Instant coffee manufacturers are now claiming that their products stand up beside the best roast-and-ground offerings. But can instant coffee ever be served as the real thing?
The concept of instant coffee as a quality beverage for the catering trade is not always taken seriously. The general view of the speciality coffee sector is that instant coffee is fine as a warm, comforting beverage but it is not to be confused with "real" coffee, and it does not have a place in a serious catering situation.
However, Starbucks has now shaken the coffee world by introducing a soluble powder. It is aiming it at the catering trade, and is planning to sell it on EasyJet flights. This has been followed by the rest of the instant sector becoming equally bullish about its place in catering.
Nescafé has introduced the Go Large campaign, in which caterers are urged to serve instant coffee in bigger mugs for better returns. In the workplace market, the company has devised a contest in which employers can win an entire branded café.
And other instant brands now say, defiantly, that their products stand up beside the best of roast-and-ground coffee. The key question is whether instant coffee can be served as "real" coffee.
Soluble coffee does begin as real coffee. It is roasted, ground, and brewed in a conventional way, before being turned into a powder or granules. Powder is formed by spray-drying - hot air, at up to 270e_SDgrC, is blasted into the coffee liquid and turns it into a powder. It can create a good drink, but careless spraying produces a burnt taste.
Granules come from a freeze-drying process, with the brewed coffee poured out in a very thin layer, frozen, crushed and dried. This is generally considered to give the best result, but is about one-third more expensive than spray-drying.
Detractors of instant coffee say that processing in "industrial quantities" of two tonnes at a time cannot possibly give as good a result as hand-roasted "artisan" coffee at a few kilos a time. The response from Nestlé Professional, which owns the Nescafé brand, is that its computer-controlled roasting has to be more accurate than even a craft-roaster's work, as one mistake can waste two tonnes of beans. Soluble coffee must not be dismissed, say the big brands.
"In a country where the ratio of instant to roast-and-ground is 80:20 at home and 60:40 in catering, the notion that instant is an inferior product is unfair to the consumer," protests Martin Lines, marketing director for Nestlé Professional.
"Only one coffee in 10 is consumed in a coffee shop - we have 50,000 convenience outlets out there, which are now routes for coffee and the vast majority of that is soluble. The workplace market is the biggest opportunity of all."
And, runs his argument, the quality is good. "Consistency of taste is what we deliver. No roast-and-ground coffee will give consistent results because every barista prepares it differently and the consumer does not want coffee to taste one way today and another tomorrow."
This defiance is echoed at Aimia Foods, where marketing controller Martin Armitt says he can replicate the quality of a bean-to-cup machine with instant coffee.
"Don't tell me this can't be done, because we are doing it. Our Pour Moi system was devised to bring coffee-shop drinks to the vending sector with instant ingredients. Professional coffee people might taste a difference but it is interesting to see that intelligent and well-educated ‘ordinary people' cannot do so."
Armitt argues that the bean-to-cup option in catering is unreliable.
"How annoying is it that so many bean-to-cup machines go out of order or cannot produce milk-based drinks because the milker has broken down? That the milk is sour or has bits in it? That the extraction time slips to 12 seconds, not 24, or the milk was burnt? How about the smell of fermenting, uncared-for coffee beans left in the hopper for a week?
"Compared with this, instant coffee is the Toyota of the coffee world - it might not be flash but it's very tough and totally reliable, where a Lamborghini is not always practical.
"I used to think that the UK would ultimately stop using instant coffee. I no longer think that - I think in some ways the world is moving back to instant."
Support for this comes from Kenco, where communications manager Susan Nash cites research conducted for the company, which says that over half of out-of-home coffee drinkers think roast-and-ground coffee smells better than it tastes, which Kenco interprets as a preference for the taste of soluble coffee.
At Douwe Egberts, brand manager Olivier Kutz agrees that instant coffee need not be a bland-tasting beverage.
"In research you read that instant coffee is just ‘functional', but this is wrong - many people actually like instant coffee because it is milder in taste but clean with good ‘body'. A good-quality instant is always preferable to a badly-made cappuccino made from stale beans in a dirty machine by someone who doesn't care."
Quite right, says Louise Whitaker, trade marketing manager at Cafédirect. "Premium instant coffees deserve a prominent place in catering because there is an awful lot of low-quality roast-and-ground about. Last May we launched Classic Instant Quality Improved as the result of ongoing improvements and we are now developing a new single-origin instant coffee. We believe the features of origin can come through in instant, we have seen this confirmed in consumer taste tests."
At Aimia, Armitt is working on a similar project to broaden the spectrum of freeze-dried instant flavour varieties. Critics say that this is pointless because subtleties of single-origin flavour do not come through in a soluble product. However, the world-renowned coffee guru Kenneth Davids says that he can definitely observe a 100% freeze-dried Colombian as a far superior beverage to any other instant coffee.
At Douwe Egberts, Kutz warns that claim of origin might be unreliable if associated with poor instant coffee but agrees that in a carefully-processed one, taste features can be quite clear. Starbucks UK managing director Darcy Willson-Rymer says that his new Via powdered instant coffee uses exactly the same beans that produce the filter coffee in his stores - one variety is Colombian and as instant produces a taste ‘of some acidity and a nutty complexity'.
If the soluble brands now believe so strongly in their taste qualities, their target market becomes interesting. Certainly, all of them want to upgrade the hotel bedroom sector. "Too few hotels treat bedroom coffee with any priority," is the Nescafé view; Armitt at Aimia says that we still have too many sorry-looking paper sachets on show; and the need for a clear quality instant solution in bedrooms is obvious, according to Nash at Kenco.
This is where the new name may come storming in. Starbucks is determined to transform the instant coffee sector, saying that its new Via will open up a new market and, when pressed, acknowledges that Via is seen as a competitive option for the hotel and B&B bedroom market.
And Starbucks goes even further. When it was put to Darcy Willson-Rymer that thousands of pubs and roadside cafés which currently serve tin-and-spoon coffee could now put a Starbucks logo up, he agreed this was quite conceivable.
[Cafédirect ](http://www.cafedirect.co.uk) 0800 104040
0845 271 1818
[Kraft Foods/Kenco ](http://www.kencocoffee) 0870 241 4820
[Nestlé Professional/Nescafé ](http://www.nestle) 0800 742842