Samuel Flynn Scott is a coffee tragic who loves a lightly roasted single-origin bean as much as the next Wellingtonian. But he also has a thing for instant. Now, his two worlds have combined.
I’ve drunk a lot of instant coffee. I’m wasted. Is this what it was like for Kerouac when he wrote (or, as Truman Capote put it, typed) On The Road? High on benzos, hammering away at the keys with no awareness of where the words would lead? How, you may ask, did I get this fried? Because yesterday, Coffee Supreme – my go-to coffee roaster for the last 20 years – released its own brand of high-end instant coffee.
People like to hide their instant coffee consumption. It might as well be cocaine since it’s so shameful. The effects aren’t dissimilar too, let’s be honest. This being Supreme, purveyors of the finest single-origin beans from around the globe, the price gap between coffee and cocaine is closing too. Oh yeah, and the beans in these little white baggies? Colombian! My fingers are tingling, my teeth feel weird… I’m starting to get suspicious.
I’m a deeply troubled coffee obsessive. I weigh the beans, I weigh the water. Usually, I use a pour-over, paper filter method like V60 or Chemex. That combined with very lightly roasted single-origin beans and correct-temperature water gives a balanced, aromatic, clean tasting coffee entirely free of the burnt notes we otherwise like to bury under sugar and milk. That not ridiculous enough for ya? At the moment I have a pot of cold brew made with bourbon-barrel-aged beans sitting in my fridge. The vanilla notes are quite delightful.
This obsessive nature has left me with a bit of a reputation among my friends, who seem to think that I wouldn’t want their plunger or instant offerings. Let me be clear: I’m addicted to coffee and I will drink and enjoy it in almost any form.
Instant, especially, is dear to me. It should be dear to all New Zealanders, as it’s widely believed to have been invented in Invercargill in 1890 by David Strang (take that, pavlova!).
We go back a long way, instant and me. I first drunk it at the age of four. I was “performing” in an Amnesty International fundraising concert at the Wellington Opera House dressed as Sir Robert Muldoon (in an amazing papier maché mask made by my mum). Left to entertain myself in the basement green room, that was the day I met Cafe-Bar, the 1980s waiting-room coffee-dispenser situation that no one under 35 can remember and no one over 40 can forget. Get yourself a click of instant, maybe a click of sugar… there’s a hot chocolate clicker? Maybe a mocha! Always with Arcoroc glass mugs and a little jug of festering room-temp milk. Maybe an old Milo tin to pop your 50 cents in.
That first day I brewed myself a hot cup o’ joe and quite frankly, went completely fucking off the rails. Four-year-old kids should not drink instant coffee, and certainly not unsupervised in dangerous work environments. I found my way to a secret passageway that wound its way up above the stage. I scrambled across the lighting rig and found a little spot where I could watch the other acts soundcheck. Horribly dangerous for sure, but that day a love affair with coffee was born and one that today came full circle as the coffee lords climbed up into the rigging of my heart and served me the ultimate culture mash-up: posh instant coffee.
The coffee was launched at the Auckland Old Folks Ass., one of the greatest abbreviations in the known universe. It was paired, as Supreme likes to do, with free toast and Almighty juices. It’s easy to be charmed at these kinds of events. I was always going to be charmed by this product anyway. I have long been annoying anyone I meet in the coffee business by saying “whichever fancy roaster makes freeze-dried instant first wins”. When Supreme was teasing this event, my wife instantly guessed their intentions. I wasn’t sure until I saw a picture of an Arcoroc mug on their Instagram page. It turns out Bridget Zimmerman (Supreme’s head of new product development) and Heath Cater (head of coffee) had been developing the product for over two years, working with the wizards of freeze-dried flavour at Fresh As. I love freeze-dried shit. The dark chocolate freeze-dried strawberries from GoodFor have changed my shopping habits. I’m not buying unpackaged food for the environment, I’m buying it because it gives me an excuse to eat freeze-dried deliciousness.
