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12 best instant coffees for a speedy cup of joe

From quirky flavours to all-natural alternatives, who said convenience means compromising on taste?

Bess Browning
Thursday 08 July 2021 11:00
<p>We looked for rich, smooth taste as well as an energising pick-me-up for that mid-afternoon slump</p>

We looked for rich, smooth taste as well as an energising pick-me-up for that mid-afternoon slump

Freeze-dried instant granules ooze hotel room and office canteen vibes, and sometimes the convenience of it means we’re left with a tasteless, murky-watered liquid or something acidic, bitter and frankly undrinkable.

But, rest assured, there are now some decent options on the market. And while we want to wake up to good coffee, the manufacturers are cottoning on to our caffeinated desires.

The beverage aisle of any supermarket is now crammed full of instant coffee brands of various price points and gimmicks. In fact, it’s sometimes mind-boggling to work out which is best for value and taste.

With coffee producers trying to eradicate the somewhat dull and archaic image of instant coffee, many are becoming creative with their USP – our review includes a recently launched brand that uses legal drugs in its recipe, and others that are using unique flavours such as cherry bakewell and Havana rum!

But while some are looking for something a little different, many of you will be calling out for a standard quick-and-easy cup of coffee to grab straight after the kettle’s boiled, and we’ve got the basics covered below.

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With all the instant coffees we tried for this, we popped one or two teaspoons (depending on the instructions) into our favourite mug, and after we boiled the kettle, we waited for it to cool slightly before pouring in. We were looking for a delight to the nose as well as a rich and smooth taste and an energising pick-me-up for those 6am starts and 3pm slumps.

We did drink them all black, but some are recommended with a splash of milk, and one is even encouraging you to try it cold. If you’re going to add milk, it’s best not to use alternative milk products such as soya or oat, as they tend to curdle instant coffee.

These are the best instant coffees for 2021:

  • Best overall – Presto Colombian instant coffee: £6.99, Presto-coffee.com
  • Best flavour – Nescafé Azera craft coffee collab series – explorer: £4.50, Sainsburys.co.uk
  • Best everyday coffee – Clippers organic Latin American instant coffee: £4.79, Clipper-teas.com
  • Best ethical brand – Café Direct Machu Picchu: £3, Sainsburys.co.uk
  • Best unusual flavour – Beanies caramelised biscuit: £2.50, Beaniesflavourco.co.uk
  • Best value – Carte Noire classique instant: £5.03, Ocado.com
  • Best decaffeinated coffee – Whole Earth organic no caffeine coffee alternative: £2.99, Hollandandbarrett.com
  • Best for intensity – London Nootropics mojo: £15, Londonnootropics.com
  • Best for smoothness – TrueStart barista grade instant coffee: £5, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best aroma – Little’s vanilla flavour infusion: £2.99, Wearelittles.com
  • Best Italian coffee experience – Illy classico: £5.83, Illy.com
  • Best one-cup filter – Rombouts one cup filters: £3.39, Rombouts.com

Presto Colombian instant coffee

Best: Overall

The Presto team seems to pour a lot of love and energy into their coffee, whether it’s their beans, coffee bags or their instant, which they appear to have carved out to perfection. They hand select all of their beans from the best farms available and each selection is roasted in small batches to ensure every grain hits the right notes.

The intricacies of their work have definitely paid off and we were already re-boiling the kettle after savouring every mouthful of our first cup. As soon as the water hit the grains, the smell was tantalising. The micro-ground 100 per cent arabica coffee has a uniquely dark and nutty flavour, which overpowers any bitterness that is so often the instant “effect”. We tasted notes of almond and dark chocolate and every sip felt silky smooth.

As with all of the brand’s coffee, the product is ethically sourced and packaged in 100 per cent recyclable tins. They also offer a super speedy delivery service, meaning your coffee will arrive at your door just in time for that caffeine craving.

Nescafé Azera craft coffee collab series explorer

Best: Flavour

Nescafé Azera has teamed up with Manchester-based independent business Grindsmith Coffee Roasters for the “UK’s first instant craft coffee”. They’re really striving to bring barista-style coffee into our humble homes and Grindsmith claims it’s the best-tasting instant coffee they have ever rested their lips on. On hearing that revelation, we couldn’t wait to try it.

