by Matt Gibson & Erin Marissa Russell
What’s the main difference between instant coffee and ground coffee? Ground coffee is literally ground up coffee beans. You need to pour hot water over them and then run the mixture through a filter, which creates coffee. Instant coffee, however, is a type of dissolvable coffee made from brewed coffee beans.
With instant coffee, manufacturers brew the coffee in advance, and either freeze dry it or spray it in a fine mist through very hot, very dry air to turn brewed coffee into a powder. This powder then dissolves if you add it to hot water later to make a cup of coffee. It doesn’t need to be filtered again, because you’re just adding the water back to coffee that was already brewed.
You’ve probably had a cup of instant coffee at some point in your life and have completely erased the treacherous experience from your memory due to the bitterness, the flatness, the staleness, or some other flaw that could not be overlooked which haunted your first experience with instant coffee.
For many coffee drinkers, the first experience with instant coffee is the only experience they have, as regrettable experiences are not often revisited for reevaluation. However, a lot of new advancements have been made in the world of instant coffee and considerable efforts have been made towards creating an instant coffee that does not cause people to black it out of their memory.
Instant coffee, in a pinch, can provide users with a coffee-like experience and a boost of caffeine-fueled energy to help them take on their day when regular coffee is not available. Instant coffee is, in a way, ground coffee, after it has undergone chemical changes and reconstitution. Instant coffee is made from ground coffee that is brewed and extracted into liquid form, then dehydrated and changed into a solid form in order to prolong its shelf life, ruin its flavor and body, and flatten out its complexity.
Most people are familiar with coffee. It’s a breakfast staple, a delicious, robust, energy-giving elixir that helps people get out of bed and ready to take on whatever challenges the day has in store for them. Coffee is liquid kindness and motivation. Some kind of coffee maker, be it an electric drip brewer, a french press, a pour over device, or some other contraption, is a must-have appliance in any respectable household. Much of the working world runs on coffee like automobiles run on oil and gasoline. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans, and the smell of coffee brewing, especially in the morning, are things of beauty.
Ground coffee is what is used to brew regular coffee. It is the product of crushed or shaved coffee beans, and when extracted with hot water, and passed through a paper or mesh filter, coffee is made, and satisfaction and appreciation follows closely. There are many different types of ground coffee in the form of different brands, different countries of origin where the coffee beans are sourced, different roast levels, where the beans are roasted to add extra character.
In this article, we will define instant and ground coffee, and walk you through the process of how each is made. We will dive head first into the differences between instant and ground coffee in terms of aroma and flavor, caffeine content, health benefits, cost and convenience, the brewing process, and the environmental impact of each type of coffee. We’ll talk about the advances made in instant coffee, which has made it a much more palatable option.
Finally, we will outline the advantages and disadvantages of each type of coffee, put them head-to-head, and proclaim a winner (Spoiler alert: it’s not instant coffee). If you wanted to learn everything there is to know about instant coffee and how it relates to ground coffee, you are in the right place. Let’s dive in.
What is Instant Coffee?
Instant coffee is the result of a lab experiment based on a horrible idea which attempts to make a far inferior coffee product which is designed to never spoil, and to be a quick and easy alternative to coffee. Instant coffee sacrifices taste and quality in the name of convenience and regret.
Though it is hard to believe it, instant coffee is actually made from coffee. While most good coffee is made from the superior Arabica form, instant coffee is typically made from robusta beans, which are more bitter and acidic, and considerably less enjoyable. Instant coffee uses robusta beans, because they are cheaper, and because those who drink instant coffee are not concerned with taste or quality anyway.
Instant coffee takes lackluster robusta beans, which are brewed in a joy-crushing factory to create a concentrated brew. The concentrated grog is then freeze dried into a water-soluble powder-like consistency, so that it can be stored for decades without going bad (though a case could be made that something that is inherently bad cannot “go” bad, as it is already bad in every imaginable way). The process of drying and freezing not only zaps the flavor and aroma of the coffee used, it also takes away a good bit of the caffeine, though robusta beans are higher in caffeine than Arabica beans initially.
The final product is a coarse brown powder that can be mixed with water in order to make a sorry excuse for a coffee-like product. The coffee-like powder dissolves fully into the water when mixed, altering its chemical structure for a third time before it makes it into your system. In baking, instant coffee can be a good substitute for the real thing, as most baking recipes don’t highlight coffee as a central ingredient, so instant coffee can still provide a hint of coffee flavor in baked goods without ruining the dish.
In an emergency, instant coffee can stand in for the real deal, to make those that are forced to drink it feel like they are getting something somewhat close to coffee, perhaps.