The coffee comes in little 21 gram boxes with seven portioned sachets. It’s priced at $17.95 a pack, which would get 250 grams of Ethiopian beans (or enough to make 20 200ml filter coffees), so I guess it’s aimed more at the savvy traveller than for home or work. Does it taste as good as a Supreme filter coffee or espresso? No, definitely not. Does it taste better than supermarket instant? Yes, I think it does. It’s delicious black, with no sugar. When was the last time you drank instant without sugar? It’s barbaric. No, this version replaces that ashy taste with fruity aromas and a nice cut of that ol’ buzzword: acidity.
It would be improper not to take some samples away with me and brew up a few cups alongside what has long been my favourite instant. You know what I’m about to say, right? Moccona. It “heft meer mmm” after all. And of course, you need their #5. Jeremy Taylor, food blogger/songwriter/record salesperson, claims this to be Moccona’s best. He enjoys his #5 dissolved in a touch of hot water with sugar, then watered down with cold water and milk. It’s very tasty, the opposite of my morning coffee – like a homemade Nippy’s.
To truly know whether the decadent Supreme version was superior I would have to prepare it in the style of Jeremy’s #5. It was time for a coffee-off, or perhaps a coff-off-ee. A covfefe of sorts. Would this be instant dharma and coffee heaven, instant karma as the old classic wins, or instant drama as the fourth coffee of the day finally bursts my stomach lining, flooding my vital organs with bad vibes?
It would also be unfair to not make a Moccona and drink it black, no sugar, to see how that stacks up against the Supreme.
I weigh out the powder, sugar, hot and cold water, and milk for both. The results are pretty much as I predicted in my mind grapes; the Jeremy Taylor #5 (or “coffee-drink”) is pretty tasty from both brands. The Moccona has more of that nostalgic instant flayva and the large crystals dissolve with a satisfying commercially processed ease. The Supreme has a much nicer taste when I sample them black, but once you add the milk it is rather overpowered and just sort of tastes like funny milk. The Moccona wins this battle.
Black is a whole other ball game. The Moccona, when deprived of the milk and sugar that makes it so mmm, is pretty bad. It tastes how I imagine the food scrap charcoal that builds up under cooking hobs might taste if made into a broth. I would never choose to drink this. No-sugar commercial instant is perhaps the only form of coffee I will not tolerate. It does not stack up. Black no sugar is a definite win for Supreme. Hot with a dash of milk? Supreme. Black with sugar? Supreme. In every scenario other than “coffee-drink”, the Supreme is more delicious. The more of it I drink, the more I think this isn’t necessarily better instant coffee, but it’s better at being coffee than instant coffee is. Which kinda means it’s just better. I like it.
At this price, it’s not a replacement for your staffroom instant (well, unless you work at an advertising agency or whatever, then get it for sure). But if you want to climb a mountain or sail a tiny boat or whatever, and maybe you’re as corrupted by the coffee game as me, then this is a pretty cool product. Keep one in your wallet next to the emergency Maldon salt. Fruity, delicious coffee is only a cup of hot water away!
Supreme wanted to launch with a more robust, classic-tasting instant, but I’d love to try it with a super-light single-origin roast. Also, if the clever people at Fresh As could work out how to freeze dry it in large crystals, that would really tickle my fancy.
I’m really intrigued as to how people will interact with this product. Is it a staple? I put a whole lot of effort into making a delicious coffee every morning. But maybe for a lot of people, this is a better option. The price certainly isn’t that crazy when you consider all the extra steps and the quality of the core ingredients, but how that translates to the consumer is anyone’s guess. Supreme is usually ahead of the game in the New Zealand coffee world, and I’m fascinated to see if L’Affare or Havana, with their supermarket reach and multinational owners, take this as a cue to make their own versions.
Regardless, Supreme has done it first. Snobby instant coffee never needed to exist but I have long desired it, and now it does. Let’s just bathe in the wonderful absurdity of it all.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.