Feta pasta? Fine.
Overnight Oatmeal? Only with a gun to his head.
The list of Covid-era food fads is long and sometimes bizarre. Even so, the pandemic passion for instant coffee seems particularly bizarre.
After all, thanks to WFH, time is a surplus commodity, and you’d think caffeine junkies would use some of it to hang out on their favorite fix. Instead, some coffee fanatics, including a sizable contingent from Silicon Valley, have become obsessed with instant brew.
What is even stranger is that they are willing to pay high prices for what is traditionally reserved for the poor. For most of my life as a coffee drinker, “instant” was a euphemism for inexpensive. That’s why, as I’ve been given to understand, it’s so popular in developing countries, especially those that don’t grow their own beans, where “Nescafé” is the eponym of coffee.
The biggest additions to House Ghosh’s kitchen over the past 18 months have been two coffee-making gadgets, a Japanese mizudashi pot and a South Indian decoction filter. One uses cold water, the other hot water, but both work on the principle of percolation without haste.
I rarely drink instant now. But if, like me, you grew up in India in the 70s and 80s, you might have been forgiven for thinking that granules were the natural form of coffee. Only in parts of southern India, home to the country’s few plantations, was filter coffee an option. Pourers and French presses were unknown, and “siphon” was a term associated only with embezzlers and gasoline thieves.
The instant’s ubiquity owed as much to cost considerations as to convenience: Nescafé was cheap. It was also something of a cross between a sleeper agent and a gateway drug, helping to create a coffee habit in poor countries before economic development boosted demand for products like Starbucks. So you see why it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone would pay the price of a venti for a cup of instant.
It’s less surprising that the epicenter of the trend is in Silicon Valley, where the notion of a $6 instant cup was launched as early as 2016, and where said cup’s Finnish creator, Kalle Freese, is inevitably portrayed like “the Elon Musk of coffee.”
I had to find out for myself if these pricey instants lived up to their premium price. Alas, there was a run on the Freese’s Sudden brand, so I never had a chance to pour a serving of pellets into a vacuum sealed tube. Instead, I ordered three more: Swift Cup, Juno, and Joe.
From the tone of this column so far, you can probably tell that I’ve taken a healthy dose of doubt into the trials. My skepticism was not softened by the outlandish claims on the packaging. Each box of the Swift Cup, for example, bears the caption “We are tasting” followed by flavor notes such as citrus, floral, milk chocolate, roasted nuts and red fruits. Such a claim would confuse even the most oenophile of my friends.
But I did my best to put my disbelief aside and tried them all. And I can testify to the following:
Each of the brands had a distinct taste, but the subcategories are not easy to distinguish. If there are any differences between the Brazilian, Mexican and Ethiopian variants of the Swift Cup, they are lost on me. For comparison, I also tried four Nescafé variants, and the differences between them were equally blurry.
Taken as the makers intended – just add water, the labels say – the premium instants were somewhat superior to the Nescafé versions. But that’s a very low bar.
None of the specialty instants are an acceptable substitute for half-decent or filtered coffee.
Now for the twist. Those of us who grew up with Nescafé learned to extract more flavor from the granules than the manufacturer could have imagined. The Indians developed a technique known as “threshing”, in which a combination (proportions vary according to taste) of granules and sugar is whipped, by hand, with a small amount of water until let it thicken to the consistency of porridge. In this mud, we pour hot frothy milk, and voila… you have an Indian-style cappuccino.
When I deployed this technique on the various instant coffees in my kitchen, they all improved in taste. But none of them came close to the original and undisputed champion: Nescafé Classic.
It might not be sexy enough for Silicon Valley, but there are plenty of Indians in the Bay Area — and around the world — who will agree with me that when you know, you know.