Australian supermarket instant coffee taste test: the worst is ‘what we’ll drink during the apocalypse’

<span>‘Incapacitated by a hurricane of emotions and heartbeats’: Nicholas Jordan downed 11 cups of instant coffee in one hour and left feeling dazed and confused by the brews.</span><span>Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian</span>
‘Incapacitated by a hurricane of emotions and heartbeats’: Nicholas Jordan downed 11 cups of instant coffee in one hour and left feeling dazed and confused by the brews.Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

Nothing has made me feel more unhinged and confused than drinking 11 different instant coffees in an hour. Unlike the five coffee professionals who joined me, I don’t have the caffeine tolerance or battle-hardened wisdom to make a judgment with one sip – I finished most cups. But while I was probably the only reviewer who spent the rest of the day incapacitated by a hurricane of emotions and heartbeats, I wasn’t the only one who was confused by what we tasted.

I was joined by Junji Tai (Brighter Coffee cafe), Adryll Lin (Condesa Co Lab coffee importer), Carolin Jung (Solstice cafe), Benjamin Johnson (The New Paradigm Coffee roaster) and Juwa Chu (Diggy Doos Coffee cafe), all knowledgable Sydney-based coffee professionals. As supermarket instant coffee is generally made with low-quality, heavily roasted robusta beans (robusta contains more caffeine and tastes earthier than arabica, the Australian cafe-standard beans), we came into this taste test expecting bitter, earthy and generally offensive coffees.

Related: Australian supermarket veggie chip taste test: my notes on the aroma are ‘rancid oil’ and ‘farts’

The coffees were brewed to the same method, and blind-tasted and scored with and without milk, then the scores were aggregated to give a final score out of 10. All the instants we tasted can be roughly categorised into two camps: coffees with the harsh, bitter flavours we expected; and a much larger group of coffees that confusingly didn’t taste or smell like coffee at all. My theory for the latter group is coffee companies are no longer aiming to be delicious; instead they’re just going for disgust-minimisation. I’d say that’s the right choice because deliciousness is a far more difficult goal than inoffensive mediocrity.

Best overall

Nature’s Cuppa Organic Coffee, 100g, $12, available from Woolworths

Score: 6.5/10

The first thing I said about this coffee was: “How can this smell so good and so bad?” None of the other judges replied because they were busy trying to figure out how a coffee can smell savoury, sweet and stale at the same time, like “beef jerky”, according to Lin. I thought it was earthy-smelling, like a wheat field. One judge guessed the aroma may be robusta beans but Nature’s Cuppa is one of the few brands we tasted to use arabica. Confusing, but not a bad start. Tai said it tasted like what you’d get from a big-chain coffee shop but less bitter. It picked up points for having a bit of sweetness and for being one of the few coffees to have any acidity. Ultimately, it’s like having a quiet people-pleaser for a friend – they’re not going to light up a social event but they’re never going to offend anyone either. Whether it’s black or with milk, it’s easy to drink, and easiness is what instant coffee is about.

Best value

Alcafé Gold Classic Medium Roast, 100g, $3.89, available from Aldi

Score: 6/10

Imagine you roast cornflakes, forget they’re in the oven and then eat the semi-burnt cereal – it tastes slightly bitter but it’s still kind of nice. But then you add milk and most of the roasted-cereal flavour fades and now it just tastes like milk with a slightly toasty vibe – that’s the Alcafé experience. Weak yet palatable – which is better than most of the coffees we tried – and also the cheapest instant coffee of the taste test. It’s half the price of most of the other coffees we tasted, which worries me not because I hate value, but because anything significantly cheaper than its market is suspicious to me. How the hell do they make this?

And the rest

Bushells Classic Gourmet Instant Coffee, 200g, $8.50 ($4.25 per 100g), available from major supermarkets

Score: 6/10

Bushells, Alcafé, Daley St, Nescafé and Nature’s Cuppa were the best examples of instant coffee that were enjoyable but not particularly coffee-like. As a black coffee, Bushells smells like cereal or a roast sweet potato. It doesn’t taste like either, aside from a faint sweetness but the important thing is it’s not repulsively bitter. With milk, it tastes like a sweet tea – somewhere between a weak bubble tea or a particularly earthy barley tea. It was so un-coffee-like some of us were convinced something had been added to give it a different aroma and flavour but, to our surprise, like all the coffees we tasted this is 100% coffee. The claims on the tin about the coffee being smooth and mild ring true but the claim this is “gourmet” and a “blend of the world’s finest coffee” is incredible accidental comedy.

Nescafé Gold Original, 100g, $11.50, available from major supermarkets

Score: 6/10

Almost all the reviewers said this was like earthy, dry tea. But a cowardly tea that hides its character once any milk is added. Maybe when Nescafé claims this has a “new smoother taste”, what they mean is “you won’t hate this”. Tai, who said this smelled like “rich fertile soil”, wrote in his notes: “I wouldn’t not drink it if it was served at my uncle’s place with sweet cakes.” What a great summary for instant coffee – most have at least one unpleasant characteristic, but are they undrinkable? Far from it. Whether it’s Tai’s uncle’s place, an office or your home, they have a time and a place.