The coffee granules are some of the finest-ground we popped on to our spoon and it takes just one teaspoon to create a cup. Although there wasn’t much aroma initially, it had a velvety texture with super-sweet hints of chocolate and cherries, along with a subtle pick-me-up. The blend is made using specialty arabica coffee beans from Brazil and a handful from Colombia, including the precious quindio bean which gives the coffee its sweet flavours.

Clippers organic Latin American instant coffee

Best: Everyday coffee

A so-called “carnival in a cup”, we were looking forward to the punch of this one. The brand suggests that you wait a whole minute for the boiled water to cool before you combine it with the coffee. But it was worth the wait and we were not disappointed. It was really easy on the palate, an everyday drink that triggered a little extra energy to get us through the day.

It has absolutely no artificial ingredients and Clippers continues to champion an ethical stance. The company is the world’s largest Fairtrade tea brand – they’ve been working with the organisation since 1994 – but they’re developing that with their coffee too, and they even encourage you to re-use your pot. A vase? Pencil pot? Candle holder? The world is your oyster.

This was probably one of the best all-rounders, something to please everyone popping round for a coffee.

Café Direct Machu Picchu

Best: Ethical brand

Café Direct was the UK’s first Fairtrade coffee brand and they’re still pioneering this ethical stance. The brand give back to the communities that produce the coffee, donating 50 per cent of their profits back into the farming.

The Machu Picchu blend is made within the Inca heartland of the Peruvian Andes, high up in the mountains. This cup has a blend of Latin American and African coffee beans and offered a full-bodied, silky smooth texture, but it didn’t have too much of a kick and might be better for an afternoon beverage. The brand also offer a decaffeinated range and a smooth roast for a more everyday drink.

Beanies caramelised biscuit

Best: Unusual flavour

Calling all of our sweet-toothed readers, we have found a coffee that will satisfy your cravings without the high sugar content. We were sceptical whether Beanies caramelised biscuit flavour instant coffee would taste as great as it smells, after lapping up every whiff that hit our nostrils, but we were pleasantly surprised. It really tasted like a caramelised biscuit – in liquid form.

This sugar free drink offers bold flavours both on the palate and nose and although it feels a little indulgent because it is so creamy, it is really low in calories. We tried this both black and with frothed milk, and both were divine. The granules come in a short and stumpy pot, which is ideal if you could do with the cupboard space, and the branding is bright and fun.

We only tried the caramelised biscuit, but they have a huge range of different flavours available including cherry bakewell (£2.50, Beaniesflavourco.co.uk), sticky toffee pudding (£2.50, Beaniesflavourco.co.uk) and even birthday cake (£2.50, Beaniesflavourco.co.uk)! They do also have a seemingly now quite mundane coffee flavour.

Carte Noire classique instant

Best: Value

A firm favourite on the coffee market, the French brand Carte Noire has been on our shelves for a long time. Recently though, the brand has relaunched its classique range, and it’s now available in instant, roast and ground.

The brand says they hope to “transport you to the cafes of Paris”, but we don’t know if we made it that far. We found this cup slightly bitter, which was helped with a splash of milk, but it would suit someone looking for a stronger-flavoured coffee. It’s a blend of arabica and robusta and the Carte Noire roasting process is said to be entirely unique, in which they use a combination of hot and cold water. They also offer a decaf option and their jars are recyclable glass.

Whole Earth organic no caffeine coffee alternative

Best: Decaffeinated coffee

You may be familiar with the Whole Earth brand, but it’s more likely that you’ll associate them with their debatably unbeatable peanut butters. Now though, these eco-friendly pioneers are stepping in a different direction and producing natural alternatives to coffee.

As well as the wake-me-up edition (£3.89, Hollandandbarrett.com), which is naturally given a pick-me-up by guarana – an Amazonian plant – they have a completely non-caffeinated drink, which is made with barley, figs and chicory. For something that wasn’t coffee, its scent and flavour hit the spot. If you’re looking for a decaffeinated coffee that tastes just like coffee and is made with entirely natural ingredients, this one is certainly for you.

