Best Instant Coffee
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Instant Coffee Taste Test: 13 Brands Ranked by Our Resident Coffee Snob

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Best Instant Coffee
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Coffee in an Instant

Instant coffee has been around for a long time, but it's enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to the dalgona coffee craze. If you're a coffee snob like me, instant coffee is about the last thing you want to drink — it is never, ever going to taste as good as the stuff you brew from freshly ground beans. But you might be surprised to discover that the world of instant coffee is bigger than you may imagine, with familiar brands like Maxwell House, Nescafe, and Folgers sharing shelf space with rivals like Starbucks and small upstarts like Waka. To find out if any of these brands can satisfy, I sampled 13 instant coffees, one of which I almost mistook for the real thing. Coffees are listed worst to first.

Related: 10 Local Coffee Roasters That Put Starbucks to Shame

Maxwell House Original Instant Light Roast Coffee
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Maxwell House Original Instant Light Roast Coffee

Buy on Target  $5.99

Price: $6 from Target
Buy It
The pleasant appearance of crema — that creamy foam that appears atop a freshly brewed espresso coffee — gave hope that Maxwell House instant coffee would indeed be good to the last drop. Instead, it had an unpleasant grainy, almost wooden flavor with hints of bitter orange and funky mushroom.

The hot take: Yuck. Just … yuck.

Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee
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Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee

Buy on Target  $5.99

Price: $6 from Target
Buy It
Like Maxwell House, the Folgers instant coffee had an unpleasant wooden flavor with traces of bitter burnt butterscotch and molasses.

The hot take: The best part of waking up is not Folgers in my cup.

H-E-B Cafe Puro
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H-E-B Cafe Puro

Price: $5 from H-E-B
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Like other major grocery chains, Texas-based H-E-B has a robust line of house-brand products from A to Z, some of which are pretty good in this shopper's opinion. Unfortunately, Cafe Puro isn't one of those standout products; it was watery and so bland as to be almost tasteless.

The hot take: Coffee for people who dislike the taste of coffee.

Medaglia D'Oro Espresso Instant Dark Roast Coffee
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Medaglia D'Oro Espresso Instant Dark Roast Coffee (Tie)

Buy on Target  $3.79

Price: $4 from Target
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The appearance of a nice crema on the surface of this brew gave hope that it might indeed have an espresso-like quality. Instead, it was bland with a vaguely smoky finish.

The hot take: How do you say "no thanks" in Italian?

Via Roma Espresso Instant Coffee
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Via Roma Espresso Instant Coffee (Tie)

Price: $2 from H-E-B
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Virtually indistinguishable from Medaglia D'Oro, save for the slightest hint of cocoa powder.

The hot take: No grazie (that's Italian for "no thanks").

Nescafé Clasico Dark Roast Instant Coffee
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Nescafé Clasico Dark Roast Instant Coffee

Price: $6 from Target
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Another instant coffee that was utterly unimpressive, this one tasted almost like it had a pinch of hot cocoa mix added to it for flavor. A very, very tiny pinch.

The hot take: There's nothing to fear about this dark.

Great Value Classic Roast Medium Instant Coffee
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Bustelo Supreme Freeze Dried Medium Roast Coffee
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Bustelo Supreme Freeze Dried Medium Roast Coffee

Buy on Target  $4.59

Price: $5 from Target
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The label may say "supreme" but this fancy Bustelo instant coffee wasn't quite as impressive as its brandmate (more on that in a bit). A bittersweet bite gives way to hints of tobacco smoke and dark chocolate.

The hot take: Strong, but not supreme by any measure.

Juan Valdez 100% Colombian Freeze Dried Instant Coffee
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Juan Valdez 100% Colombian Freeze Dried Instant Coffee

Price: $4 from Walmart
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Relatively unimpressive on first taste. Subsequent sips reveal toasted hints of cocoa and wheat, with just a hint of bitterness before a mellow finish.

The hot take: Instant coffee, plain and simple.

Folgers Noir Instant Golden Dusk Medium Dark Roast Coffee
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Folgers Noir Instant Golden Dusk Medium Dark Roast Coffee

Buy on Target  $5.99

Price: $6 from Target
Buy It
Smoky and slightly nutty without being bitter or unpleasantly sharp, this one was mellow and drinkable without any of the funk of the other Folgers instant coffee I sampled.

The hot take: A Folgers instant coffee that Mrs. Olson would be proud to serve.

Café Bustelo Espresso Dark Roast Instant Coffee
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Café Bustelo Espresso Dark Roast Instant Coffee

Buy on Target  $5.39

Price: $5 from Target
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Need to wake up? Fix yourself a cup of this smoky, bitter instant coffee. It's surprisingly complex, with hints of molasses, cocoa, and tobacco.

The hot take: Less hair-curling than their drip coffee version. That's a good thing.

Starbucks VIA Instant Colombia Medium Roast Coffee
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The Runner-Up: Starbucks VIA Instant Colombia Medium Roast Coffee

Buy on Target  $5.59

Price: $6 from Target
Buy It
This is the only instant coffee in our sample that calls for an 8-ounce pour, rather than 6 ounces. Even with the extra water, this was still the strongest-tasting instant coffee of the bunch, almost expresso-like. Notes of grass and walnut finish with a hint of bitterness.

The hot take: A poor substitute for their freshly brewed beans, but it'll do in a pinch.

Waka Colombian Medium Roast Instant Coffee
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The Winner: Waka Colombian Medium Roast Instant Coffee

Price: $12 from Amazon
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With just eight prepackaged servings, this California-based brand was the most expensive in our test. It was also hands down the closest in flavor to freshly brewed drip coffee, with hints of bitter orange, graham cracker, and smoke, with a whiff of grass on the nose.

The hot take: Wait, is this really instant coffee?

Instant Coffee
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Methodology

All instant coffees were purchased from stores in the Austin, Texas, region in late April, except for Waka coffee, which was ordered via Amazon. All coffees were prepared according to package instructions of 1 rounded teaspoon per 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water.

Related: How to Make Your Own Cold Brew Coffee and Save