Cooling to instant coffee Last drops: The popularity of instant coffee is sinking fast. Is a revolution brewing?

November 13, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

It is not the best part of waking up. Even some people who drink it say it's not their idea of coffee. Yet as more Americans learn to speak espresso, as gourmet coffee bars proliferate like kudzu, an ever-dwindling minority still drinks instant coffee.

These people don't know from espresso macchiato or caffe latte. They don't even bother with the stuff that comes in a can that requires brewing. Too much work. They reach for the jar of instant. Quick, easy, always there, always as good as the day you bought it, whatever century that was.

The law apparently requires that every American have a jar of instant stuck somewhere behind the shaker of oregano and the cans of tomato paste. It's been there since the Johnson administration, but we're saving it for an emergency -- something, say, involving Civil Defense. But the Cold War is over, the bomb shelters have become little carpeted dens and sometimes we wonder if it's time to throw out the instant.

What can you say about a food item that has the shelf life of asphalt?

"I didn't like it at first, but I just got used to it," says Mary Kaiser, 74, of Catonsville, who switched from brewed to instant coffee 15 years ago when she married a man who drank only instant coffee.

Mrs. Kaiser and her fellow instant drinkers have no support group and 12-step meetings. As growing legions of American coffee aficionados awaken to home-ground French Roast or march for a morning cup to the local gourmet shop, instant drinkers pad to their kitchens to boil water, spoon out the brown granules, mix, stir. Then grin and bear it.

"We take the quick, easy way," says Don Malone of Halethorpe, a retired Navy investigator and instant-coffee drinker. "We say, 'the heck with it.' "

There are fewer of them among us all the time.

So says the National Coffee Association in New York, which has been keeping track of such things by household survey since 1950. During instant coffee's peak years of the 1970s, when Barry Manilow was also a rage, nearly one of every three cups of coffee consumed in America was instant. According to the 1995 report -- based on telephone calls to 3,300 homes around the country -- not even one in five cups was instant, a 16-percent share of the market.

Something's happening here. Maybe something revolutionary, says Tom Pirko, who is president of Bevmark, Inc., a New York firm that consults for the beverage industry. He has the audacity to suggest that "Americans are sacrificing convenience for quality. That's extraordinary.

"We have a completely new awareness of coffee developing in the United States," says Mr. Pirko, "almost a new mind-set. Americans seem to believe instant doesn't deliver the same quality" as any brewed coffee, much less the likes of such premium varieties as Celebes Kolassi, Sumatra, Kenya, Kona.

Harry Balzer isn't buying the theory that instant's decline signals the cultivation of the national coffee palate. He's vice president of the NPD Group of Rosemont, Ill., which since 1980 has been conducting an annual national food consumption survey.

Morning drinks

He notes that the tremendous surge in gourmet coffee marked by the growth of Starbucks, Gloria Jean's and local cafes is but a small part of coffee consumption, which generally is dropping. Mr. Balzer says more people, especially young people, eschew coffee entirely in the morning. They wake up and reach for a Coke, Pepsi or some other caffeinated soft drink, quicker and easier than instant coffee.

"I look at two things that always drive behavior," says Mr. Balzer. "Is it cheaper, is it easier?"

Never mind the quality, about which there seems to be little argument. Notwithstanding years of ads featuring patrons in expensive restaurants being bamboozled by Folger's crystals, nobody who knows coffee believes instant tastes like a good cup of brewed.

Perhaps because instant was coffee only in a previous life. In the process of being turned into water soluble form the coffee lost its soul, also most of the 750 compounds that are said to account for its flavor. Between the roasted bean and the jar of granules or crystals is a process of percolation, concentration, atomization, drying, scraping, crumbling. Another step removed, and they'd have to call it Ovaltine.

"They extract virtually everything," says George Guthrie, a coffee buyer and taster for the Community Coffee Company in Baton Rouge, La., for whom instant accounts for about 3 percent of total coffee sales. Mr. Guthrie describes the taste of instant as "carmelized, toward the burnt side."

Mr. Guthrie speculates that the decline of instant may have something to do with people discovering they can brew coffee in small quantities in not much more time than it takes to make instant. He suggests the French press method, which can brew a cup or two at a time.

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