Time For a Cup of George - The Instant Coffee Revolution


The birth of instant coffee can be traced to Guatemala and 1906, when a Belgian bearing the name George Washington developed the concept of refining coffee crystals from brewed coffee. George began production of his invention in 1910, after he had relocated to New York, marketing his product as G. Washington's Refined Coffee. His concoction bore just enough of a resemblance to coffee, and the same high caffeine content, that with a large advertising budget, it soon
gained a measure of popularity, especially among those seeking convenience over flavor and aroma, and among that sub-set of Americans who regularly engaged in the recreational activity of camping.

With the US entry into World War I and massive coffee requirements for troops, the US government requisitioned all the George Washington Coffee available, and it gained great popularity among doughboys, who were said to frequently call for not a cup of coffee, but rather for "A Cup of George".

Additional instant coffee producers entered the market, and were successful so long
as the war continued and the US government remained their biggest customer. The end of WW I saw the quick demise of much of the industry, though George survived, barely.

The instant coffee industry was re-invigorated in Europe in the 1930s, when the Swiss company Nestle developed a new process for preparing the brew: Rather than using what was called the "Drum" method where regular coffee was boiled down to crystals, Nestle scientists devised a method of spraying brewed coffee into heated towers causing drops to instantly turn into powder. They added carbohydrates to enhance and maintain flavor, and in 1938 the world saw the birth of Nescafe, which was tasty enough and close enough to real coffee to cause a minor world wide revolution in coffee drinking. In 1939, Nescafe became available in the United States.

Their timing was almost perfect, as the beginnings of World War II also brought several years of increasing coffee prices, making consumers ripe for the less expensive instant variety, and leading to vastly increased market shares, lasting through the post-war years.
Consumers accepted the poor taste of instant coffee, and producers were able to use the cheapest beans available, as bean quality made little difference. In 1950, the cost of producing the powder for a single cup of instant coffee was not much more than one-half the cost of the beans needed for a cup of "real" coffee. While 1950 saw the Consumers Research Bulletin report that the instant brew was "hot and wet and looks like coffee… but any resemblance to coffee is purely coincidental", that year also saw instant coffee sales increase 25%, on its way to a 17% market share two years later.

American producers had jumped into the instant coffee market, and by 1953 Instant
Maxwell House had passed Nescafe to become the top seller in the US market.

Another aspect of modern technology gave further impetus to the instant coffee industry - the development and proliferation of the vending machine: A match made in heaven, a machine that dispense instant coffee at the drop of a
coin! The first Kwik Kafe machine went into service in 1947, and ten years later coffee vending machines numbered over 60,000.

Perhaps the first real improvement in the quality and flavor of instant coffee occurred in 1960, when Maxwell House's parent company General Foods introduced instant Yuban, the quickie version of their premium brand, made from better quality arabica beans. Four years later, General Foods introduced Maxim and the new process of freeze-dried instant coffee, promising "concentrated crystals of real perked coffee". Their decaffeinated instant, Sanka, also switched to the freeze-dried method. Nestle countered with its freeze dried Taster's Choice, and massive
advertising campaigns extolling its unprecedented virtues, and taste.

In the early 1970s, the then fad of "flavored" coffee hit the instant coffee market with the introduction of such flavored "favorites" as General Foods' International line of Cafe au Lait, Cafe Vienna, and Suisse Mocha, and similar entries from the likes of Hills Bros. and Carnation.

For a variety of reasons, including the development of modern home coffee brewers that quickly and easily produce quality brewed coffee from grounds, the market share of instant coffee in the US has fallen to 8%. Instant coffee does remain, however, extremely popular in other parts of the world, such as in the UK where instant's market share is over 75%.

Who knows, maybe another George Washington or Henri Nestle will bring about a new instant coffee revolution sometime soon.


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