Vittoria Instant Original Classic Coffee, 100g, $12.50, available from major supermarkets

Score: 5.5/10

One judge gave their cup a big sniff and excitedly exclaimed it smelt like old coffee grinds. It was a wildly popular observation. Soon everyone else was talking about coffee compost, day-old coffee and accidental second brews with old ground coffee. It may have smelt old but this was definitely a coffee that tasted like coffee. Not just any coffee, but the nostalgic coffees of train station kiosks, airport hotels and football stadiums.

Daley St Medium Roast, 100g, $6, available from Coles

Score: 5.5/10

Most of the coffees that didn’t taste like coffee were divisive – some judges hated them, some loved them. But Daley St was unanimously average, with almost every judge scoring it five out of 10. Johnson wrote it tasted “dirty” and tasted “like a teabag left overnight”. Other comments described it as “woody”, “overbrewed” and “barky”. But these weren’t deal breakers. The same people who accused it of tasting woody said it was “not bad”, “fairly clean” and “smooth”. Life is never simple.

Aurora Italian Style, 100g, $7, available from major supermarkets

Score: 5.5/10

Most coffees scored similar marks for their black and milk versions. Aurora didn’t. When the judges tasted the coffee black, they said it was “like shavings of chalk dust”, “like my mouth has been coated in tarmac” and “it sort of smells like a savoury stock and then trash”. But everyone who trash-talked the black coffee changed their tune when they added milk. It was suddenly “sweet”, “tasty” and “like chocolate ice-cream”. The only person who didn’t agree was Chu, the most critical reviewer of the day. She hated it but wrote: “My dad might like it.”

Moccona Classic Medium Roast, 100g, $11.50, available from major supermarkets

Score: 5/10

When I was researching instant coffees ahead of the taste test, I can’t tell you how many people told me Moccona is the best on the market. They were wrong. While this lacked any offensive flavours, it just didn’t have much flavour at all. Besides a handful of comments on its ashy aroma, most of the judges’ notes were about how mild it tasted. Like most of the instants without a strong coffee flavour, it was divisive – how to score a generally pleasant drink that doesn’t taste like the ingredient it’s made from? Some will say that’s a four out of 10, I say it’s a seven. I’ll happily take my instant coffee mild.

Nescafé Blend 43, 150g, $11.50 ($7.67 per 100g), available from major supermarkets

Score: 5/10

Along with Bushells, this was the coffee I was most convinced wasn’t purely coffee. How else would it have such a strong wheat-y, sweet smell, like Nutri-Grain and Weet-Bix (according to Lin and Tai)? Jung said it reminded her of Caro, a coffee substitute made with roasted barley, chicory and rye, from her homeland, Germany. Despite having the darkest granules of any of the coffees we tasted, it was not bitter at all, which is probably the best thing I have to say about it. The worst: the dry, almost chalky aftertaste. Nescafé’s claim that this is Australia’s favourite coffee is hilarious. The number of Jetstar tickets I’ve bought in my life doesn’t mean I like Jetstar, it’s the only airline I can afford.

Starbucks Medium Roast Premium Instant Coffee, 90g, $13 ($14.44 per 100g), available from major supermarkets


Despite the promise of a “smooth and balanced” experience, this was one of the strongest coffees we tasted but a terrible singer doesn’t sound any better when they scream at you. Everything that makes the Starbucks coffee taste strong makes it unpalatable – it’s bitter, acrid and slightly metallic. With incredible prescience, when she tasted it with milk, Jung wrote “it tastes like what you get at an average chain”. It’s also a bit gritty, which Johnson correctly guessed was from the addition of regular coffee grounds mixed in with the instant granules. It feels as though Starbucks is relying on their brand, but as the most expensive coffee of the day, I can’t imagine that’s going to work.

Lavazza Prontissimo Intenso, 95g, $11 ($11.58 per 100g), available from major supermarkets

Score: 3/10

This is so aggressively bitter, it’s violent. Drinking it black is the coffee equivalent of hearing your alarm go off when you’re hungover. With milk, it’s just a regular analogue alarm – no more pleasant, but you’re still shocked awake by a sound you never consent to hear any other time. Lin said it should have a warning label; Tai said “it’s like a smoker is living in my throat”; Chu wrote it’s like pouring water into a used ashtray and drinking that; and Jung wrote “it’s made for men called Gary”. All I could think about was a customer I used to serve at a cafe back in the 2010s. She would always ask for the hottest, strongest coffee possible. “Burn it,” she’d say. One day, when the coffee wasn’t brewed to the temperature of the sun, she walked up to the barista and slammed her cup on the counter, spilling coffee everywhere. “This is shit,” she said. This is the instant coffee for her. What we’ll drink during the apocalypse.