Quality coffee—the good stuff—is not always easy to get. It is often associated with long lines at the coffee shop and unpleasant interactions with baristas who barely mutter "hello" while you're ordering. But it's all worth it when you finally get that cup of java that doesn't taste like water with cigarette butts.
The world of coffee can be both intimidating and difficult to access, but if you leave most urban environments and head into the burbs', sourcing good brew can become an even bigger challenge.
What if there was an instant alternative that could offer the same sensory experience, wherever you are?
The answer could be Sudden Coffee, which is a rare thing on the market these days: high quality instant coffee that tastes like that expensive cup of Joe. The inventor behind this brew is award-winning Finnish barista, Kalle Freese, who produces his batches in an old San Francisco warehouse. The coffee is sold in small plastic tubes that contain just enough powder for a single cup and score high on the zeitgeist scale. But is it really that good?
It is easy as hell to make. All you have to do is order the tubes on the internet, await their arrival, and have a glass of water ready. A single tube of Sudden Coffee contains 4.5 grams of freeze-dried coffee, which should be mixed with 8.5 ounces of hot or cold water. "You can actually mix it with any kind of liquid," explains 24-year-old Freese.
Just the thought of instant coffee gives me a heartburn, but it makes up about 34 percent of the world's coffee consumption.
Sudden Coffee is of a completely different caliber than its competitors. It has a surprisingly pleasant aroma, a mature, fruity sweetness, nice acidity, and lingers well on the tongue. "It's obviously not as aromatic and lively as a freshly brewed cup of coffee," says Freese, "but it's still a really good cup of coffee. We basically make our instant coffee in the same way as other manufacturers."
The beans used to make Sudden Coffee are ground and brewed into espresso shots. The chilled coffee is then freeze-dried until it resembles brown crystal clusters. After that, the crystals are pulverized and put into tubes. It sounds simple, but it is a lengthy process that requires a variety of tools and machines, from vacuum packs to a freeze dryer and a hammer. "Right now, it's pretty ghetto and totally handmade," says Freese. "It is not like we reinvented the wheel. We're just the first to combine the practical use of instant coffee with good taste."
Powdered coffee has been around for almost 250 years. The first of its kind was invented in Britain in 1771, when it was patented by the British government. Yet the dried, soluble substance we know today was invented 130 years later by a Japanese scientist named Satori Kato who was based in Chicago. Kato's original goal was to create a tea that was soluble in water. Three decades later, the most famous form of instant coffee was invented in Nestlé's laboratories in Switzerland. The proud inventor, Max Morgenthaler, combined the words "Nestlé" and "café," and came up with Nescafé. Despite the gaining popularity of the small coffee shops and their focus on quality coffee, it is estimated that the market for instant coffee will increase to $35 billion in 2018.
Even if you ignore the economic incentive, it can be difficult to understand why Freese, a young barista who won the Finnish Barista Championship twice, and finished ninth place at the World Barista Championships last year, has embarked upon this genre.
"Why not!?" He says. "I was playing around with the idea about a year ago while hosting a barista event in Prague. At the dinner that followed, after I had a few glasses of wine to calm my nerves, I sat next to the world's leading coffee scientist, Chahan Yeretzian, and got a chance to pitch my idea to him."
He quickly supported the strategy. "I was completely stunned. I want it to be easier to get hold of good coffee. There's a huge gap in the market between freshly brewed coffee and what we know today as instant coffee. My idea with Sudden Coffee was to fill that hole, while turning a good cup of coffee into something fun and easy," he tells me.
For Freese, the geeky and thorough barista, the ingredients are the most important component. "We use the best beans and strive to brew them as best we can. In our last round, we used Little Brother Espresso, which we bought from my local favorite coffee shop, Saint Frank Coffee. Ritual Roasters is responsible for toasting the stuff. Oh, and then I make my own water."
It was an exaggeration, but water quality is extremely important to the taste of the coffee. The minerals in the water, especially the relationship between magnesium and calcium, play a major role in solubility and extraction. "The water in San Francisco is very soft, which means it has a low content of dissolved minerals. It is the opposite of the water in Copenhagen, for example," says Freese. "You actually need minerals like calcium and magnesium to pull the taste out of the ground coffee. We make our own water by adding minerals, and it makes a huge difference in the extraction of flavor."
Although many of us buy quality beans to make good coffee at home, and the awkward Aeropress is no longer solely owned by the worst coffee aficionados, it's still easy to fail when you grind the beans and brew the coffee. "There are so many variables to take into account," says Freese. "The temperature and quality of the water, the rusticity of the beans; everything can go wrong."
But can one also fail when making Sudden Coffee? "If something has gone wrong, it's my fault," laughs Freese. "We strive to do all the difficult parts. The only place you can go wrong is if you mix it with too much water."
If Freese wants his 'tube' brew to make Nestlé and Starbucks nervous, he has to increase production and cut down on cost. The price of six dollars a tube caters mostly to rich people from Silicon Valley and curious gadget geeks, but if the airlines are to jump on the bandwagon, the price level has to come down. "We're still in beta, and we're so lucky that we have a dedicated group of customers who have supported us in this start-up phase."
For now, Freese continues to walk around the streets of San Francisco, his backpack filled with tubes of coffee in search of new customers.
"You never know who you might run into, so I gotta constantly be prepared to sell."