Instant coffee – coffee granules soluble in water – has been around since the early 19th century. The first commercially successfully process for making a powdered product was developed by chemist George Constant Washington, and his product hit the shelves in America as ‘Red E Coffee’. His process was patented, but the taste of the instant coffee still left a lot to be desired when compared to the real thing made from freshly-roasted coffee beans. In the 1930s, the Brazilian coffee industry, then the world’s top coffee producer, became interested in developing instant coffee as a way of preserving their excess crops. Various companies began to experiment with liquid coffee extract, but the Swiss company Nestlé, who was at the forefront instant coffee research, launched its iconic powdered coffee product Nescafé in 1938. Instant coffee became enormously popular during the Second World War as a convenient and long lasting product, which could be made anywhere without the need for a coffee machine. In one year, the U.S. military bought more than one million cases of Nescafé, which represented a whole year’s output for the company.
Although the original instant coffee contained equal portions of soluble carbohydrate and coffee, the process was being enhanced all the time and in 1963 Maxwell House launched a freeze-drying process which came to dominate the market, giving a taste more comparable to fresh coffee.
Other milestones in instant coffee’s history include the launch of Nestlé’s famous brown tin in 1961, which in 1971 gave way to the clear glass jar still in use today. In 1986, the Nestlé also became the first company to launch a decaffeinated instant coffee.
Although modern manufacturing methods have greatly improved the taste and solubility of instant granules, the freeze-drying process means that fresh coffee will always have the edge for aroma and complexity of taste. However, the convenience factor that made instant coffee so popular during the war means that it continues to thrive in a modern market.