, and then they extract the water from it,” Segal says, walking through all the steps involved. The problem is that up until recently, instant coffee is usually used to service the need for quick, cheap, bulk coffee, which means that every step from bean selection to temperature quality in brewing won’t exactly get the care that coffee-obsessives expect from top of the line roasters today.

When Alpine began developing its own variety, this meant trying over 100 types of brew before finding one that met the brand's standards. And if you’re thinking of starting your own third wave instant coffee line, take note: those standards were more specific than just “good.” For their first, flagship flavor, Segal and Hanifin wanted a roast with a flavor profile on “the lighter end of a dark roast, or the darker end of a medium roast,” both because would both best fit the American palate, and stay as far away as possible from the bitter and acidic taste many associate with the worst of instant coffee.

Segal and Hanifin credit Starbucks with helping to kick off coffee's second wave, which saw the popularization of single serve packets and higher quality beans. But Alpine Start and other third wavers aren't just trying to make good instant coffee—they're trying to rethink what instant coffee is for in the first place, which they recently discussed further with Food & Wine here.

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