13 Best Instant Coffee Brands, Ranked

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Instant coffee is perhaps the biggest black sheep in the coffee world. Despite that, this much-bickered-over version of the black gold we know and love is a $15.4 billion industry in the U.S. alone, per Statista. Many of our friends across the globe — including Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Russia, and almost all of Asia, according to The Washington Post — actually tend to reach for the stuff instead of fresh coffee beans.

What is instant coffee and why does it have so many enemies? As explained by Know Your Grinder, instant java powder is, in fact, made with real coffee. It's not imitation. To do it, an extract is made from roasted coffee beans, then it's concentrated and dried with either freeze or spray drying. All the coffee crystals need is hot water or milk to rehydrate into the aromatic beverage we're familiar with.

And yet, there's still the argument that you shouldn't drink instant coffee. While there are strong talking points for that — instant coffee is staler, has a lower caffeine content than regular coffee, and contains a higher concentration of acrylamide (although still not at unsafe levels) — there are several reasons to choose instant coffee. Camping, traveling, or lack of a coffee-making machine, are just a few reasons to reach for instant coffee. We tried some of the most popular brands and ranked them from worst to best — in strictly instant coffee comparisons, not contrasting with fresh coffee, which would be like comparing apples to oranges.

13. Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee

We have to begrudgingly thank Folgers for making instant coffee in handy pouch form, but we're pretty ungrateful for everything else about this coffee. It tastes like old graham crackers if the old graham crackers were put in the oven and scorched to a crisp. Instant coffee often isn't good, sure, but it doesn't have to take burnt and stale either — and that's exactly how this (and any) Folgers product comes across.

The cup of coffee this brand makes is bitter and greasy. It's a decent enough medium roast, but the low quality and age of the beans just ruin any pleasurable taste that would come from the roast. It leaves a film in your mouth and a bad aftertaste that is best cloaked by sugar and cream. We are strong proponents of affordable, middle-of-the-road, everyday coffees — not every cup has to be an artisanal, snobbish, single-origin craft — but even in the category of brands for daily drinking, you can do much better than Folgers Classic Roast. However, if you find yourself in Target with just $1 in your pocket, it'll get you seven servings of Folgers instant, so it's at least affordable.

12. Nescafé Taster's Choice Hazelnut Instant Coffee

The Nescafé Taster's Choice Hazelnut Instant Coffee is made with artificial hazelnut flavor and what tastes like a full city roast coffee. This coffee is very fragrant and will fill your kitchen with the aroma of hazelnut when it meets hot water. The coffee, by itself, is probably quite good — full city roasts, which are medium-dark roasts, are among subjectively the best roasts of coffee since the acidity is cooked away and the beans are developing a rich, smoky-sweet flavor profile. However, the sweetness of the beans' caramelization clashes with the unnaturally intense hazelnut flavor. Off the bat, the hazelnut is too much and the coffee is drowned.

In the aftertaste, though, the hazelnut mellows out. And the good news is that the affronting hazelnut takes care of most instant coffee flavor unpleasantries, like bitterness and sourness. Although, there is a slight charred/burned taste when you first take a sip that we aren't sure of the possible origins of, especially since instant coffees can't be burned by too-hot water as fresh grounds can be. At around $0.25 per serving (Walmart), this option is definitely affordable, but our recommendation is to opt for the Taster's Choice unflavored and add your favorite hazelnut creamer for a more balanced coffee.

11. Trader Joe's Instant Coffee

Right away, you'll notice that the powder in a packet of Trader Joe's Instant Coffee looks different than others. That's because this brand claims to have already "dressed up" your coffee with creamer and sugar, so the sweetener and powdered dairy are included with the coffee crystals. The idea, in theory, is great: When traveling, hiking, camping, in a hotel, etc., the last thing you want to lug around is a jug of creamer and a container of sugar. Can you imagine spilling that in a tent or having it leak into your luggage?

However, we could immediately tell with the first sip that TJ's coffee is not nearly creamy or sweet enough for the average coffee drinker. Each packet contains 7 grams of sugar — but 1 tablespoon of sugar is over 12 grams (via Traditional Oven). After adding 8 ounces of water, the coffee also barely reached a dark tannish brown, which would be the equivalent of a couple of teaspoons, a tablespoon at most, of cream. We think Trader Joe's was on the right track. For just about $0.20 per serving, what beats that? But, keep in mind that this instant coffee will only be enjoyable as-is to those who like very moderate sweetness — and adding more cream or sugar kind of defeats the purpose of a convenient coffee. The coffee taste was also a bit weak and dissatisfying for us, but might appeal to those who don't like a strong coffee flavor.

10. Great Value Classic Roast Instant Coffee

We had no idea what to expect with the in-house Walmart brand of coffee — it's interesting to think of a brand that sells cotton balls and dish soap as also producing coffee, but we have had some decent food products from the in-house brand before. Its granules appear very similar in smell, texture, and consistency to Nescafé Clásico's instant dark roast, but using a teaspoon for 6 ounces — as directed on the packaging — yielded a very weak, semi-transparent coffee. We added another scoop of coffee and were surprised at how the flavor bloomed. The coffee is smooth, slightly sweet, and tastes slightly of caramel, with minimal bitterness and no oiliness.

