Sustainable instant coffee

by JulieCraves on February 16, 2010

I’ve been asked more than once about a source of sustainably-grown instant coffee. My usual reply is that there isn’t one. Understanding how instant coffee is manufactured will illustrate why the majority of the coffee beans that are used to make it are low-quality commodity coffee, and thus not a good option for consumers looking for coffee grown in an environmentally-friendly manner.

How instant coffee is made
Green coffee is brought to large manufacturing plants, often in the country of origin. Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico are the largest producers of instant coffee. At the factory, the coffee is roasted in large batches and ground. It then goes through multiple extractions using hot water under pressure. The resulting liquid is filtered and concentrated. Finally, the concentrated extract is dehydrated by either spray drying or freeze drying. Spray drying, in which the extract is spewed into an enormous tower and blasted by hot air, produces a fine powder. This powder must be “agglomerated” (other materials added to create familiar-looking granules that flow and dissolve more freely). Freeze drying creates clumps that resemble ground coffee, but the process is more expensive.

These production processes rob the coffee of most of the aroma. This is reintroduced by various combinations of natural or synthetic compounds, typically mixed with some type of oil, which are put back on the coffee particles prior to packaging in a process known as “replating.”

Why low-quality beans are used
The final goal of a specialty coffee roaster is great taste in the cup. To that end, they want carefully grown beans, processed properly at the mill, expertly roasted to bring out the best nuances of that particular bean.

The final goal of instant coffee is convenience. All the technology is aimed at leaching out all the water-soluble compounds to produce a product that looks and feels like coffee, but is quick and convenient to prepare.

This is the primary reason that low-quality beans are used for instant coffee: higher-quality beans with good flavor profiles would be used for the roast-and-ground market. Another way low-quality beans end up in instant coffee is because most countries don’t allow their lowest quality beans to be exported. Since instant coffee is often produced in the country of origin, it can be the final resting place of non-exportable beans.

Finally, instant coffees from the big corporate roasters such Nescafè’s Taster’s Choice (Nestlè), Maxwell House (Kraft), and Folgers (Smuckers) all contain robusta beans. Robusta is the lower-growing species of coffee (Coffea canephora) that is grown in large full-sun plantations. In some markets, some of these brands are 100% robusta (spray-dried instants are more likely to be all-robusta). In addition to the negative environmental impact of robusta plantations, these beans are considered inferior quality. To make robusta palatable, it generally must be steamed or treated in some way.

The big roasters not only use robusta, they will use very low-quality robusta. This article from Nestlè (a downloaded copy, since removed from their site)– incredibly boasting about quality — notes that they buy “coffee beans having eight percent to 16 percent triage.” Triage coffee, for the unsuspecting, is all the moldy beans, broken beans, sticks, stones, insect-damaged or rotten beans…all the stuff that is rejected or sorted out at the mill! [1].

The world’s largest producer of robusta is Vietnam, where it has been noted, “Wherever coffee was grown, forests have disappeared.” Brazil also grows a lot of robusta, but the variety grown there, called Conillon, is higher-priced than African- or Asian-sourced robusta. Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is another major exporter. Côte d’Ivoire is the most biodiverse nation in west Africa, but has suffered severe deforestation and fragmentation, in part due to mass plantings of coffee and cacao in the late 1980s. Because of the time lag between environmental destruction and biodiversity loss (known as “extinction debt”), it has been projected that Côte d’Ivoire may still lose a third of its primate species.

In addition to being cheap, an additional motivation for manufacturers to use robusta is that it has a higher extraction rate than arabica. The rule of thumb is that it takes 2.6 kg of green beans to produce 1 kg of instant coffee. Manufacturers get a higher proportion of soluble materials out of robusta.

The authors of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop put instant coffee in historical context:

“If in retrospect the coffee industry appeared to be out of its collective mind in pursuing the race for low quality, it is worth remembering that this blind love affair with consistency and technology was part of a larger cultural embrace of a mass-market modernism … Instant coffee was created by the same technophila that later produced technified cultivation systems.”

My mantra is generally that when it comes to the environment or farmers’ livelihoods, there is no such thing as “cheap” coffee. In the case of instant coffee, the cost of convenience and low consumer prices nearly always includes habitat loss and crappy proceeds to farmers.

One exception may be the new Starbucks VIA Ready Brew.  The majority of Starbucks beans are sourced under their C.A.F.E. Practices supplier guidelines (with a 100% goal by 2015), which use 24 criteria based on over 200 social and environmental indicators. I’ve received no confirmation so far that the beans used in VIA are part of this program.

[1] For a couple of discussions on how the use of this extremely poor quality coffee drags down the entire coffee industry, see this statement to Congress by the former SCAA director (scroll down halfway) and the post and comments on this blog post by Sweet Maria’s Tom Owen.

Photo from iStockphoto.

Revised on January 8, 2022

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany,Corporate coffee

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