Third Wave Specialty Roasters Reimagine Soluble Coffee

Image: Partners Coffee, Partners Coffee offers instant versions of its hand-roasted, sustainably sourced blends. The sachets are 60 percent compostable and the boxes are recyclable.

Some of the most intriguing new products in the soluble sector in recent years have had far more in common with specialty coffee than the mass-market traditions of supermarket instants, and that’s no surprise. Adventurous small batch roasters have brought to bear their quality-driven passion to this
convenience segment, tapping the same checklist of requirements they’ve always adhered to – sourcing
top-quality beans, craft roasting them, and preparing meticulously brewed coffee – but taking
the process a step further to create a new generation of artisanal-grade instant coffees.

‘Third wave’ coffee culture – the two-decade-old movement that embraces coffee less as a commodity and more as an artisanal pursuit, from farm to cup – seems an unlikely partner to soluble. By all accounts, ‘third wave soluble’ is a small niche within the overall global instant coffee market, which is currently valued at USD $26.87 billion, per Market Growth Reports, and is forecast to post an annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3 percent through 2027, reaching USD $36.1 billion.

The niche is evolving steadily, though. Even as some early pioneers like Viola and Sudden Coffee, which made notable inroads have ceased operations, other ground-floor firms like Swift Cup have established firm footholds and have been joined by an expanding roster of divergent companies seeking to make their own mark.

It’s been 13 years since Starbucks, identifying a market opportunity in offering a soluble product that could satisfy the expectations of specialty customers, set out to ‘transform the coffee industry’ with the development of Via, its heavily promoted instant coffee positioned as ‘superior’ to mass market offerings. The soluble coffee market overall has continued to expand, with consumers valuing convenience and speed, even as craft and specialty, cafés and ready-to-drink (RTD), pods and capsules, and the rising bar of higher quality convenience and foodservice options have awakened consumer discernment.

Portability, Convenience and Quality

While most soluble coffee by market share is produced using the cost-efficient process of spray drying and typically utilises Robusta beans (over 60 percent of the global segment, according to a 2022 analysis by Market Grown Reports), the high heat used by that method diminishes the subtle flavours and aromas of high grade specialty coffees. Roasters creating specialty-grade soluble have nearly universally embraced freeze-drying, which preserves more of the aroma compounds, often working in small batches just like the roasting process of the high-grade coffees themselves.

Controlling the entire production process in-house was the goal of experienced specialty roaster, First
Ascent Coffee Roasters of Crested Butte, Colorado, whose outdoor-enthusiast owners were inspired to
create a portable, soluble experience that rivalled a fine hand crafted beverage. Selecting the same high-grade specialty coffees used for their small batch, fresh-roast whole bean products, they brew coffee to precise extraction standards then use low heat and longer freeze-drying times to produce their Hand Crafted Instant Coffee on-site, immediately packaging the  finished product. It’s offered in three varieties: Ethiopia (light roast), Hero Day Blend (medium roast), and Dawn Patrol Blend (dark roast), sold in cartons of eight 3.6g single-serve packets (USD $2.50 per serving) as well as in resealable 88g 16-serving bulk bags ($1.87 per serving).

First Ascent’s marketing slogan, “coffee to fuel people off the grid,” took on new meaning in October when the company’s instant coffee was among the specially repackaged food provisions launched on the Space Crew Dragon spacecraft, transporting a four-member crew for a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.

California-based Waka Coffee & Tea secured a $752,000 first-round of outside investment financing
earlier this year to expand operations, roll out new products and refresh packaging and brand designs.
Founded in 2018 and distributed online and through a direct subscription service, the firm recently made its first move into physical retail stores in Texas.

“Preferences are shifting as new and younger demographics try instant coffee and tea products for the first time due to viral social media trends like whipped coffee and loaded teas, both of which use either instant coffee or instant tea,” said founder David Kovalevski in a statement, adding that company surveys show a consumer willingness to try Waka instant products over more traditional brands.

