Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

How can we assess the quality of instant coffee?

According to the Brazilian Soluble Coffee Industry Association (ABICS), instant coffee accounts for some 25% of all retail coffee consumed globally. Moreover, the association says consumption of instant coffee is increasing by 2% every year, indicating the growth and potential of this segment.

First invented in the 18th century, demand for instant coffee has remained consistent for decades, largely because of its affordability and convenience. However, historically, it has been thought of as a lower-quality product.

In recent years, we have seen more and more specialty coffee brands launch their own soluble coffee products, which indicates that specialty instant coffee is an emerging trend in the industry.

However, with no formal measures to evaluate the sensory quality of instant coffee, it is becoming difficult to determine how the category could be differentiated. If formal practices were developed, then producers, traders, roasters, and consumers could all be better informed about this growing segment.

To find out more about how we can assess the quality of instant coffee, I spoke with three industry professionals. Read on to learn what they had to say.

You may also like our article on specialty instant coffee in China.

Instant coffee granules dissolving in a mug.

When was instant coffee first created?

The first record of instant coffee was in 1890, when New Zealander David Strang filed a patent for his “Dry Hot-Air” process.

Strang then sold instant coffee products under the company name Strang’s Coffee, but it wasn’t until Japanese scientist Satori Kato debuted his soluble coffee powder at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 that interest began to grow.

Some nine years later, Belgian inventor George Constant Louis Washington launched the first commercially available instant coffee product. It was around this time that instant coffee consumption began to rise, especially during the First World War, as it was a convenient and affordable way for soldiers to drink coffee.

By 1938, Nestlé had launched the Nescafé brand, and the company had developed a more refined and standardised manufacturing process. However, overall quality of instant coffee products remained relatively low in the years that followed – largely because they included low-quality robusta.

Despite this, demand remained stable, but in more recent years, we have seen the emergence of specialty-grade instant coffee – showing that quality is improving.

Fabio Sato is the Commercial Director at IGC Group in Brazil, one of the largest instant coffee manufacturers and exporters in the world. He explains some of the reasons why demand for instant coffee has remained steady.

“Consumer perception of soluble coffee has changed, largely because of the wider variety of products available – such as freeze-dried, organic, and specialty-grade options,” he says. “The latter includes 100% arabica and single origin instant coffee products.

“In addition to this, soluble coffee can also be used as an ingredient in iced coffees, which tend to be popular with younger consumers,” he adds. “Moreover, instant coffee is more affordable and more convenient [than other brewing methods].”

A teaspoon inside a jar of freeze-dried instant coffee.

How does instant coffee processing affect its quality?

There are many steps involved in creating instant coffee products, all of which have an effect on overall quality. These include how the coffee is sourced, roasted, and brewed, as well as dried.

Most instant coffee includes robusta, which historically has been considered inferior to arabica. This has meant that in the past, if a soluble coffee product has included arabica (either as a single origin or blend), it was more likely to be of higher quality.

As with any type of coffee product, the green beans first need to be roasted to develop the coffee’s flavours and aromas. After it is ground to a very coarse grind size, the coffee is extracted using pressurised water heated to a temperature of 175°C (347°F), which produces a concentrated brew between 25% and 60% of extracted soluble compounds.

This concentrate is then dried, either by using spray drying or freeze-drying.

The former involves rapidly turning the coffee concentrate into a dry powder using hot gas, while the latter (also known as cryodesiccation or lyophilisation) is a low-temperature and low-pressure dehydration process.

Robert Junior is the Commercial Assistant at Cocam, an instant coffee product manufacturer and supplier in Brazil. He explains that in order to produce instant coffee, water is removed by concentrating and freezing the product, as well as a process taking place known as sublimation – which is when a substance is transformed from a solid to a gas state.

“The process is carried out at lower temperatures because they help to maintain the coffee’s innate flavours and aromas, as well as its quality,” he says.

He also tells me that Cocam is building a new freeze-drying instant coffee production facility in Brazil – showing that demand for higher-quality soluble coffee is continuing to grow.

A coffee professional uses a cupping form.

Is it possible to assess instant coffee quality?

Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly evident that more and more consumers are demanding more information about their coffee. Not only does this mean that more people want to know where their coffee came from and who produced it, but also they want to understand more about quality.

While a number of quality assessment and grading systems are in place across the coffee sector – notably the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point grading scale – there are little to no formal quality evaluation frameworks for instant coffee.

However, with demand continuing to grow for higher-quality soluble coffee, as well as an increasingly diverse range of products on offer, the need to establish and standardise evaluation procedures is becoming more apparent.

Eliana Relvas is a coffee consultant in Brazil. She also worked on a 2022 white paper in partnership with ABICS and the Institute of Food Technology (ITAL), which proposes a new method of assessing instant coffee quality.

“Currently, there is no official way to assess the quality of instant coffee,” she says. “Considering the ever-growing range of soluble coffee products, we need to create a standardised language to objectively assess the quality of these products, as well as describe their flavours and aromas.

“Moreover, coffees with distinct sensory profiles are more popular than ever, which also motivated us to develop quality control measures for instant coffee,” she adds.

Unlike other quality assessment methods which are based on cupping scores, the new system proposed in ABICS’ new white paper focuses more on flavour attributes, as well as the intensity of flavour.

“We selected flavour attributes which we believed to be the most relevant,” Eliana says.

To identify these key attributes, coffee professionals who took part in the research grouped together several instant coffee samples which had similar flavour profiles. These coffees were sourced from Brazil, as well as other producing countries. The samples were then prepared using 20g of soluble coffee per 1l of water.

Following this, researchers created a sensory lexicon to describe fifteen sensory attributes of coffee, as well as a five-point sensory intensity scale – which includes sweetness, acidity, aftertaste, and body.

In turn, three “formal” instant coffee quality grades were developed: “Excellent”, “Differentiated”, and “Conventional”. All samples were then assessed against this criteria and given respective scores, which indicate the quality of the product.

While this research was conducted in Brazil, the researchers emphasise that the framework can be used by any producing country to assess the quality of its instant coffees.

“This methodology could be used in competitions to evaluate coffee quality,” Robert tells me.

A jar of soluble coffee next to some whole coffee beans.

Could this benefit the coffee industry?

Considering that instant coffee accounts for a quarter of all retail coffee consumption, it is clear that there is a need to develop a formal framework for evaluating quality.

With traceability and transparency becoming increasingly important for consumers, providing more information about the quality of soluble coffee could help to increase overall consumption.

Moreover, consumers could also be willing to pay higher prices for higher-quality instant coffee products – meaning farmers could potentially receive more money for their coffee.

We have also recently seen arabica prices increase significantly, which has led to greater interest in fine robusta. In turn, this could allow the instant coffee market to evolve and grow over the next few years.

“We cannot consider soluble coffee a substitute or a competitor to whole bean, ground coffee or capsules,” Fabio explains. “Each type of coffee product has its own function for the consumer.

“Premium or gourmet soluble coffees have their place in the coffee sector,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Eliana emphasises that while the development of more formal quality assessment methods for instant coffee could help to boost consumption, it could also encourage more brands to include it in their products.

“The goal is not to necessarily encourage more pure consumption, but overall consumption, which includes instant coffee as an ingredient in ready-to-drink products, ice cream, capsules, functional beverages, and more,” she says.

“In this way, we can see instant coffee in a different way – not by ranking it, but understanding more about how to use it in a product,” she adds.

A person pours hot water into a cup of instant coffee.

It’s certainly true that instant coffee has long been considered inferior to other coffee products, and this perception has of course influenced how much is paid for instant coffee across the supply chain.

However, with the development of standardised and objective assessment methods, producers, traders, and roasters can be more informed about the quality of soluble coffee. In turn, this creates more scope for instant coffee products to improve in quality, and we could see the market for specialty instant coffee increase in time.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how processing can be used to improve the quality of commodity robusta coffee.

Perfect Daily Grind

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The post How can we assess the quality of instant coffee? appeared first on Perfect Daily Grind.

By: Rodolfo Zanin
Title: How can we assess the quality of instant coffee?
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Published Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2023 06:29:00 +0000