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Soluble Holds Extreme Niches Within Market

Paul Songer of Coffee Enterprises, Inc., in addressing the growing, if barely significant side of the soluble business (at least not significant in terms of the worldwide capacity of the aggregate soluble coffee industry) suggests that soluble coffee might be viewed as another product altogether. “In Japan, they consider instant coffee, vending machine coffee and canned coffee to be a separate beverages altogether and not ones they expect to taste like regular brewed coffee.” Songer pointed out, in fact, that views of instant coffee all around the world are different than they are in the U.S. “In England I understand that 80% of the coffee they drink is made from instant. In Africa, I have heard that many people believe Nescafé instant to be the best coffee product available, because it is the best they have tasted. They are actually amazed that some of their own coffees taste better than instant, and I guess this is because in many African countries, all but the worst coffee is exported. Given what’s left behind, Nescafé probably is better.” Bob Briante also observed that many people develop a taste for instant coffee and actually prefer it to brewed coffee.

(In the former Soviet Union, packets of Nescafé and other instant coffee products are said to have been used as a kind of barter/currency. It is unclear, however, whether when the market goes down the exchange rate worsens.)

Songer also noted that it is often necessary to use “low quality” coffee in manufacturing instant coffee that will do what it is supposed to do. “You need a lot of oil content in coffee for instant manufacture. Now, usually, a high oil content is something that we associate with lower quality coffees. But in soluble coffee, that oil content can actually help the product retain more of the aromatics we associate with the flavor of coffee. In addition to needing a coffee with high oil content, instant manufacturers also have to go for an extraction level that would not mesh with what most would consider proper brewing parameters, as coffee for instant manufacture is sometimes extracted to as much as 30%. Whatever problems this creates flavor-wise, the manufacturer tries to work out in the blending.” But this high extraction allows you to end up with a product that contains enough of the right dissolved solids so that it can be dried into a shelf stable powder that will retain flavor.

Finally, Songer related, coffee destined for soluble manufacture should be roasted for maximum extraction, not necessarily for the best, most balanced flavor development. “Those fast roasts, whether or not they are the best way to roast a particular coffee, are the best way to achieve maximum extraction.”

In getting back to the use of solubles in fortification of ready- to-drink coffee beverages, however, Songer did cite their increased use across a wide range of products-even what many people would characterize as the better quality drinks. “Even in the most carefully formulated drinks, you’re likely to find as much as ten percent soluble coffee in order to boost the dissolved solids and give the flavor a stronger base note or undertone. Then, of course, in the lower cost drinks you’ll probably a formula that bases all its coffee flavor on soluble coffee. Of course you’re always fighting that ‘instant’ flavor. [For instance], there are ways you can adjust the caramel-like flavor that develops with instant coffee, such as the use of citric acid and other additives.”

Again it is important to note that despite the use of soluble coffee in the manufacture of powdered drink mixes and ready-to- drink beverages, the instant sector is not exactly vibrant. Bob Briante was not alone in assessing the market as very quiet, or worse. Traders at other large dealers report lackluster and declining sales, or even no activity at all. Although there are some specialists thriving, they are doing it by catering to nearly infinitesimal slivers of the once dynamic solubles market.

The solubles market was created because of the desire for a product which delivered the flavor of coffee in instant form. It never really delivered what coffee lovers wanted and freeze dried, though an improvement, was and is still closer to instant than it is to a great cup of coffee. Until the technology and/or the economics of this equation change, the future for instant coffee looks uncertain at best.

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of “The Great Coffee Book,” recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of “The Perfect Cup” (Perseus Books). He may be reached at: (310) 479-7370 or via E-mail at: t.castle@teaandcoffee.net

Tea & Coffee - October/November 2000


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