Perhaps the greatest test of ‘decent’ instant coffee is the morning when it wins over freshly ground and thoughtfully brewed stuff. That was today for me, at home and too lazy to make the pour over I usually start the day with. Instead I heated up water, plopped in a tablespoon of First Ascent Instant Coffee with a dollop of half and half and called it good.
And it was good. Just as good as a fancy pour over? I was half asleep for the first sip but, I’d say it was pretty darn close. Definitely less bitter, acidic and gritty than other instant coffees I’ve choked down over many years of backpacking, traveling, hut trips, and truck camping. It seems Crested Butte-based First Ascent may have cracked the code on how to make a good, mess-free minute brew.
For many coffee devotees, instant grounds are a means to an end. Over the years I’ve tried every kind of ‘real’ coffee in the backcountry: pour over, JetBoil french press attachment, aeropress, the truly desperate grounds-in-sock trick, and unfiltered cowboy coffee that you finish with cold water to ‘help the grounds settle’ (pro tip: they never really do). While some methods lend to exceptionally good coffee there are always two issues: the weight to pack grounds in, and the double weight to pack wet grounds out.
Instant coffee is a clear remedy for both issues, but for the taste — a tinny, bitter gutbomb to be endured for the resulting caffeine buzz. I recall being totally elated when Starbuck’s Via packets hit the shelves in the mid-oughts, offering an alternative to the ubiquitously available — and IMO awful — Nescafe. But even Via has its shortcomings, and you do yourself well to accompany it with some fresh or powdered cream.
We can’t really blame instant coffee its predisposition to tasting bad. The process of making it, which often involves cheap bulk beans, mass brewing and dehydration focused on volume and price, sets it up for failure. Via offers a sort of bridge between this utilitarian brew style, with slightly more attention placed on bean selection and brewing, along with the inclusion light, medium or dark roasts. But boutiquey outlets like First Ascent take it to the next level.
They place high precedence is on quality beans from ethical sources (the same beans they use for whole bean coffee), small batch roasting followed by careful (if not artful) brewing and then First Ascent uses freeze drying rather than dehydration. The result is a cup of coffee that tastes actually like a good cup of coffee. One you might not realize was instant if someone just handed you a cup.
On a recent camping trip I tried the Dawn Patrol Blend, the darker of their three instant offerings that they also sell as whole beans. I was immediately struck by its rich and sweet taste and mouthfeel. There was no bitter finish, and no silty residue left in the bottom of the cup. Later in the day, I added it to cold water for a camp style ‘cold brew’ with the same effect. I’ve also made an instant coffee latte by adding the freeze dried crystals to milk.
There is a drawback to this delicious brew: it ain’t cheap. A bulk package of First Ascent instant that yields a gallon of coffee and weighs a scant 99.86g costs $29.99, and eight individual serving packets runs you $19.99 (weighing 31.7g). Compare this to eight Starbucks Via packets ($5.99, 26.3g) or eight Nescafe packets ($.99, .27g).
Will you want to replace your conventional morning coffee with these pricey microgrounds? Probably not. But for the occasional treat, especially to be enjoyed high on a mountain in the company of a fine sunrise (or on Denali, as Gary Smith did in 2019), I’d say this coffee is worth it.