Thailand’s Obsession With Instant Coffee

Instant black coffee in thailand

Some of my first memories of coffee in Thailand bring a cringe to my face. When I would enter an office or have a meeting, I was undoubtedly offered a coffee, which was a heaping scoop of Nescafé, maybe some Coffee-Mate and tons of sugar. I would grudgingly drink it down so as to not be rude, but I would have rather not had the coffee at all. It slowly dawned on me that there were no drip brewers or French presses in anyone’s house or in any of these offices.

Coffee on the road is an iced version of this instant Nescafé drowning in sweetened condensed milk (and who makes this sweetened condensed milk? Nestle!). As delicious as these “Thai coffees” are they are not good for you and most of the time I just don’t want anything sweet. Even coffee ordered in a typical coffee shop are similarly sweet. A common question from these coffee slingers is “do you want it sweet” and even when I reply “no sugar please” it’s still somehow sweet. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so perhaps I’m biased, but the idea of a latte with just milk and espresso or black coffee is a bit novel in most of Thailand (of course there are many wonderful coffee shops through out the capital and country that serve up amazing coffee, like Seen on Phutamonton Sai 2).

As an American, I’m genuinely confused why everything is instant. But as I learned more it seems I’m the strange one. According to the Washington Post the world consumed nearly $31 billion-worth of instant coffee in 2013, and is expected to drink more than $35 billion-worth in 2018. Clearly people love this drink, so what am I missing? Here is a quick look at what instant coffee is and why it is so prevalent in Thailand and around the world.

What is instant coffee?

The simple answer is-coffee. Instant coffee is in fact simply coffee that has been brewed and then dried out by freeze drying or spray drying. Freeze drying will result in a higher quality coffee when compared to spray dried because freeze drying uses low temperatures whereas spray drying uses high temperatures. This dried out brewed coffee powder is then lighter and produces more coffee drink than beans or ground coffee, which makes instant coffee cheaper to ship around the world. Furthermore, instant coffee will last longer as long as it is kept dry.

This focus on light shipping and long shelf life is part of what makes instant coffee so popular around the world. Close to 50% of all harvested coffee is made into instant coffee.

Coffee trivia: at least one study has found that instant coffee has a smaller environmental impact than other forms of coffee.

A Quick History of Instant Coffee

If you recall, coffee as a drink in general can be traced back to the 1400s and the first iteration of instant coffee can be traced back to 1771 in Britain. And then some gross version of instant coffee was used during the American civil war:

“A concentrated coffee/milk/sugar mixture was produced for the Union army during the American Civil War under the name Essence of Coffee, a teaspoonful of which was mixed with a cup of hot water. It had the consistency of axle grease, and proved so unpopular with the troops that it was soon discontinued.”

Instant coffee so bad that miserable soldiers couldn’t even stomach it! According to Wikipedia, instant coffee was first patented in 1890 by David Strang of Invercargill, New Zealand followed closely by Alphonse Allais of France in 1881.

Once coffee was being transformed into a dry powder there were many inventors and entrepreneurs who jumped in making their own versions of instant coffee. But it was in 1938 that Nestlé, the largest food and drink company in the world, developed a more advanced processing method to create instant coffee as a way to save and sell a huge surplus of coffee sitting in Brazil; Nestlé named this coffee powder Nescafé. American soldiers didn’t spit this coffee out, instead Nescafé became a staple for American troops during World War II and obviously continues to command a huge market share.

What About the Caffeine?

Okay, instant coffee is big business but the most important question regarding coffee is… “the caffeine is still there right?” Yes, instant coffee has caffeine, it’s just dried brewed coffee after all, but the caffeine content of instant black coffee is generally less than that of brewed black coffee.

“One study comparing various home-prepared samples came to the result that regular instant coffee (not decaffeinated) has a median caffeine content of 66 mg per cup (range 29–117 mg per cup), with a median cup size of 225 ml (range 170-285 ml) and a caffeine concentration of 328 µg/ml (range 102-559 µg/ml). In comparison, drip or filter coffee was estimated to have a median caffeine content of 112 mg, with a median concentration of 621 µg/ml for the same cup size.”

Instant coffee = 66 mg of caffeine Drip Coffee = 112 mg of caffeine

If you are looking for a caffeine boost, instant may not be your best choice.

Instant Coffee is for Noobs

The inherent benefits of instant coffee; cheaper, light weight, easy to prepare, no grounds to dispose of, lasts a really long time, have got to be some of the reasons why it is so popular here in Thailand. Furthermore, an article in the Washington Post speculates that the people drinking instant coffee are, “a very specific type of people: amateur coffee drinkers.” In particular in countries or regions without a strong coffee drinking culture. Instant coffee is like entry point coffee, a gateway, a very bitter and terrible gateway, leading to better coffee. But this is coming from the United States, which is an outlier when it comes to embracing instant coffee. In that same article the author points out, “Even in Europe, where fresh coffee is preferred, instant coffee is still seen as acceptable for at home and on the go consumption. In the U.S. the view is just much more negative.”

Look at the chart below, 60% of the Asia Pacific region’s coffee consumption is instant coffee compared to North America’s 10% consumption.

Thailand is becoming a larger coffee producer in Asia but the coffee culture is young. Not that Starbucks is the be all end all of coffee culture, but I take its appearance as an indicator and the first Starbucks opened in Thailand in 1998 (27 years after the first one in the US) so we can roughly say that was the beginning of a trend toward a more sophisticated coffee culture.

Thailand Coffee Culture

Recently my cousin was visiting Thailand for the first time and as we drove around, she commented on how many coffee shop signs there were, and those were just the ones in English. And it’s true, there is someone selling coffee every 100 meters it seems. The fun part of this emerging coffee culture is finding those “hidden” coffee shops that are brewing great coffee and not just loading everything with sugar.

Thai coffee
Typical bag of Thai coffee.

Downtown Bangkok and Chiang Mai have thriving coffee cultures with wonderful coffee shops, roasters, and baristas, but I would say the bulk of coffee consumption is still instant and overly sweet. And it’s not just me, according to Euromonitor International there is a “growing coffee culture in Thailand thanks to the rising prevalence of specialist coffee chains and coffee drinking being seen as fashionable.”

Bangkok Coffee shop
As.Is in Chinatown Bangkok

However, the report goes on to say, “Nestlé (Thai) remained the dominant player in coffee in both off-trade value and volume terms in 2017 thanks to its strength in instant coffee, which accounts for the majority of sales.” So, the largest coffee company dominating Thailand is deriving most of its sales through instant coffee.

There is some evidence that the power of Nestlé’s instant coffee empire is being scratched at by new coffee upstarts of the “third wave” (Storm Coffee Co., Roots, Phil Coffee Co., to name a few) but don’t expect a power shift anytime soon. The final paragraph of the Coffee in Thailand Report reads, “The share of private label in coffee remained very low in 2017. With rising purchasing power and greater knowledge about coffee, consumers are increasingly trading up to premium variants.”

Coffee in Thailand

The market is growing for specialty (single origin, cold brew, specialty roasts) and premium coffee, but it is far from eroding the dominance of instant. I would say Thailand is in the “second wave” of coffee, where the consumer is more interested in the enjoyment of specialty coffee, with a dribbling of “third wave”, where the consumer considers origin and artisan methods of production.

My eyes are opened to the role instant coffee plays around the world except in my home country. I’m more curious than ever to try some of the more innovative instant coffees that are starting to appear – instant cold brew coffee.