Is instant coffee really always so terrible though? As coffee snobs, we’d like to say yes. But the truth is that over the last five or 10 years the instant coffee companies have raised their game. There are actually several brands of premium instant coffee made from better beans, and the coffee that you get from the powders are at least as good as what you’d get drinking a mainstream low-end coffee brand through a cheap drip coffee machine. We’ll give you more details below.
What Is Ground Coffee?
Ground coffee is the result of grinding whole coffee beans so that they can be extracted into liquid to create a complex and nuanced drink called coffee. When coffee beans are grinded, they begin to oxidize immediately, so it is best to brew your grounds right after grinding, for the freshest possible cup. Coffee beans are ground into different sized particles for different types of coffee drinks. Cold brew and french press coffee is best made using coarse coffee grounds, pour over and electric drip coffee typically calls for medium to medium coarse grounds, while finer grounds are used for espresso and Turkish coffee.
Ground coffee is not processed in a laboratory like instant coffee. The only processing involved in its creation is the roasting process, which adds complexity to the flavor and aroma of the coffee and the packaging of the grounds. True coffee enthusiasts prefer to buy their coffee beans in whole bean form and grind it themselves, as the fresher the grounds are, the better the coffee will taste.
Differences Between Instant Coffee And Ground Coffee
Differences in Aroma and Flavor
Ground coffee is far more aromatic and flavorful than instant coffee, and perhaps more importantly, the aroma and flavor of ground coffee is far more enjoyable than instant coffee as well. Ground coffee can be complex, well-balanced, and widely varied. Instant coffee is usually light bodied and bitter, with a forgettable aroma.
Differences in Caffeine Content
Ground coffee is significantly higher in caffeine than instant coffee. If it is energy you need, ground coffee is the far better choice.
Differences in Health Benefits
Though coffee grounds hold a slight edge in overall antioxidant numbers, both forms are well matched in terms of health benefits, and both are good for you, as long as they are consumed in moderation.
Differences in Cost and Convenience
Instant coffee has to win somewhere right? Well, if the powers that be insist, and it looks like they do. Instant coffee is both cheaper, and easier to make and clean up. If you don’t have the time or the dime, instant coffee is your best option.
Differences in Environmental Impact
People generally assume that the more something is processed, the worse it is for the environment, but in this case, people are wrong. Instant coffee is actually less environmentally harmful than ground coffee. Making instant coffee requires less packaging, and therefore, instant coffee creates less of a carbon footprint than ground coffee. To engage in more environmentally friendly practices while drinking good ground coffee, use reusable cups instead of disposables. Another way to do your part to help the environment while drinking regular coffee, is to recycle your grounds by using them to create compost.
The overall difference between the two is in quality, and one is glaringly superior, as it is freshly made, while the other is processed into a product that is simply not very good. The differences between the two are easy to see, taste, and smell. Instant coffee just doesn’t stand up to the real deal.
Advances In Instant Coffee Quality
If you make a habit of drinking instant coffee, perhaps you’ve noticed that its taste has started to improve over the last decade or so, and perhaps you’ve even read a bit about why. When instant coffee’s flavor and quality started its climb from the bottom of the barrel, media outlets from Reuters to Vogue began to spread the word.
While instant coffee has had its place in the coffee scene since the end of World War II, it was mostly consumed as a matter of convenience: instant coffee stores practically forever, is quick to prepare, is portable, and requires no brewing equipment—just a cup, a spoon, and hot water. While these practical traits made instant coffee popular, almost everyone agreed that instant wasn’t nearly as good as “real” coffee, brewed hot and fresh.
Instant coffee had traditionally been made with robusta coffee beans, which have a harsher and more bitter taste than arabica beans do. Robusta beans have even been described as tasting grainy or rubbery. But one of their advantages is affordability, and that’s why instant coffee makers, knowing that cost is top priority for their customer base, chose to use robusta beans to make their instant coffee.
But that started to change sometime around 2013. As demand for instant coffee continued to grow, the price of robusta beans grew alongside it. At the same time, increased supply of arabica coffee beans due to their more widespread cultivation drove the price of arabica beans down. Compared to robusta beans, arabica beans have less sharpness to their taste and more sweetness, although they pack just half the caffeine of robusta beans.
Once the price of low grade arabica beans was comparable to the price of robusta (and eventually even cheaper), instant coffee makers jumped at the chance to add arabica’s more palatable flavor to their recipes. Many instant coffees are now a blend of robusta and arabica beans. The Starbucks version of instant coffee, Via, uses 100 percent arabica beans, and there are plenty of other instant coffee makers that do the same. By 2018 and 2019, headlines were proclaiming that instant coffee was back.
