In a world where the specialty segment of the coffee industry is growing at an unprecedented pace and there’s more access than ever to great coffee, instant coffee isn’t exactly a buzzword, and for good reason. Consider your experiences with instant coffee and associated memories, connotations and flavors.
Most instant coffees pale in comparison with the real thing, and the flavors and mouthfeel have typically been anything but desirable. Carbon. Paper. Petrol. Vinegar. Dirt. Rubber gloves. Astringent. Grainy.
Last week, however, all of my preconceived notions about instant coffee were challenged.
Sudden Coffee, a new specialty coffee version of instant coffee, has been getting a lot of hype and curiosity on social media and in coffee publications. Recently, on my way back from a coffee industry event in Kansas City, a friend gave me a handful of vials to try. Each vial is a plastic test tube-like container filled with a brown crystal-like substance that essentially looks like ground coffee.
Per the instructions listed on the side of each vial, I mixed the contents with 250 ml of hot water. I was immediately struck by the strong berry-like aromatics emitting from the cup. It smelled pretty good.
When I went to take my first sip I learned my first lesson. Being accustomed to using water at appropriate temperatures to brew coffee, I had made the Sudden Coffee with water that was 205 degrees Fahrenheit. No brewing is actually happening here, so these temperatures were not only unnecessary, they were not comfortable for drinking. After the cup cooled, it contained lots of ripe fruit, a structured, medium body and an appreciable acidity — which felt like a first for an instant product. I was pretty surprised how much this tasted like actual coffee and not only that but actual, good coffee.
Sudden Coffee is made with an Ethiopian deri roasted by Vancouver’s 49th Parallel, and you can tell its origins by the coffee's characteristics. 49th Parallel is an established company, renowned worldwide for quality product. Finding instant coffee with such provenance (and transparency) was surprising — but as co-founder Joshua Zloof explains, Sudden takes pride in partnering with “roasters who we believe are the best at sourcing and roasting.”
So here we have an instant coffee, made from legitimate, specialty-grade green coffee sourced and roasted by a reputable roaster — and it actually tastes like the coffee it’s made from.
This type of instant product hasn’t really been attempted before in the specialty realm, and it debuts in an industry at times plagued by its reputation for snobbiness, but Zloof says reception has been great. “The support from the community has been overwhelming," he says. "We have yet to run into anyone who hasn’t been supportive.”
Rather than instant coffee, Zloof considers it the first “no-brew coffee." What does that mean?
The contents of each vial of Sudden Coffee are not coffee grounds at all, but the dehydrated solid content of actual coffee. All of the coffee used to create Sudden is brewed as espresso to industry standards by a barista. The espresso is then dehydrated using a proprietary process, leaving all the coffee material, which can then be resurrected via the addition of water or milk.
I tried the Sudden Coffee with hot and cold milk and water. It really cut through the milk effectively with a strong presence and, hot or cold, tasted like a pretty classic cafe latte. The hot coffee tasted like a good coffee that had been left to sit out a bit too long and developed some slightly stale, bitter flavors. It still had a lot of great flavor, but it wasn’t what I would expect when preparing myself a pour-over at home or when purchasing a coffee in a high-end cafe. The bitterness was more prevalent in the cold water but the flavor wasn’t too far off from a Toddy-style cold brew, so fans of that style of coffee would probably be pleased. In all cases, one thing that really stood out to me was the texture, which was more similar to an actual cup of coffee than other instant coffees I’d tried, which were basically poorly flavored water.
Pro-tip: When using cold water or cold milk, first add a splash of hot water to dissolve the powder a bit.
Sudden Coffee could have just targeted a market of coffee-drinkers in a pinch, but Zloof says he's aiming at the average specialty drinker. Even if you're the type who drops $4 a day on espresso, Sudden, Zloof says, is “perfect for that second cup of the day — when you’re at the office and want to treat yourself or when you’re commuting and don’t have time to stop at the coffee shop on the way.”
Whether you're making it yourself or paying someone to make it for you, getting great coffee can be a time-consuming or at times even next to impossible endeavor. “Many people just don’t have access to a great café in their town,” Zloof laments.
All of these points make a lot of sense and could help Sudden Coffee expand access to a decent cup of coffee in a lot of interesting ways.
Kalle Freese, the other half of Sudden, says starting Sudden Coffee “was really scratching our own itch.”
This isn’t just the itch of the coffee-layman either; Kalle has been working in coffee for about a decade. He ranked ninth in the 2015 World Barista Championship, as well as first in the Finnish Barista Championship in 2013 and 2015. Kalle identified a need for this product within the market and teamed with Zloof, whose background is in manufacturing, supply chains and technology-building apps, to bring Sudden Coffee to the market.
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This product is currently available only as a subscription service directly through the company.
“We believe it’s critical to maintain a direct relationship with customers and it would be hard to do that with a retail model,” Zloof says. “We want everyone who drinks Sudden Coffee to feel like they’re part of the club.”
There are three tiers to this subscription model that range from eight cups a month for $24 to 32 cups a month for $85.
It's hard not to make mental connections here to a similar development seen in the industry years ago in the preground specialty coffee pioneered by Perfect Coffee. The company was eventually purchased by Blue Bottle and is now simply the preground arm of that company. Sudden could open up far more avenues within the market, assuming their story doesn’t have a similar ending. It could definitely change a lot of perspectives on instant — pardon me, “no-brew” — coffee, and while I wouldn’t replace all the coffees I buy with this product, I definitely see myself making use of it in the future.