The phrase "premium instant coffee" might sound like an oxymoron, but the quality of instant coffee is on the rise thanks to big strides in how it is made.
It's not a moment too soon, with more people staying in and working from home due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions - conditions that have prompted instant coffee sales to jump by as much as 40 per cent.
Instant coffee still dominates the market despite Australia's thriving cafe culture and enviable espresso coffee. An October 2019 report on the industry by market research company IBISWorld showed instant coffee retained 41 per cent of the coffee and tea market, ahead of the ground and whole bean segment, which had 25 per cent of the total.
Good Food commissioned coffee tasting professional John Russell Storey to test eight different varieties of instant coffee. Mr Russell Storey works for coffee bean importer Cofi-Com and compares coffee tastes for a living - a practice known as "cupping".
He was surprised by the quality of the eight varieties he tested and said he struggled to differentiate the scores, partly because "the taste palette is far less complex" for instant coffees.
"Ten years ago there would have been coffees that were harsh, sour, with chemical notes that we would have hammered. Consumer expectations and technical advances have got rid of these negative flavours – the coffee flavours and enjoyability factors were pretty homogenous," Mr Russell Storey said.
Peter Patisteas, managing director of Griffiths Bros Coffee Roasters in Melbourne, has dedicated his life to importing and selling high quality coffee beans. So he chuckles when asked about the growing popularity of high quality instant coffee which he has seen at first hand.
Last year Griffiths Bros released their own premium instant blend to tap into the mass market of time-poor drinkers. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a 40 per cent spike in sales as people transitioned to working from home and not going out as much.
"I would've thought people would have enjoyed the process of making coffee - grinding the beans, the extraction process. But the reality is that's not everybody's enjoyment curve," Mr Patisteas said.
"Putting your prejudices aside about instant coffee, most people would have an instant coffee in the pantry, maybe hidden behind the flour," he said.
Richard Kelly owns Moonshine Coffee Roasters in Byron Bay and produced a premium instant range last year. He says the benefits of instant go beyond saving time.
"The results are very standardised [and] you get consistent results. You don't need to be a trained barista," he said.
Another specialty instant variety is Honeybird's exotically named "magic bogan dust". Founder Ryan Lynch said his motivation for producing premium instant was improving people's access to good coffee.
"Why should instant coffee be bad?" he said. "Why should you be skilled to enjoy good coffee?"
The traditional method of making instant coffee was done by spraying concentrated coffee into hot air where the water evaporated and produced coffee crystals.
The other process - freeze drying - is slower, more complex and more expensive, but produces a higher quality taste because it preserves the integrity of the coffee.
"If it's brewed well and the process of freeze drying is carried out well, the end user should have a higher experience," Mr Lynch said.
Even coffee giant Vittoria is taking notice of the growing trend.
"There's been a stigma around the whole instant coffee category as a cheap product, made from low-grade beans," Vittoria Food & Beverage managing director Rolando Schirato said.
"But this is changing as more roasters experiment with higher-quality beans in search of creating the best-tasting instant coffee possible."
Taste test with coffee professional John Russell Storey:
Republica Organic South American Medium Roast - 88.25/100
"Delicate Milo notes with some fruit notes in the background. Exactly the same milk - a nice balance."
Starbucks Medium Roast Premium Instant Coffee - 87.75/100
"A big, bittersweet kick with a dark chocolate and dried fruit taste. Flavours worked nicely with milk."
Griffiths Bros Premium Freeze Dried Instant Coffee - 87.5/100
"Pleasant acidity with buttery chocolate notes and a good body. Didn't diminish with milk."
Brill Instant Specialty Coffee - 87/100
"An intense, liquorice allsorts and cocoa flavour. Married well with milk."
Honeybird Magic Bogan Dust - 86.75/100
"A pleasant nutty and dark chocolate taste with a lingering finish. With milk, smooth and easy to drink."
Bushell's Classic Gourmet Instant Coffee - 87.75/100
"Gentle and sweet with vanilla-like notes. Easy to drink with milk."
Nescafe Gold Original Instant Coffee - 87.25/100
"A nutty milk chocolate and cocoa taste. Kept flavours with milk."
Moccona Rich & Dark Specialty Blend Coffee - 87.25/100
"Strong, cocoa and walnut notes. Took the addition of milk in its stride."