While part of instant coffee’s transformation has been due to the inclusion of arabica beans, that isn’t the only factor. Small roasteries and specialty coffee shops also began to offer their own, more gourmet-minded versions of instant coffee, made with premium coffee beans. They recognized the opportunity to cater to their customers’ love of specialty coffee along with their need for a portable, no-fuss way to prepare coffee when they were away from home or couldn’t get to the coffee shop.
These days, while you can certainly still find old-school instant coffee on grocery store shelves, you can also opt for instant coffee that’s much tastier and higher in quality. Modern technology has also put an end to the clumpiness and powderiness that plagued instant coffee products decades ago.
While drinking instant coffee will likely never be a completely identical experience to enjoying a freshly brewed cup, today’s instant coffee gets much, much closer to tasting like the “real thing” than instant preparations did in years past.
Advantages of Instant Coffee
We’ve already discussed some of the reasons instant coffee became popular. Here’s a full list of the perks of instant coffee.
- Low Cost: Instant coffee was developed as a cost-effective option and has continued to have an affordable price point through the years.
- No Equipment Necessary: Even the most compact and elegant pour over brewers, French presses, or drip coffee machines have an element of setup for the consumer to complete, and they require the initial investment when the brewer is purchased. Instant coffee doesn’t require a thing but water, a cup, and a spoon, making it possible for people without access to other brewing systems to enjoy hot coffee quickly and easily without paying coffee shop prices.
- Perfectly Portable: Instant coffee is ideal for tucking into a bookbag, accompanying you to work, or even coming along on a hike. The powder or crystals usually come in small jars or little packets that are easy to transport, so instant coffee drinkers can enjoy a cup just about anywhere, any time. Wherever hot water is available and you can find a cup, instant coffee can be savored.
- Ridiculously Long Shelf Life: While a sealed container of ground or whole bean coffee can last for months in the pantry and two or three years once frozen, instant coffee has a much longer lifespan. In the cupboard, an open or sealed container of instant coffee will keep for two to 20 years. Frozen, instant coffee granules can be kept indefinitely without a change in quality.
Disadvantages of Instant Coffee
Although instant coffee became popular because of its benefits, every option has its drawbacks. Here are the disadvantages of instant coffee.
- Loss of Aroma: One of the challenges for instant coffee manufacturers is replicating the distinctive scent of freshly ground coffee beans. While instant coffee does have that trademark coffee smell, those who drink instant miss out on the full sensory experience of fresh-ground coffee. (That said, this is the case for anything but the most freshly ground whole bean coffee. The compounds responsible for coffee’s delicious aroma begin to change and dissipate as soon as the beans are ground, and within 15 minutes, 60 percent of the aroma has been lost.)
- Improved But Still Inferior Flavor: As we’ve discussed, there have been huge strides in the realm of instant coffee in recent years when it comes to taste. Instant coffee manufacturers continue to strive to make instant coffee taste as much like the real deal as possible—but you will be able to tell a difference. How much of a difference there is between the taste of instant coffee and freshly brewed coffee depends on the quality of the beans used and the craftsmanship employed by the manufacturer.
Advantages of Ground Coffee
- Far Superior Taste: Flavor is one area in which ground coffee is miles ahead of instant coffee. Even stale, old, low quality coffee is better than fresh instant coffee. Ground coffee taste is typically multi-faceted and balanced. The type of coffee beans used will have the most influence on the flavor of the final product.
- Full of Antioxidants: Though instant coffee has a comparable level of antioxidants to ground coffee, ground coffee is slightly more rich in the free radical fighting compounds.
- Energy Source: though not significantly higher, ground coffee has a bit more caffeine than instant coffee.
Disadvantages of Ground Coffee
- Less Convenient: Though it’s not too much of a hassle to brew coffee, mixing up some instant coffee is far easier than brewing ground coffee traditionally, as all you need is warm to hot water and a stirring implement to make a cup of instant joe.
- Shorter Shelf-Life: The moment you grind your coffee beans, the process of oxidation begins, and the freshness of your coffee grounds begins to decline. Instant coffee, on the other hand, can be stored for ages. In the Freezer, instant coffee stays good forever, but ground coffee should be used the same day that it is ground for best results, and within the week, before the grounds become overly stale.
- More Expensive: Ground coffee is usually a bit more pricey than instant coffee, and specialty coffee, like extra fancy grade Kona coffee beans can cost up to $100 per pound of beans. The quality of coffee you get from buying fresh coffee beans far outweighs the extra price for fresh coffee.
Which One Wins?
It’s a no brainer which is better. Instant coffee is not even close to as enjoyable as ground coffee. Ground coffee wins in every conceivable way. If the two were pitted against each other in a competition, ground coffee would win in a blowout of epic proportions. Unless you are baking with it or you are getting on a space shuttle, instant coffee has no rightful place in your life.