London Nootropics mojo

Best: For intensity

If you’re looking for a coffee that packs the biggest punch, this one’s for you. London Nootropics launched in January 2020, shortly before the first UK-wide lockdown, and their USP may sound a little shocking – this coffee has drugs in it. Legal, of course. The nootropics they use are known to improve brain health and enhance cognitive performance. This means you should experience a better focus and more efficient memory – all from a single cup!

The perfect amount is served in a paper sachet ready to pour into your cup, so there was no faffing about with how much to scoop on to the spoon. We tried the Mojo, which is an adaptogenic coffee with two substances in – cordyceps, known to help with fatigue and oxygen flow to the muscles, and Siberian ginseng, which helps you to adapt to physical and mental stressors. We thought it tasted rich and full-bodied and we definitely felt a little spring in our step that afternoon. They also have Zen, which has calming properties for an evening beverage.

TrueStart barista grade instant coffee

Best: For smoothness

TrueStart is the UK’s top-rated coffee brand on TrustPilot so it was imperative we gave it a taste test. These “barista style” freeze-dried granules smelled amazing even before we’d boiled the kettle, but in this instance we didn’t necessarily need a cup of hot water.

TrueStart claim that their coffee is good hot or cold, so we had to try it chilled while sitting in the sunshine. It worked well, but we preferred the hot version. A cold shot would be a great addition to a protein shake or smoothie. It’s a robust coffee using 100 per cent arabica and it has wonderful caramel undertones.

Little’s vanilla flavour infusion

Best: Aroma

We were instantly drawn in by Little’s bright and colourful branding and their different flavour-infused coffees – they even have Havana Rum (£2.99, Wearelittles.com), Swiss Chocolate (£2.99, Wearelittles.com) and Gingerbread Cookie (£2.99, Wearelittles.com).

We tried their standard freeze-dried Colombian blend instant coffee (£4.99, Wearelittles.com) which didn’t have much of an aroma and although the hazelnut taste made up for it, it didn’t pack the punch we were hoping for. However, we moved on to one of their flavoured coffees – the vanilla flavour infusion – and this is where Little’s made its mark.

It’s made with natural Madagascan Bourbon vanilla and it smelled incredible. It had powerful, sweet flavours that were really moreish. Despite its creamy texture and sugary taste, it has just four calories a cup and zero added sugar, so it feels like a treat but without the guilt. This is also available in decaf (£3.20, Wearelittles.com) and you can mix and match with six jars of flavour infused coffee for £16.50.

Illy classico

Best: Italian coffee experience

Available in classico, intenso and decaf, Illy are as always trying to create something for every coffee drinker – they have a huge range of coffee products including cafetieres, cups and coffee machines, as well as their coffees in instant, capsules, bags and ground.

The classico uses 100 per cent arabica beans with micro-ground beans roasted in Italy. We didn’t think too much of the initial aroma and the flavours were a little too mild, but they offer the intenso (£5.83, Illy.com) as an alternative for a more full-bodied cuppa. Tastier with a splash of milk.

Rombouts one cup filters

Best: One-cup filter

Something a little different to finish off our review is the new 100 per cent home compostable one-cup filters. Although not your typical instant coffee, the filters work as quick as a flash. Made from bagasse – a byproduct of natural sugar cane production – and natural filter paper, and filled with ground coffee, you simply balance the filter on top of your cup and pour the hot water over, giving it a little shake to draw the coffee through. It was a full-bodied, rich beverage that had an intense finish, but a little expensive with just 10 filters for £3.39. They are great for the environment however, as the filters can be added to your compost or food bins.

The verdict: Instant coffee

While the “best” coffee will always be up for debate and everyone’s taste buds are different, we’d guide you towards Presto’s Colombian instant coffee first and then Clippers’ organic Latin American instant coffee. If you’re looking for something that will almost always hit the right spot for taste and caffeine, whether you’re a seasoned coffee aficionado or a newbie barista then either of these are ideal.

Of course, if you’re looking for something a bit different from your average cuppa, try out Little’s or Beanies for some mind-blowing flavours that are a world away from a run-of-the-mill black coffee.

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Want to keep your cuppa steaming hot? We tried the Ember Mug² to see if it’s temperature control technology is worth your money

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