If you drink coffee, you already know that a freshly brewed cup of joe is tastier than a cup of instant coffee. However, if you’re short on time, taste becomes secondary to the need for caffeine to start your day off right. In these situations, most coffee drinkers will settle for a cup of instant coffee.
As a coffee drinker, you’ve probably asked yourself, “how much caffeine is in instant coffee when compared to a freshly brewed cup?”.
Well, the answer is, it varies. On average, instant coffee contains less caffeine per serving than its freshly brewed counterparts. Today, we’ll explore these differences and point you in the right direction for the brands of instant coffee that will give you the boost you need when you’re short on time.
How and why does caffeine content vary in the first place?
Good question. There are a lot of myths surrounding this question. Let’s sort through them.
Lighter or darker beans produce more or less caffeine
You’ve probably heard this one before, but there is little truth to this myth. Coffee beans are actually the seeds inside the berry of the coffee plant. The berries are red when fully matured, and the bean itself is naturally a light green color.
Roasting coffee beans is done to allow them to be ground into a powder for use in coffee making. A light roast is simply cooked, or dried out, for a shorter period of time at a lower temperature whereas a dark roast would be cooked for a longer period of time at a higher temperature. This means that, by weight, a darker roast will only have a slightly higher caffeine content due to more water weight being lost in the roasting process.
The length and temperature of the roast process primarily determine flavor. Dark roasts are known to be richer and have a more intense coffee flavor than lighter roasts. Caffeine is extremely stable at high temperatures and is barely affected by the length of the roast. This means that your coffee beans’ color will not greatly affect the caffeine content of your brew.
Different coffee beans have different caffeine contents
This one is true. Interestingly, caffeine is produced by the coffee plant primarily to ward off insects and to lessen the competition from the local flora. Caffeine is toxic to insects, and coffee plants that are located closer to sea level have slightly higher levels of caffeine than those located at higher elevations. Bugs prefer to stay close to sea level, so the plant’s level of natural insecticide is reduced as altitude increases.
While the elevation of a coffee plant does determine its caffeine content, the difference isn’t as large as you’d expect. A low caffeine content coffee bean contains around 1.5% caffeine, whereas the coffee bean’s highest caffeine content contains about 2.5% caffeine.
How you prepare your coffee is often thought to make a big difference in the caffeine content. If we consider brew time, water temperature, and brew method, then the difference is not as big as you might think.
As long as you generally follow the rules for brewing coffee, you’ll end up with similar amounts of caffeine in each cup. If you keep your water temperature between 195-205 degrees for a hot brew and use a coffee maker or french press, you will find the most difference in flavor, not caffeine content. While a bitter cup of coffee due to a failed brewing attempt may not be your first choice of drink, it will still get you going in the morning.
To prove this point, look at cold brew coffee. Cold brew coffee is very popular these days, and the caffeine is extracted with room temperature water over a long period of time. Heat is only necessary to speed up the process as you wouldn’t want to wait two days for your coffee to be ready.
So, where does the difference in caffeine content come from?
While all the factors we mentioned impact caffeine content, the biggest difference comes from the amount of ground coffee that you use in your brew. Using more coffee grounds will give you a higher caffeine content every time.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a standard cup of coffee.
How much caffeine is in “regular coffee”?
To understand how much caffeine is in instant coffee, it’s essential first to know how much caffeine you typically take in daily from traditionally brewed coffee. To do this, we’ll explore the most popular coffee chains along with the most recognizable household beans and learn how much caffeine they contain.
Coffee chain caffeine contents
To standardize our measurements, we will be using an 8oz cup of coffee as the default coffee size. Keep in mind; if you’re ordering a Venti from Starbucks, you will need to multiply the caffeine content by 2.5 as a Venti is 20oz of coffee.
Starbucks has quite a few coffee offerings with varying levels of caffeine content.
- Americano – 85mg
- Pumpkin Spice – 75mg
- Cappuccino – 150mg (Does Cappuccino Have Caffeine? Is it More than in a Cup of Coffee?)
- Cold Brew – 155mg
- Blonde Roast – 155-180mg
- Medium Roast – 170mg
- Dark Roast – 190mg
If you ordered a Dark Roast Venti from Starbucks, you’re looking at a whopping 470mg of caffeine. That will get you going in the morning. – Click here to find out about the strongest coffee at Starbucks!
Dunkin’ has similarly high caffeine levels to Starbucks. Their offerings come in as follows.
- Dunkacino – 45mg
- Dark Roast – 95mg
- Espresso – 95mg
- Regular Coffee – 120mg
- Macchiato – 190mg
- Americano – 190mg
A large Macchiato or American will deliver close to 400mg of caffeine.
McDonald’s McCafe is another popular choice for on-the-go coffee stops. Their offerings contain the least amount of caffeine when compared to dedicated coffee chains.
- Latte – 55mg
- American – 55mg
- Cappucino – 55mg
- Iced Coffee – 83mg
- Regular Coffee – 88mg
A large Mcdonald’s coffee will provide you with 180mg of caffeine, which is on the lower-end for store-bought coffee.
