FOOD & DRINK
04/05/2012 12:08 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Taste Test: The Best Instant Coffee

If you're too cheap to buy a coffee maker and you love your morning java, instant coffee might be the way to go. Sure, it doesn't get any of the respect of traditionally brewed coffee, but it saves you time and money. The real question is, what's the difference?

The good news: Our tasters found that the top 5 finishers in our taste test weren't discernible from regular coffee.

But what exactly is lost in the process that turns regular coffee into those shiny, crystal-like granules? Health-wise, it turns out, not much. Flavor-wise, it's completely subjective (that is, after all, why we're conducting this taste test). A big difference is in the experience. There's something to be said for the slow savoring of your morning cup o' joe -- the leisurely drip and the slow sip vs. the five-alarm panic of the daily grind.

The stigma surrounding instant coffee is perpetuated even by its manufacturers. In a 1983 Folgers Crystals commercial, the coffee is glamorized as "dark, sparkling" crystals, but diners at a high-end restaurant have to be tricked into drinking it. The tagline, "Folgers Crystals: Coffee rich enough to be served in America's finest restaurants," indicates there was reason to doubt the product in the first place.

Instant was invented in 1901 by a Japanese scientist in Chicago, but the business boomed during World War II thanks to a lucky coincidence -- the same technology that produces penicillin and blood plasma, which was developed during the war for military use, is what makes instant coffee.

So what's instant coffee made from? The same beans you'll find in traditionally brewed coffee, roasted using the same method -- plus two additional steps. Not all brands use the exact same method, but most manufacturers A) dissolve the roasted beans in water to concentrate the coffee solution, and then B) dry that product out by either freeze-drying or spray-drying. That final step is what creates either crystals or a powdery substance.

Essentially, adding hot water to instant coffee just rehydrates the granules. And voila, you've got a cup of coffee. (We should also mention that instant coffee is credited as making a pretty decent cup of iced coffee.)

But not all instant coffees are created equal. We blind-tasted 20 brands to find out what tastes the best. See the results below.

What's your favorite instant coffee? Leave us a comment!

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