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Instant-coffee crystals. [Photograph: Wikipedia]

We all know that when the need for coffee hits, it can be pretty urgent—but is it ever urgent enough to justify instant coffee? We look at what the speedy stuff is so you can be the judge next time you get antsy for that first cup.

All coffee is brewed by a process called "extraction," which is a way of describing and understanding what water absorbs from coffee beans during the brewing process. (Here's a little bit about extraction related to espresso, for reference.)

Coffee beans are made up of soluble compounds, which dissolve into water to create our favorite morning beverage—this is what makes the brew go from clear to brown. (Ideally, about 18 to 22 percent of the solubles in coffee will be pulled out by the water. Less and you'll have a grassy-tasting cup; more leads to bitterness and astringency.) For most coffee-making methods—when you make yourself a delicious French press, for instance, or manually pour brew using a Melitta-style cone—this process takes in the ballpark of three to four minutes, and you're left with spent grounds in your filter or pot.

Hence the temptation to go instant: Not only does the coffee happen in a flash, it also doesn't leave any evidence in the form of sopping-wet coffee dumped into the bottom of your kitchen trash can. But... but how can that be? Is it magic?

Instant coffee (which has been around since the early 1900s but boomed in popularity as part of soldiers' C-rations in wartime) is what happens when you brew coffee as normal, then remove all of the water from the finished product, leaving behind the extracted solubles in a sort of crystalline form. This process is most commonly achieved by freeze-drying, which removes water from the finished brew using a combination of evaporation, vacuum technology, and flash freezing. When re-introduced to water, the crystals dissolve again, creating the caffeinated life blood that gets us going every day.

Then, of course there are obvious problems with this "magic" brew (because real coffee lover can never just have it easy, can we?), particularly the question of quality. Most of the coffee beans used to make stir-and-go stuff aren't the highest quality—they're from cheap, often low-grown crops bought up by the millions of pounds by huge companies that mass-produce plastic tub after plastic tub of caffeinated convenience.

Artisanal it ain't, and I for one think you're worth a full four-minute extraction. But I might not press the issue first thing in the morning, when you're staggering around in a daze and would just as soon cut a man as let him get between you and your sweet, sweet caffeine. Everyone has their breaking point.

What do you think about instant coffee, and is there a "quality" brand out there that you turn to in times of sheer desperation?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. Her latest project is Eat This Neighborhood, wherein she attempts to eat at least one thing at every single restaurant in the vicinity of her Chelsea apartment.

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