Every coffee lover has their preferred method for making coffee as well as the type of flavor that they enjoy most. In particular, there seems to be a strong following for instant coffee, and then others that wouldn’t think of trying an instant coffee, and prefer only ground.
And, while both versions are indeed coffee, they are prepared in a very different way.
Ground coffee is made from a quantity of typically arabica coffee beans that are then ground to a particular size best suited for drip coffee makers.
However, it then needs to be brewed to make it drinkable.
Instant coffee, on the other hand, has already been through the brewing process but it has then been cooled and dried so that only the solids from the coffee remain. This type of coffee is frequently made from the lower quality and cheaper Robusta bean varieties.
The differences in these two methods can absolutely result in a different taste. But many coffee drinkers also take the cost of coffee into consideration when deciding what they prefer.
And so this begs the question, which is cheaper? Ground coffee or instant coffee?
Let’s dig in.
Which is Cheaper – Instant or Ground Coffee?
Realistically, it would seem that instant coffee would be more expensive, but actually, ground coffee and instant coffee cost about the same.
Because more effort is put into the instant coffee up front through the brewing process, which is followed by the cooling and drying, it would make sense that it is more expensive. But instant coffee doesn’t require any of the additional tools or gadgets to prepare it.
With instant coffee, you don’t need a grinder or even a coffee maker, and both of those tools can come at significant expense depending on how sophisticated you get.
With ground coffee, you need a grinder (if you want to grind the coffee yourself), and a coffee maker or a kettle in order to get through the process. And, most people leave their coffee makers plugged in throughout the day, which causes a drain (albeit small) on the electricity bill.
If you are considering the value of coffee related to time and effort, then instant coffee is also cheaper in that sense.
With instant coffee, you just add hot water, mix, and go.
As an additional benefit, instant coffee also helps in the health and wellness department. Coffee, instant or ground, contains an exceptional number of antioxidants. In fact, instant coffee may contain even more antioxidants due to the methods used for processing.
And if caffeine isn’t important for you, instant coffee often contains less caffeine even though it tends to be made with robusta beans.
One mug of instant coffee can contain around 30 to 90 mg of caffeine. One cup or regular coffee, however, contains anywhere from 70 to 140 mg of caffeine.
Are Robusta Beans Cheaper Than Arabica Beans?
Robusta beans are generally less expensive than the Arabica bean for several reasons each of which can affect the cost of instant coffee.
The first is because of the growing time of the two trees. The Robusta begins to produce fruit after about 2 years growing time, while the Arabica takes double that at four years growing time.
This is two years of additional maintenance with no profit for the Arabica tree versus the Robusta.
Since the Robusta tree produces fruit so much faster, harvests can be done earlier and profit begins coming in much quicker on the crop.
The Robusta tree also produces a much larger yield per harvest than the Arabica variety, leading to even further profitability and lower cost of production.
The Robusta bean accounts for about 40% of the coffee grown in the world. It’s also about 40% cheaper compared to its Arabica cousin. Arabica accounts for the other 60% of coffee produced in the world, and the majority of coffee you might drink on a daily basis.
Robusta beans can be less desirable as they tend to have a more bitter flavor due in part to their higher caffeine content.
They are often used as filler with Arabica beans due to their lower price.
Robusta beans are also used for making instant coffee, especially lower quality beans.
The main use of high quality Robusta beans is in espresso blends. Robusta adds some of the specific flavors that are desired of traditional Italian espresso.
Robusta provides a bitter flavor and adds the Italian desired crema to the cup. It’s not a traditional espresso without a blend of beans.
High Caffeine Blends
Some people drink coffee mostly for the caffeine content and some coffee producers, like Death Wish Coffee Co. have been eager to answer their call for more kick in the cup.
With a higher blend of Robusta beans to Arabica, many companies are touting high caffeine content with delicious blends. They mix high quality Robusta beans with their Arabica blend to create high caffeine content brews while maintaining the flavors people desire, if a little darker.
See this post for more of the differences between robusta and arabica coffee beans.
Just to Quickly Touch on the Health Implications of Instant Coffee
It is believed that instant coffee contains more acrylamide than brewed coffee, a harmful chemical that is formed during the roasting process of the coffee bean. Unfortunately, it is not yet known the extent of harm that can be caused by this chemical.
What is well known is that instant coffee is frequently harsher on the stomach than brewed coffee regardless of the acidic levels of what you are drinking.
Is Instant Coffee Always Made with Robusta Beans?
The simple answer to this question is yes.
The more complicated answer involves several reasons why Robusta beans make up part of the blend of almost every variety of coffee you’ll find pre-ground on a store shelf.
It’s Cheaper & Grws Faster
The easiest explanation begins with the ways that Robusta beans are cheaper than Arabica beans.
Robusta beans grow in half the time of their Arabica cousin, two years of growing time instead of four years growing time. This can be a great explanation for why the Robusta bean is so much less expensive.
A Robusta Crop Yields More Coffee
Beyond having a shorter growing period, the Robusta bean also produces a larger crop yield in comparison to the Arabica bean. Each harvest produces more coffee beans, and there are two years of additional harvest time for a Robusta coffee tree.
It’s easy to see why Robusta beans are used almost exclusively in instant coffee, or at least anything you might find at the lowest price points.
Is There Such Thing as Arabica Instant Coffee?
Some gourmet coffee companies have begun to produce instant coffees from Arabica beans as well, though they can be tough to find and comparably are more expensive than their Robusta counterpart.
How does the price compare?
Robusta beans sell for about half (60%) of the price of what Arabica beans typically will sell for. This is why they are often used as filler in Arabica blends.
Especially when it comes to an instant coffee, we expect a certain bitter flavor and strength in caffeination that truly only comes from the Robusta bean.
The Robusta bean contains about double the caffeine, which lends a bitter flavor to the brew, compared to its sweeter Arabica cousin.
Instant coffee is often a staple for those who don’t have time for another option and are seeking a cheap way to get their caffeine boost. Though some may enjoy the darker flavor profile, they may find a good dark roast or espresso to be a more enjoyable pick me up.
Robusta beans are typically also used in espresso blends to add dimension to the flavor and crema to the espresso which some quite enjoy.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to indicate which is cheaper, instant or ground, by the product alone without knowing more variables in all situations but usually instant coffee will give you more cups per dollar than brewed versions.
So many factors come into play when considering coffee and the equipment used to go into making it at home.
If you like the taste of instant coffee, you will likely be able to find a brand that you enjoy, at a price that seems reasonable to you. If you prefer a ground coffee, you will spend more up front on the equipment, but the investment will definitely pay off over time.