Make no mistake, no one is trying to argue the Great Value Classic Roast Instant Coffee is passable for fresh coffee or even suitable for daily consumption. But in a pinch, it's great to have a jar stashed in the back of your cupboard for when you run out of fresh beans or — heaven forbid — your coffeemaker goes caput. Plus, the 8-ounce jar is less than $4 at Walmart and is purported to make over 100 cups of coffee (if you don't double the granules used). We'd recommend more portable options for travel, though.

9. Trader Joe's Instant Cold Brew Coffee

At-home cold brews compete on a different playing field than hot instant coffees, but we included Trader Joe's Instant Cold Brew Coffee for all of the iced coffee aficionados out there. The powdered form of cold brew certainly makes enjoying it at home affordable and convenient, but is taste the sacrifice? We also tried Starbucks' cold brew from concentrate, and what we found was interesting: Starbucks had preferable flavor notes and a smoother, bolder body, but Trader Joe's had a more palatable, lighter roast and less bitterness.

The TJ's cold brew was more tart, citrusy, and acidic, reminiscent of grapefruit and white wine. The Trader Joe's option is less bitter, but also less sweet than Starbucks, and has more of an acidic zing. We also felt that TJ's version wasn't as voluminous or smooth, and the powdered granule approach may be to blame. However, the Trader Joe's container is a fraction of the cost of the Starbucks option and will yield far more servings, so Trader Joe's may be the way to go if you need affordability to make daily cold brew accessible.

8. Maxwell House Original Roast Instant Coffee

Maxwell House may not be one of the best coffee brands, but it is at least one of the most familiar. The instructions for this brand call for 1 teaspoon per every 6 ounces of water, which yields a rich and embodied cup of coffee. This medium roast is on the brighter side with a touch of acidity and immediate sourness, definitively tasting like a robusta blend that hasn't been artfully roasted. However, the flavor of Maxwell House, while nothing to fall in love with, isn't the trophy-holder for worst instant coffee by any means. It actually brings an unexpected sense of nostalgia, like having breakfast in your old hometown diner.

Maxwell House is an affordable coffee option, at less than $6 for an 8-ounce jar that'll produce at least 50 cups of coffee (via Target). The bulky, large container makes travel or camping with this coffee hugely inconvenient, though. While we wouldn't choose Maxwell House for a cup of coffee to sit down and enjoy, it may work in instant coffee-based recipes like a freddo.

7. Folgers Noir Golden Dusk Instant Coffee

Folgers Noir seems a pretty clear attempt to leverage the brand into the mid-tier coffee brand playing field. The sleek black packaging and artistic rendition of sunrise breaking over a mountain ridge are worlds different from the apple-red packaging and cartoonish mountain sunrise on classic Folgers containers. Noir is roasted several degrees darker than regular Folgers, tasting somewhere in the neighborhood of a city roast with a strong taste of bittersweet dark chocolate.

We were skeptical of whether or not Noir could be much more palatable than its predecessor, or if trying it meant falling victim to sneaky marketing. Since Noir is made with 100% Arabica beans and the classic instant packets almost certainly contain Robusta, the overall coffee taste and texture are slightly silkier. The classic instant packets have a feeble, watered-down taste, a characteristic that Noir doesn't share. While the coffee still is noticeably more bitter than higher quality brands, it's more palatable than the previous Folgers product in this ranking. The 7-ounce jar will probably yield at least 100 servings of coffee, available for less than $7 at Walmart.

6. Nescafé Clásico Dark Roast Instant Coffee

While still nowhere near the playing field of Starbucks or even Juan Valdez, Nescafé Clásico Dark Roast Instant Coffee is a solid mid-level instant coffee. It didn't need double the product as the directions called for like Juan Valdez did, but we were unimpressed by the blandness of this coffee. Dark roasts are known for being vibrant and full-bodied, but Nescafé's instant dark roast has more "last drops of coffee in the hotel lobby carafe" vibes, and adding another teaspoon of grounds seemed to help a little, but the taste was still, at best, mediocre.

You could try to give Nescafé some pizzazz with creamer or sugar, but you likely won't be able to taste the coffee at all if you do (which is exactly what some coffee drinkers want, of course). If coffee just gets you through the morning, this brand might suit your needs fine, but if you want any joy in your Joe, look elsewhere. On the bright side, you'll only be paying about a dime per each cup of boring, per Walmart's prices.

5. Starbucks Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

Cold brew is a great way to change up your coffee routine, especially in the hot months, and there are many ways to get a quick, convenient cold brew at home: liquid concentrates, dehydrated granules, ready-to-drink jugs, or single-serving bottles. Starbucks' Cold Brew Concentrates comes in handy Keurig-pod-like containers that are meant to make a single 8-ounce serving of cold brew by simply adding water.

