Instant Coffee vs. Ground Coffee: What's the Difference?

By Lisa Frania — / Coffee Talk

Instant Coffee vs. Ground Coffee

Let’s keep it simple. Instant coffee is a cup of coffee that’s already been brewed, processed and preserved in packaging. Ground coffee is not processed beyond the beans being washed and roasted before it’s packaged and shipped to coffee shops and retail stores, where it begins its natural deterioration process.

Depending on where you live, asking what the difference is between instant coffee and ground coffee is a question that may have never crossed your mind at all.  

A woman pouring a stick of Death Wish Instant Coffee into a black mug.

For example, in Europe, the UK and some parts of Asia, instant coffee rules—and they know everything about it. In the U.S., however, regular brewed coffee—ground or beans—is king. Our highly caffeinated craniums already know that regular ground coffee is exactly as the name implies—roasted beans that you grind in a grinder.  

So that means it’s likely a few questions are lurking—in our neck of the woods—about instant coffee vs. ground coffee. 

Just as there are differences between iced coffee and cold brew, there are key differences between instant coffee and ground coffee. Both coffee options will help you stay fueled and focused during any kind of day. That’s because they both start with the same source—coffee beans. But it’s handy (and essential) to master the unique qualities between the two. It’s not just about the bag vs. the packets.  

What Is Instant Coffee?

If you’ve got a barista in your ear, you’ll probably hear that instant coffee is the devil’s brew, masquerading as coffee. NEWS FLASH—instant coffee IS coffee! Instant was created to provide a speedy alternative to the regular coffee brewing process. That makes it a great option for people who are in a rush, don't have access to a coffee maker or are planning their next camping trip. 

Essentially, instant coffee differs from ground coffee because instant is made from dried coffee extract but is more concentrated. Through a quick drying process or freeze-drying process, a powdered coffee extract is then created. When you add that to the hot water, it dissolves to create a cup of coffee—in a flash. In fact, it's exactly what NASA astronauts drink in space.

A couple sitting by a campfire enjoying Death Wish instant coffee.

What are the Differences Between Instant and Ground Coffee? 

1. Time 

  • Simplicity is basically a synonym for instant coffee. Measure the granules, add hot water and booma hot cup of coffee ready to indulge in. So, if you’re someone who just can’t handle the patience and minutes spent on a pour over, instant coffee will save your day. 
  • With ground coffee, you’re easily setting aside a couple minutes for prep time, not to mention cleaning your equipment. Some people don’t mind this, but if you like to live fast, nothing will beat the speed of instant coffee. 

2. Brew Method

  • With instant coffee, there is no brewing method you have to learn or specific technique to follow to get the perfect cup. It’s easy to “just add hot water” and get on with your day. Instant has already been through the brewing process before you purchase it. 
  • With ground coffee, you have to get coffee out of the beans and into your cup. That usually means adding water and allowing the coffee to steep, percolate or pressurize. You can do this by using a Chemex, French Press, Aeropress or drip coffee maker. Each method will give you a world of experiences and require a different grind.

3. Flavor

  • Instant coffee manufacturers tend to use robusta beans, which typically have a more edgy, bitter taste. In addition, during the process of drying and freezing, instant coffee loses some of the oils that affect the flavor in the brewing process. However, if you’re in the market for a good instant coffee, stick with “freeze-dried” instead of “spray-dried.” This method, along with opting for organic, tends to produce a premium coffee flavor without the chemicals you can’t pronounce.    
  • Fresh-brewed coffee grounds are able to hold onto all of the essential oils, making it lower in acidity than instant coffee. The outcome of your cup will tend to have a fuller, richer taste. As a result of the brewing process, there are more varieties of flavor to be extracted in fresh coffee. The outcome of your cup will tend to have a fuller, richer taste. 

4. Caffeine Content

  • Instant coffee generally uses robusta beans that are higher in caffeine content in order to combat any caffeine lost in the production of instant coffee. Although the amount of caffeine depends on the instant coffee brand, most instant coffee contains about 20-45% of caffeine you’d get in a regular cup. By adding some all-natural and organic green coffee extract, Death Wish Dark Roast Instant Coffee is out-of-this-world strong and has been fueling NASA since 2018
  • Ground coffee retains more of the caffeine content compared to instant coffee due to the brewing process. Caffeine content varies by brand, brewing method and coffee-to-water ratios, depending on your preference. Our Dark and Medium Roast are double the strength of your average cup and are as smooth as the day is long.

5. Cost

  • Even better than going out to that local coffee shop around the corner, brewing a regular cup or opting for a cup of instant at home—or out in the wilderness—is always the best option for taste and saving that hard-earned cash. 

6. Shelf Life

  • Instant coffee has a long shelf life that ranges anywhere from 2-20 years. The life of instant coffee extends if it’s stored properly in a sealed package or airtight container and kept in a cool, dark place. Even opened packages can last for several years. Any exposure to moisture, however, might change the texture of the coffee and even increase the chances of mold growing. 
  • Coffee, in general, has a shelf life of about 6 months upon reaching you. Store your blends in a dark, cooler area void of moisture and away from other foods with strong flavors and aromas. The main thing to keep in mind is humidity, as a rapid change in temperature and exposure to cold will alter your blend—and not for the better. Opting for a coffee canister will keep the coffee fresh and flavorful. 

7. Uses

  • For those of us that can’t sit still and are constantly on the go, instant is the natural coffee to reach for. Going camping, hiking or traveling in general? Instant coffee offers the convenience you need to stay fueled before, during and after your adventures. And if you have a recipe that calls for coffee, reach for the instant, too. It’s perfect for baking because it keeps for a long time, it’s convenient and offers a punchy, straightforward flavor.  
  • If time is on your side, reach for the beans and grind it yourself. A slower brewing process will ensure a flavorful, strong cup every single time. And as an added “perk,” there are so many ways to recycle and reuse those grounds. Coffee grounds make great facial scrubs, help keep plants healthy and fertilized, deodorize freezers and eliminate tough stains for pans and drains.  

When it comes down to it, coffee is a lifestyle. The kind of coffee you prefer and brewing method you choose go hand in hand with how you live. Brewing coffee can be a relaxing ritual for many, which adds to the experience. However, for busybodies who are always on the run, instant coffee is quick and convenient. 

RELATED: Iced Coffee vs. Cold Brew

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