Former Starbucks and PepsiCo executives, Joe Canterbury and Craig Musgrove, who both joined
Waka as board advisors, participated in the pre-seed financing. Waka subsequently released three new
freeze-dried instant 100 percent Arabica coffees: Ethiopian Dark Roast, Ethiopian Light Roast, and
Papua New Guinean Medium Roast. Each are available in eight- or 50-count cartons of single-serve
packets as well as 3.5oz and 8oz bulk bags. Per-cup serving price ranges from $0.50 to $1.50.

Blue Bottle Coffee of San Francisco, a pioneer of third-wave micro-roasted coffee that’s been majority owned by Nestlé SA since 2017, rolled out Craft Instant Coffee Espresso in the US in November. “We
were never sure we’d crack the code on instant anything at Blue Bottle Coffee, but through curiosity, imagination and tireless effort, we’ve crafted a product that meets our high standards,” said Karl
Strovink, CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee, in a statement. Strovink explained that the product is the result of three years of research, which was conducted in partnership with Nestlé in both the US and Switzerland. Offered initially in a 48g jar containing 12 servings retailing at $25, single-serve stick-style pouches will
follow by year’s end, retailing at $15 for a carton of five. Both will be available at Blue Bottle Coffee cafés and online.

Instant espresso is not the company’s first soluble product: it launched a freeze-dried instant coffee
exclusive to the Japanese market in 2019, sourced from Colombian coffees and produced in Vietnam.
That product is packaged in individual 4g packets and retails from 295 yen per serving for 15-count cartons to 346 yen per serving in five-count cartons.

House of Word Coffee founder, Jonathan Dreszer, went all-in when he decided to apply his specialty coffee expertise exclusively to the instant category following a decade working with Colombia-based specialty roaster, Devoción. A native of Bogatá, Dreszer has described the instant category as “overdue for disruption,” noting the lack of innovation, unsustainable packaging, and poor taste among mass market brands. At the onset of the Covid pandemic, he set out to redefine instant coffee and is working entirely with an Indian production partner.

House of Word’s initial offering is sourced entirely from premium 100 percent Arabica beans shade grown on small farms in indigenous communities in the ecologically-sensitive regions of the Western Ghats of India, utilising regenerative farming processes. A cold brew method is used to prepare the coffee, while dehydration of the brewed coffee is achieved through a unique cold water and pressure process. The granulated product delivers a ‘full-body, medium roast with chocolate and brownie notes’,
said House of Word, and debuted in entirely plant-based, fully biodegradable packaging materials. It
is offered in three pouch sizes of 50g (16 servings), 100g (33 servings), and 300g (100 servings), with
per-cup prices ranging from $0.46 to $1.00.

Coracle Coffee of Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched its first wave of soluble late last year. Founded in 2019
by roast master Tyler Duncan, Coracle stands out both for its ultra-specific single-origin offerings as
well its packaging: engaging metal tins that contain six packets of instant coffee. There are three single
origin varieties – Africa, Americas, Asia Pacific – as well as Blendytown, a blend of the three origins, all
retailing for $19.99 per tin. A limited edition soluble, crafted from Gesha beans sourced from Huila,
Colombia, and processed by carbonic maceration retails for $29.99 for a tin of six packets.

Swift Cup Coffee, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has not only been an early category pioneer with its proprietary slow-paced freeze-drying process and impressive range of nine different single origin and blended soluble, but it collaborates with over a dozen specialty roasters to develop and produce
soluble versions of their selected micro-roasts. In an interesting blurring of lines between specialty roasters and specialty instant, Swift Coffee has recently begun offering whole bean versions of the same coffees used to create their own branded instants.