Store-bought regular coffee brands
If you prefer to get your caffeine fix at home before you leave in the morning for work, you may drink these store-bought coffee brands.
- Folgers Classic Roast – 95mg
- Maxwell House Coffee – 112mg
- Chock Full O’ Nuts – 140mg
Now that we have a general idea of how much caffeine is in the popular on-the-go and home-brew options. Let’s take a look at instant coffee and compare.
Caffeine contents of instant coffee
Instant coffee brands typically have less caffeine per serving than their traditionally brewed counterparts. This is true for most of the brands, with only a few exceptions. We’ll get into the reasons behind this a bit later, but for now, let’s take a look at the caffeine content of instant coffee.
- Moccona – 60 mg
- Nescafe – 61 mg
- Waka Columbian – 70 mg
- Waka Indian – 70 mg
- Tasters Choice – 98 mg
- Alpine Start – 120 mg
- Starbucks Via – 135 mg
- Death Wish Instant Coffee – 300mg
As with the brewed options, there is a wide range of caffeine content across these brands. If you’re looking for a larger amount of caffeine in your instant coffee, you’re probably eyeing Death Wish and Starbucks Via. These are both great choices for a highly caffeinated instant coffee, but it’s worth remembering that you can achieve the same result by simply using more than one serving of any of these brands.
So, why does instant coffee, on average, contain less caffeine than traditionally brewed coffee? There are two main reasons.
How instant coffee is made
The first reason that instant coffee typically has less caffeine than brewed coffee is due to how it is made at the factory. There are two primary ways to make instant coffee that can then be quickly mixed with water to create a fast cup of joe at home.
Spray drying is the first method of manufacturing instant coffee. The factory will brew coffee in a regular fashion to create a normal cup (or container in this case) of coffee. They start with the same beans as everyone else, roast them to their desired color, and brew them similarly to how you would at home but to industrial proportions.
This coffee is then taken and reduced into a concentrated, thicker, and more potent coffee form. This concentrate is fed through a system of tubes where it is sprayed out of nozzles at close to 500 degrees Fahrenheit into a chamber of extremely dry air. At these temperatures, the concentrated coffee spray will lose any water that survived the initial concentration efforts.
This process’s end result is a fine powder that collects on the floor of the collection chamber. Being completely dehydrated, this powder can be mixed with hot water to create a cup of coffee instantly.
This process loses only a small portion of the caffeine content of the coffee. This is due to the extreme temperatures, forces, and the number of steps it is subjected to during the process.
The second method for making instant coffee takes a different approach and primarily uses cold as it’s the extraction method. Similar to spray drying, the coffee comes from normal beans that are ground and brewed. They then also create a coffee concentrate that is mostly free of water.
The extract is taken and frozen on trays to create a sheet of coffee concentrate. The frozen concentrate is broken into small pieces that are sent to a drying vacuum. The drying vacuum removes the rest of the water that allowed the coffee to freeze in the first place. Once the water is removed, all that is left is small bits and chunks of coffee concentrate.
Both processing methods cause the coffee to lose a small amount of caffeine. Still, the process itself is not the primary reason instant coffee contains less caffeine per serving than regular coffee.
The main reason instant coffee typically has less caffeine per serving
The real reason instant coffee brands contain less caffeine than a typically brewed cup of coffee comes down to money and marketing.
Labor-intensive manufacturing process
The processes listed above are expensive and labor-intensive. Because regular coffee beans require very little preparation before shipping out to stores or coffee shops, they can be sold for less. It would be best if you also kept in mind that you are merely buying more coffee when you buy instant coffee.
Instant coffee is a coffee concentrate that has been reduced from regular coffee. With no water or excess material, you are buying an extremely refined product.
More servings per package
If a coffee company wanted to increase the caffeine in each serving, they would have to increase the serving size. Doing so would decrease the number of servings in each container, which would be less attractive to potential buyers. Death Wish is a prime example.
While strong, death Wish Instant Coffee costs quite a bit more than the other options on this list. Eight servings of their instant coffee will run you $15, while you can get 150 servings of Nescafe for $8. The total caffeine content of the Death Wish (8 servings) contains 2,400mg of caffeine, whereas the Nescafe option contains 9,500mg for half the price.
The servings themselves are also larger. A typical instant coffee contains 1.8 grams of powdered concentrate per serving. Death Wish coffee contains 5 grams of powdered concentrate per serving. The larger serving sizes, combined with a longer roasting period, account for the seemingly huge gap between each brand’s caffeine contents.
To brew or not to brew
Overall, instant coffee has less caffeine per serving than it’s freshly brewed counterparts. Servings vary wildly based on making the coffee, and the primary factor in varying caffeine levels is the amount of coffee used per cup. Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ use enough coffee grounds to reach their desired caffeine contents.
Servings sizes are suggestions, and you can make a cup of instant coffee just as strong as your favorite coffee shop. The primary difference between instant and regular coffee is taste, and it is almost universally agreed upon that instant coffee cannot compare in this regard.
If you’re in a hurry and need to make a strong cup of instant coffee that will put a hop in your step, reference our list of brewed coffees to determine how many servings of instant coffee you should stir into your cup.