Test Drive: Getting Your Third-Wave Fix in a First-Wave Way

Trying out the new trend of specialty instant coffees.


Cover photo courtesy of Coffee Forum

“Third wave coffee”—you’ve heard the phrase and likely pondered it enigmatically to yourself on more than one occasion. Basically, this is what it means: Twenty-something years ago, some folks wanted to understand how to make coffee taste better. They wanted to part ways with the first wave’s instant, canned coffee and the second wave’s poorly roasted, sugary coffee milkshakes. They wanted to understand why different coffees taste differently, and how to control and manipulate those coffees to their fullest potential.

But now, something exciting is happening. As these third-wave coffee companies are growing, they’re realizing there was reason and rhyme to the first and second waves of coffee. What’s happening is that smart people are taking really good coffee and applying it to the convenience of old coffee culture, specifically with instant and pre-ground coffee. The result is “specialty instant coffee,” and it gets me jazzed.

Because I spend a lot of my time outdoors backpacking, hiking, and camping, I am particularly interested in the rise of this trend. Wanting to know more, I took some of the top companies producing specialty instant coffee and tried them out.

Swift Cup uses sleek branding to showcase Middle State Coffee, one of the many roasters in their lineup. Photo by Swift Cup Coffee.

Swift Cup Coffee, $2-$3.20 per cup  

Swift Cup has been getting lots of press lately for their sleek branding and stellar list of roaster partners. Swift Cup partners with specialty roasters to turn their coffees into single-serve instant coffee packets. I tried two offerings from Middle State Coffee in Denver and was thoroughly impressed. Middle State is known for great Ethiopian coffee, and I was surprised by the amount of origin character that came through when brewed as an instant coffee. Swift Cup also offers their own label of instant coffee from highly respected producers like Gesha Village and Long Miles Coffee Project. They’re taking well-known favorites and making them very accessible to any and all users, regardless of their brewing abilities.

First Ascent handles all production aspects of their instant coffee. Photo by First Ascent Coffee Roasters.

First Ascent Coffee Roasters, $2.50 per cup  

First Ascent Coffee Roasters is unique because they handle the entire process of coffee production—from roasting to brewing, freeze drying, and packaging—all in their facilities in the mountains of Crested Butte, Colo. First Ascent focuses on creating a product for folks who spend lots of time outdoors, and they encourage that the product be taken on any adventure you might find yourself on. Their single-origin Ethiopian and Honduran coffees did not disappoint with smooth, round flavors and unique character that provided a delightful and quick cup of coffee.

Try “Complex,” “Lively,” or “Structured” coffees with Voila. Photo by Voila Coffee.

Voila Specialty Instant Coffee, $3.20 per cup

Voila Coffee could be considered a pioneer in the specialty instant coffee market. They’ve been in business since launching their Kickstarter in late 2016 and have since been refining their process and offerings list to include an impressive array of small roasters from across the U.S. Voila makes it easy to select the right coffee for your situation because their coffees not only have tasting notes printed on the package, but are also categorized into “Complex, “Lively,” or “Structured.” Check out their Discovery Box to try out instant coffees from five different roasters all in one package. I was impressed with the cleanliness and quality of each, and really liked having something different to try every time I opened the box.

Former U.S. Barista Champs Lem Butler and Kyle Ramage make instant specialty coffee through their company Black & White Coffee Roasters. Photo by B&W.

Black & White Coffee Roasters, $2 per cup

Black & White Coffee Roasters are newcomers to the instant game. You might know Black & White as the brainchild of two former U.S. Barista Champions, Lem Butler and Kyle Ramage. These two world-class baristas have started offering instant coffee similar to First Ascent’s in that they are also completing all aspects of production in their facilities in Wake Forest, N.C. The Burundian coffee they sent me had pleasing acidity with a lovely raisin sweetness as it cooled. Black & White is providing an awesome coffee experience from two big names in the industry at a very reasonable entry-level price point.

Sudden Coffee got on the map thanks to their cutting-edge designs. Photo by Sudden Coffee.

Sudden Coffee, $2.50 per cup

Sudden Coffee is a name that most know for their cutting-edge marketing campaigns that helped bring specialty instant coffee into the mainstream. Originally producing coffee under their own label exclusively, they have recently switched to a model similar to other instant coffee producers by also taking coffee from reputable roasters and turning it into an instant-ready product. I was impressed with the amount of flavor character maintained in the Sudden Coffee offerings. They sent me a box of varying samples to try, and each one yielded nice sweetness and acidity with recognizable origin characteristics. Big name roasters like Intelligentsia trust Sudden to turn their product into instant coffee, and you can trust them to deliver a strong product as well.

Josh Taves
has been working in the coffee industry since 2006 and has worked as a barista, trainer, QC director, profile roaster, and green buyer. You can currently find him (or not find him) roaming the Rocky Mountains wherever the wind takes him. He is also the inventor of the Rattleware Cupping Brewer and a 2017 USBC finalist.

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