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Why I gave instant coffee another shot. And you should too

Illustration of step-by-step instant coffee instructions
(Felicia Liang / For The Times)
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I’d describe myself as a minor-league coffee snob — a daily drinker but not an obsessive. I’m not overly particular about the origin of my beans, but I always grind them fresh. I don’t invest in expensive coffee gadgets or carefully monitor water temperature, but I do make pour-overs in the morning with a simple plastic funnel and paper filter.

So I was slightly skeptical when, at a dinner last year at the restaurant Great China in Berkeley, my Uncle Ralph very excitedly recommended G7, a brand of instant coffee from the Vietnamese company Trung Nguyen. In what way, I thought, could an instant coffee experience ever match a fresh one? But I immediately found a box of the Pure Black variety of the coffee, fine dark-brown powder contained in little plastic sachets, and tried it.

And I was hooked.

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I had long thought of instant coffee as largely a poor facsimile of fresh, “real” coffee, regarding it as a burned-tasting substitute that leaves a sickly sweet residue on your tongue, like evaporated coffee on the hot dashboard of a car. But apparently, I just hadn’t found the right brand. Not only that but I’d been looking at instant coffee the wrong way. It could never substitute for freshly ground coffee for me, but it’s a great supplement if you’re traveling, in a hurry or just want some variety. And in some ways, instant coffee is a totally different product than the drip-drip-drip variety. Sometimes you want a nice cut of rib-eye; sometimes you just want a burger. Both are beef, but they scratch different itches.

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Upon first sip, G7 is immediately different from a cup of coffee you’d get at a typical third-wave place. It doesn’t lead with fruitiness. It’s not light and bright. It’s dark and earthy, a little mysterious. It’s heady but not floral, rather a little woody and reedy, maybe even grassy. In some ways, it tastes closer to a potent tea than coffee.

The result is a muscular, sturdy brew that holds up remarkably well to sweetness and dairy. I like G7 plain, but I particularly like it brewed strong — twice as strong as recommended on the package — and with a healthy spoonful of condensed milk. It’s not the ca phe sua da you’d find in Garden Grove or Westminster, but it’s a decent enough approximation, a sturdy wallop from a bittersweet sledgehammer. The taste is characteristic of the robusta bean variety, of which Vietnam is the world’s leading producer.

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The Trung Nguyen Legend website, which I strongly recommend spending a few minutes perusing, is a mishmash of life-affirming axioms, coffee-related quotes from the likes of Kierkegaard and Stephen Hawking, and photos of good-looking people posing with luxury sports cars. It describes how the company has “researched and discovered the distinctive and special qualities of robusta coffee beans” and that “the best quintessence of the coffee bean is extracted to make the bold and fascinating flavours and aromas that exist only in G7 instant coffee.”

If that seems like a lot, it is. But who cares? The coffee delivers. By means of comparison, I went to my local Ranch 99 store and picked up a few other instant coffees. Much of what I saw came in the “3-in-1” variety — i.e., it contains coffee, sweetener and creamer. (G7 also makes a good 3-in-1 if you prefer that style.) Here’s a quick rundown of a few other brands I tasted, ranked from best to worst:

OldTown White Coffee Classic — Solid. Light, sweet, nutty and well balanced. If I couldn’t get G7, I’d probably grab a few packets of this.

Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend 3-in-1 — Good overall. A very slightly burned flavor but it doesn’t overwhelm the experience.

Vinacafe 3-in-1 Instant Coffee Mix — Not bad. A fairly prominent coconut flavor.

TNI King Coffee Cafe Sua 3-in-1 — A lot of coconut in this, similar to the above but even more so. If you like coconut in your coffee, on the other hand, this is the one you want.

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Prince of Peace 3-in-1 Instant Cappuccino — Somewhat weak. Plenty of sweetness but not much coffee flavor.

Kopiko Premium 3-in-1 — Not sure what’s going on here. There’s a heavy, fallen-fruit flavor to this coffee, like an old box of raisins.

Owl White Coffee Tarik 3-in-1 Original — No thanks. Tastes a little rancid, like sour oil.

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I’m not saying that instant should replace your morning coffee routine. But if you, like me, have ever turned your nose up at instant coffee, give it another shot. I was surprised, and you might be too.

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