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Coffee snobs are shelling out for instant

Start-ups with freeze-dry technology are introducing better-tasting instant coffee to a whole new generation

By Leslie Patton  /  Bloomberg

Coffee fruits are harvested at a plantation in Pueblorrico, Colombia, on March 11. A host of small firms are freeze-drying beans to produce a better flavor than traditional instant coffee.

Photo: Reuters

Benji Walklet recently reviewed the instant java sold by Los Angeles start-up Waka Coffee. Walklet, who runs the Coffee Concierge blog, liked it but got a second opinion from a trusted critic — his wife, who has been known to compare coffee she does not like to gasoline.

“It passed my wife’s taste test, and that’s really saying something,” he said.

Walklet typically drinks the real thing, but stocked up on a 35-serving pack of Waka instant.

“If the day gets off to a slow start or we’re in a hurry, it’s great to have instant coffee,” he said. “I wouldn’t buy Nescafe or Folgers or Maxwell House. That’s the snob in me talking.”

Instant coffee, often relegated to brownie recipes and steak rubs, is making a comeback and even winning grudging approval from connoisseurs. A handful of start-ups including Waka, Sudden Coffee and Swift Cup Coffee have improved the taste and are attracting a new generation of convenience seekers who are too young to associate the product with the stuff their grandparents drank.

They do not mind paying up either: A Sudden four-pack sold at the Chicago-based coffee chain Intelligentsia goes for US$13, or about US$3.25 a serving.

Instant remains a niche product, with just 6 percent of Americans drinking it, according to the National Coffee Association, but US retail sales of the category rose in the year ended in June — the first gain following at least three years of declines, Nielsen data showed.

Rising sales and instant’s popularity among 18-to-39-year-olds have prompted industry stalwarts Starbucks Corp and Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc to re-evaluate the category.

“Instant is super convenient and portable,” said Jim Watson, a beverage analyst at Rabobank. “You can throw a couple in your bag and travel everywhere. Instant has always been weighed down by being seen as a really low-end product. These specialty guys are making instant coffee cool again.”

Developed by Nestle SA last century, instant coffee was made by spraying brewed liquid into hot air and drying it into powder or granules. Nestle, Folgers and Maxwell House quickly became the go-to brands for middle-class people around the world.

A Folgers television commercial from that era featured a husband complaining about his wife’s coffee.

“Honey, your coffee is undrinkable,” he says. Later, she serves him a cup of Folgers and marital harmony is restored.

“Instant Folgers,” an announcer says. “Tastes good as fresh-perked.”

For those who had tried the real thing, instant coffee lacked the body and flavor of a quality cup of Joe. No matter, Americans were hooked on convenience. Making instant involved nothing more than spooning crystals into a mug and adding boiling water — then maybe whitening the concoction with a powdered creamer.

Everything changed when Starbucks created the cafe culture in the 1990s and popularized Arabica beans — the premium variety. A snob ethos took hold, and consumers thought nothing of paying US$3 or more for a cup of coffee.

In 1998, Keurig K-Cups — or single-use pods — entered the mix. It was not quite instant, but provided a popular way for time-pressed people to brew fast.

Instant was re-imagined 10 years ago, when Starbucks introduced Via Ready Brew packets in an effort to sell more coffee in grocery stores. Via was made with 100 percent Arabica beans, cost less than US$1 per cup and appealed to people on the go.

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