January 18, 2022

The Origin of Instant Coffee

By Philippe Jolicoeur
The Origin of Instant Coffee
Instant Coffee: A History and Overview

One of the most important developments in regards to the portability and convenience of coffee came with the invention of instant coffee. Before the coffee product in powder form came to market, there was no way to make coffee in a portable way, without the use of a machine. Because of this, coffee was relegated to being a domestic drink. A drink that was inextricably tied to the setting of a kitchen or a coffee house and equipment that was especially designed with the sole purpose of producing the drink. Nowadays, we take for granted that wherever we are, we can open a can of soluble coffee and mix it with hot water to create a fresh cup of delicious coffee instantly; however, the journey to this luxurious point of coffee technology was all but instantaneous.

The first recorded attempt at fixing this issue came in 1771. According to the Oxford Companion For American Food and Drink, a patent was filed in England by a man named John Dring for a product he called “coffee compound”. Not much is known of the production of this “coffee compound” now, aside from the fact that a large drum was used to boil the coffee down to a crystal, and that it didn’t store very well (which is presumably why this iteration didn’t catch on).

It wasn’t for another 70 years, in 1851 during the American Civil War, that the next recorded version of instant coffee came to be. While trying to solve the issue of soldiers not having access to coffee on the battlefield, the Union army developed a product they called “The Essence of Coffee”. This military ration, which has been described as a sort of “cake” of instant coffee, comprised milk, sugar, and coffee. Cans filled with this black, paste-like substance, which apparently had the consistency of axle grease, were distributed to the troops. Despite its great name, The Essence of Coffee never quite caught on with the soldiers. They couldn’t get used to the taste of the canned compound and this combined with the fact that it didn’t store well for extended periods of time caused it to be phased out before the end of the war.

Dry, soluble, powdered coffee as we know it today was first developed by a food scientist named David Strang in Invercargill, New Zealand in the year 1890. He was trying to create a coffee product that would have a longer shelf life and that would be easier and lighter to ship than traditional coffee. Using a proprietary method which he called the “Dry-Hot Air” process, Strang was able to successfully convert liquid coffee into soluble granules. He packed his invention , which was mixed with dried Chicory for flavor , and sold it under the name “Strang’s Patent Soluble Dry Coffee-Powder”

Interestingly, due to a kind of parallel thinking, Strang’s contributions to instant coffee were overlooked for a long time and led to much confusion regarding the true originator of the idea. Shortly after Strang’s invention, a Japanese chemist named Satori Kato working in Chicago independently developed a method to prepare instant coffee, which was loosely based on his proprietary instant tea methods. In 1901, he submitted the first American instant coffee patent and he presented it at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York shortly thereafter.

This iteration did not necessarily catch on either. However, it did inspire American Inventor and Empressario George Constant Louis Washington to develop his own instant coffee method. In 1909, he began mass producing his product. He first marketed it by the name “Red-E-Coffee” before rebranding it to “Washington’s Coffee”. This time around, thanks to its long shelf life and clever marketing on the part of Washington (like claiming his instant coffee was more modern and purer than its brewed counterpart) his Instant Coffee began to take off. Although this raised the popularity of the product to unprecedented levels, it was what happened next that arguably cemented instant coffee’s place in the world. When America entered the First World War in 1917, Washington shifted his entire production to make military instant coffee rations for the American Army. The product became a big hit amongst the soldiers thanks to its efficient, portable delivery of caffeine as well as its comforting flavor, with many soldiers reportedly referring to the drink as a “Cup of George”. It is estimated that by the end of the war the demand of Instant Coffee was six times as large as the production capabilities. Upon returning to America, many soldiers and their families continued to drink Washington’s instant coffee, which led to its rise in domestic popularity.

The most recent evolutions of instant coffee mostly occurred around the time of World War II. In 1938 Nestle introduced its own instant coffee using a more advanced refining product. This product was the result of years of research led by Swiss Scientist Max Mortgenthaler to create a flavorful coffee product with a long shelf life to solve the Brazilian government’s problem of a surplus of national annual coffee bean harvest. When the Second World War began, Nescafe began producing coffee as military rations, which again proved to be extremely popular amongst the soldiers. By the end of the war the United State’s entire production of Nescafe ,an estimated million cases a year, was designated for military use only. Following World War II, Nestle incorporated the newly developed military freeze drying technology to improve its method of instant coffee production. It is this method, as well as spray dying that are used to this day.

Flash forward to the new millennium, where we at 1936 Instant Coffee are using Arabica beans incorporating the Spanish Torrefacto style of combining sugar with coffee during the roasting process to create a brand new Instant Coffee experience, which combines tradition with a forward thinking approach. With our line of Instant Coffees infused with original flavors like Vanilla, Hazelnut ,Chocolate, Cinnamon & Spices (and everything nice )and our own Cubano Silver, we are excited to contribute to the lineage of great instant coffee innovation.

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