One high-profile Swift collaborator is Chicago-based specialty roaster, Intelligentsia Coffee (majority owned by Peet’s Coffee since 1995 and now a holding of JDE Peet’s), which offers its flagship Intelligentsia House Blend instant. Earlier this year, it debuted Instant Espresso Black Cat Classic, a soluble interpretation of its vaunted whole bean Black Cat Espresso, with notes of ‘dark chocolate, raw sugar and marshmallow.’ Both instants are available at $2.40 per serving in 4.5g packets sold in five-count cartons, available online as well as at its 14 US café locations. In an even bolder statement, Intelligentsia’s Pasadena, California, café was reinvented this year as the Illumination Bar and has no espresso machines, rather precision dosing dispensers that measure portions of Instant Espresso Black Cat Classic that are prepared in glass beakers using magnetic stir plates, used for all of the café’s espresso-based beverages. Milk is steamed in a hands-free La Marzocco machine that debuted in the lab-like experiential bar.

Joe Coffee, a New York City café-turned-micro roaster founded in 2003, now offers three versions of small-batch-roasted specialty instant transformed by Swift: The Daily is an ‘easy-drinking’ blend of Caturra, Colombia, Cauaí, and Red Cauaí beans from Minas Gerais, Brazil and Huila, Colombia. Colombia La Familia Guarnizo is a single origin instant, sourced entirely from Joe Coffee’s Guarnizo family producer from the eastern slopes of the Central Cordillera in the Andes Mountains. Finally, Nightcap Decaf is a ‘seasonally-driven’ decaffeinated offering, balancing sweetness, acidity and flavour which currently features a blend of Honduran Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, IHCAFE 90, Lempir, and Typica beans from smallholder farmers in Merendon, Cortés, and processed at the Descamex Mountain Water
Processing facility in Mexico. All three varieties are offered in 5g sachets packaged in 6-count cartons, per-cup serving price ranges from $3 to $3.33.

Image: Waka Coffee

Another highly-regarded Swift Cup Coffee collaborator is Brooklyn-based Partners Coffee Roasters, which offers soluble instant versions of its sustainably sourced, hand-roasted, full-flavour Brooklyn blend, rich and ‘easy-going’ Jumpstart blend, and ‘sweet and nuanced’ El Ramo Colombia blend. Each are packaged in 5g single-serve sachets that are 60 percent compostable, sold in six-count fully recyclable paperboard boxes. The entire line retails at a per-serving cost of $2.67.

Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz, California has one of the most extensive ranges of hand-roasted, small-batch brewed specialty instant offerings, starting with Streetlevel, Verve’s best-selling flagship roast featuring a blend of Honduran, Guatemalan, and Colombian coffees, and joined by seven other blends including the Swiss Water Process Vancouver Decaf and Verve’s 2022 Holiday Blend. Each variety comes in six-packs of 30g single-serve packets. The per serving retail price ranges from $2.67 to $3.00.

Cometeer Inc of Gloucester, Massachusetts, developed its own proprietary extraction and freezing techniques to push the ‘freshness’ promised perhaps the most of anyone, partnering with over a dozen specialty roasters worldwide to brew coffee with ‘optimal dissolved solids counts’ and locking in flavour by flash freezing at -321 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid nitrogen, directly in versatile recyclable aluminium capsules. The single serve portions are shipped direct to consumer (averaging $2.78 per cup) packed in dry ice, or available at a limited number of US retail roasters. The capsules can be defrosted for cold brew, melted in hot water, or used in any K-Cup compatible machine.

A ‘Specialty’ Future for Soluble

While Starbucks’ Via initially raised eyebrows, third-wave coffee companies keep advancing the premiumisation of soluble coffee to attract specialty brewed coffee consumers. It remains to be seen how many current soluble drinkers will be enticed to upgrade their instant experience with higher quality, and higher priced, specialty grade soluble, but the oft-repeated phrase of ‘instant coffee that actually tastes good’ is becoming the de facto marketing drive across the category.

  • E Edward ‘Ted’ Hoyt has more than two decades of experience as a trade magazine editor and freelance writer, authoring many articles in the premium coffee, spirits and cigar industries, among others.

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