It's fair to say we're a nation of coffee lovers. Some of you may even be better acquainted with your local barista than your neighbour.
But with the cost of living creeping up, many of us are looking to save money by brewing our coffee at home. In fact, we spent a massive $1.548 billion on supermarket coffee products in 2022. And it's not just those with home coffee machines buying up the beans – instant coffee is just as popular as beans and pods.
While it's no secret that a bad cup of instant coffee can be almost undrinkable, the good news is there are plenty of products that actually taste very good. We had our expert coffee tasting panel sample a selection of instant coffee products and judge them against the same taste criteria as our reference coffee (a long black made on an espresso machine using freshly ground beans).
The following four instant coffee products received a CHOICE Expert Rating of 80% or more (scores are based on taste only), outperforming the reference brew, which scored 79%. This means that according to our expert taste testers, any one of these products could give you a better tasting coffee than espresso machine-made coffee using award-winning freshly ground beans – and for a lot less effort.
Bushells Classic Gourmet Instant Coffee
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 83%
- Price per 100g: $4.25
- Taster notes: Nice smooth flavour, well balanced, sweet dark chocolate aroma, good flavour, nice undertone, mild to medium acidity, good body, well balanced.
Robert Timms Full-Bodied Granulated Coffee
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 81%
- Price per 100g: $4.00
- Taster notes: Smooth, some sweetness, flat but some black tea flavour, not unpleasant aftertaste, OK balance, fruity aroma, fairly robust flavour.
Coles Classic Granulated Coffee Smooth & Bold
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 80%
- Price per 100g: $1.85
- Taster notes: Good flavour, sweet and nutty aroma, some nutty flavours, smooth aftertaste, low to medium acidity, mild to low body, well-rounded, some lingering pleasant notes, mild but some sweetness.
Vittoria Mountain Grown 100% Arabica Instant Coffee Freeze Dried
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 80%
- Price per 100g: $12.50
- Taster notes: Nice well-balanced flavour, flat, mild, OK body, mild sweetness, mild acidity.
Our professional coffee testers look for the following attributes when assessing instant coffee.
Aroma and flavour
Floral, sweet, fruity and spicy aromas and flavours are some of the characteristics often found in a good coffee. The Bushells coffee, for example, was described by our expert taste testers as having a "dark chocolate aroma". The Robert Timms product had a "fruity aroma" and Coles Classic Granulated Coffee Smooth & Bold had "nutty flavours" and a "sweet and nutty aroma".
In the coffee world, acidity really refers to sourness or bitterness, and a higher acidity is preferred. Although plenty of instant coffees scored highly for taste, a recurring comment across all the products we tested was that the acidity was on the medium to low side. This seems to be one of the main negative characteristics of instant coffee, as higher acidity is associated with higher quality.
Even with no sugar added, coffee can definitely have a hint of sweetness. The reason for this is a bit of a mystery, as there are very few sweet-tasting compounds present in coffee. One theory behind why coffee tastes sweet is because some of the flavours present in coffee (e.g. nutty, caramel and chocolate notes) are usually associated with sweet foods. Sweetness in coffee is considered a positive attribute, so our testers note whether each coffee sample tastes sweet or not.
With lots of us looking for ways to cut back on recurring costs, replacing cafe coffees with a cheaper alternative is an easy way to save.
The average cost of a latte in Australia is $5.40. Let's say you bought three a week, that's $16.20, which adds up to about $840 per year. If we compare this to instant coffee, the average cost per serve based on our review is a minuscule 14 cents (not including milk). Even if you upped your intake to one a day, it would still cost you just 98 cents per week, which adds up to $51 a year.
That's a difference of around $790 a year!
While some may turn their noses up at instant coffee, in our test we found four products on the market that scored higher than a freshly brewed homemade espresso. So if you're looking to cut back on your cafe spend but don't want to invest in a home coffee machine, instant could provide a handy solution.
Of the 18 products we tested, 10 had some form of sustainability certification claim on the pack. Most had third-party certification from schemes such as Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and Fairtrade.
Nescafe's Blend 43 Smooth & Creamy and Blend 43 Dark varieties included the claims "grown respectfully" and "100% sustainable coffee beans" on their packaging. When we asked Nestle for more detail on that second claim, a spokesperson told us that the company's aim is to reach 100% responsibly-sourced coffee by 2025 globally.
They went on to explain that at present, for the coffee made at their Australian factory in Gympie, Queensland, "100% of the coffee beans are verified by an independent, external certifier as responsibly sourced" and that "most of the beans are certified by Rainforest Alliance or 4C".
Foods containing added caffeine and guarana (a South American plant with high levels of natural caffeine) must be labelled as such, but other natural sources of caffeine (such as coffee) aren't required to label the presence or quantity of caffeine.
The caffeine content of instant coffee varies depending on the brand. Where we were able to ascertain caffeine content details from the manufacturers of the products we tested back in 2019, they ranged from 2500mg up to 6000mg per 100g. That's about 63–150mg based on one rounded teaspoon in a 250mL cup. The average is about 78mg per 250mL cup, according to the Australian Food Composition Database. The table below shows how this compares with other caffeine-containing drinks.
For most healthy adults, a moderate intake of caffeine (the definition of which varies from source to source, but 300–400mg a day is commonly cited) won't pose a problem, but it's worth knowing what's in your cuppa if you want to keep track of how much caffeine you're consuming, especially if you need to limit your intake.
With instant coffee you can make iced coffee, well, in an instant. Here's how.
- 2 teaspoons instant coffee granules
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- 3 tablespoons warm water
- 200mL cold milk
- Ice for serving
Combine coffee, sugar (if including) and water in a clean jar. Screw the lid on the jar and shake until frothy and granules have dissolved. Pour into a glass full of ice and fill with milk. Makes one serving.
A bowl of coffee granules.
We tested 18 instant coffee products that were available nationally in major supermarket chains. Because of the results of the last instant coffee test where the judges noted a lack of flavour, this year we chose dark and richer varieties where available.
We did not test latte, cappuccino or mocha styles, flavoured varieties, decaffeinated coffee or coffee bags. The price per 100g is based on the price for a 100g jar or the closest available size (not on special).
We had our trusted panel of expert coffee tasters blind taste the 18 varieties of instant coffee, rating them against a reference coffee.
The reference coffee was a long black made with Breville's The Barista Touch Impress BES881, a CHOICE Recommended home espresso machine. The coffee was made from premium freshly ground beans and 140mL water. We made the instant coffee with one heaped teaspoon of coffee and 140mL of boiled and slightly cooled water.
The samples were analysed based on the Speciality Coffee Association's cupping protocols, which assess coffee for fragrance, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, balance, clean cup (the absence of 'non-coffee' flavours caused by contamination), sweetness and the taster's overall impression of the sample. Points were subtracted for any defects found.
Our expert judges: (from left to right) David, Anee and Matthew.
Our expert judging panel included brothers David and Matthew Gee, principals of Barista Basics Coffee Academy, as well as Anee Sampath, founder of Beancraft coffee roasters.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.