It's difficult to not compare the packaged cold brew concentrate to the equivalent beverage made on-site at Starbucks — to nitro cold brew, in particular, there's no competition — and while there's definitely a smoother taste in fresh cold brew right from the coffee shop, the instant version from Starbucks sets itself apart from Trader Joe's version in its full-bodied, bright flavor. We taste hints of graham, honey, and raisin in this bittersweet brew, alluding to a quality medium or medium-dark roast. Additionally, Starbucks' cold brew from concentrate will hold up against flavored creamer, syrups, sugar, or other add-ins.

However, at almost $10 for six capsules (Target), paying over $1.50 per serving of cold brew definitely makes it a less affordable daily option than jugs or powders, as well as hot coffee.

4. Juan Valdez Colombia Instant Coffee

Juan Valdez claims that its freeze-dried coffee granules are the "closest thing" to a cup of freshly-brewed coffee. As soon as the hot water hit the crystals, we smelled trouble — this product's aroma is burnt and stale, identical to that of bottom-tier brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House. The instructions don't indicate how much water to use, so we opted for 8 ounces, which gave us the deep black flavor of properly-concentrated coffee, but after the first sip, we wondered if we'd misread how much coffee to use — because we couldn't taste any at all. The instructions do indeed call for 1 teaspoon of the coffee granules per cup, but the nearly-absent flavor was perplexing, so we added another teaspoon.

Finally, after doubling the product, we were able to get an actual taste of the actual coffee, and were surprised to discover how misleading the initial smell was; this instant coffee is made with a quality Columbian coffee, known for its smooth flavor that, to some, even trumps Arabica beans. Juan Valdez Instant Columbian Coffee is pleasantly balanced between bold and bright — when you double the number of coffee crystals used. The packaging claims to make 64 cups of coffee, but since we think this is only suitable when the coffee is doubled, we consider the number of servings included to be half that — and with that in mind, each cup costs about $0.16, according to Walmart pricing.

3. Starbucks VIA Instant Italian Roast Coffee

Two of the arguably best edible commodities — coffee and pasta — are done best in Italy. However, there's one Mediterranean coffee preference that many of us state-siders can't get behind, and that's the Italian roast coffee. Italian roast beans are roasted to a deep purplish-black color and all of the coffee's terroir — the flavor characteristics of the natural coffee bean as it was grown — are cooked away. This is a very dark, robust, bold-flavored coffee, with low acidity, discernible bitterness, and smoky overtones. If you pick up flavor notes in the Starbucks VIA Instant Italian Roast Coffee, it's likely to be notes of rich cacao and charred marshmallow.

We found the Starbucks instant coffees in this list to be the closest to passing for a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, but the Italian roast was significantly greasier (leaving a film in the mouth after drinking) than the Pike Place roast. The dark roast is also going to appeal to fewer coffee drinkers, but you could use hot milk instead to achieve more of a café au lait. The Starbucks Instant Italian Roast will run you around $1 per cup, per Target — certainly less than an actual Starbucks visit.

2. Café Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee

Café Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee is the option for the die-hardest of coffee drinkers. Since it technically is an espresso powder, this brand may be most enjoyable as an affogato, latte, or cappuccino if you're able to steam milk at home, or just with a healthy pour of heavy cream to cut the espresso's very bold edge. You could also cut out the water entirely and use 6 ounces of cream heated over the stove to rehydrate the espresso powder; the dairy sugars will soften the intense coffee. Café Bustelo's instant espresso has the deeply complex flavor of a dark roast, with notes like butter toffee and dark chocolate. The roast's natural caramelization brings the slightest hint of sweetness, but the taste will definitely be too smoky and bitter for many palates if the coffee is consumed on its own.

However, if you can find a way to prepare it that you enjoy, we highly recommend this brand as far as instant coffees go. It tastes beautifully rich and is robust enough to stand up to sweeteners and creamers, and lacks the oily texture and sour taste that plagues many instant coffees. Plus, Café Bustelo is a much cheaper option than daily Starbucks runs at around $0.50 per serving (via Amazon).

1. Starbucks VIA Instant Pike Place Roast Coffee

The Starbucks VIA Instant Pike Place Roast Coffee is an easy favorite. This medium roast is smooth and not too bold, with a very forward nutty flavor. The hazelnut essence is undertoned by hints of caramel and chocolate. The resulting coffee is the familiar mild of medium roast — not as acidic as a light roast, not as bitter as a dark like Starbucks' Italian that's included in this ranking — and can be enjoyed by a variety of coffee users. The flavor is complex enough to enjoy black, but would also go well with cream and sugar.

The instant Pike Place Roast coffee comes in single-serve packets and is interestingly free of the sourness associated with instant coffee. There was also no greasiness and minimal sediment. We found the packets remarkably easy to use, and perfect for hiking or travel — just empty the contents into your mug and pour hot water over it. The instructions call for 8 ounces, but we went with 10 and the coffee was still plenty intense. At around $1 per serving (per Target), you're definitely paying more for each cup of coffee than other brands, but wouldn't actually enjoying an instant coffee as much (or nearly as much) as you do a brewed coffee be worth it?