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How Is Instant Coffee Made?

Right now, Italy is hosting Expo Milano 2015. The theme of the exposition, "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life," has not been without controversy; protestors, activists, NGO's focused on hunger and poverty, and even the Pope have weighed in, noting that the Expo does more to reinforce a culture of consumption than it does to alleviate suffering. World's Fairs have always been forward-looking. Two of the best known, both held in New York (the 1939-40 Building The World of Tomorrow, and the 1964-65 Peace Through Understanding expositions) have become synonymous with a fusion of futurism and optimism. But it was another World's Fair -- held in 1901 in Buffalo (the Pan-American Exposition) that's of special interest to coffee drinkers, whether they realize it or not. That Fair didn't lack for innovations. New inventions like x-rays and the roller coaster were on display, and people thrilled to the experience of the first electric theme park ride, "A Trip to the Moon," complete with dancing moon maidens. Some fairgoers would even be treated to their first taste of instant coffee, thanks to a Japanese scientist, Dr. Satori Kato. While he didn't invent the beverage (a New Zealander named David Strang had beaten him to it a few years earlier), Kato couldn't have picked a better, or more visible, venue. Nine years later, the first instant coffee would come to market in the United States. Nestle would refine the manufacturing process in 1938, and GI's who'd grown used to instant while serving overseas would help cement its popularity on the home front after World War II.
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There are two manufacturing processes for making instant coffee. The coffee is first roasted, ground and extracted. Then, that extract is subjected to either spray drying or freeze drying. Spray drying is faster and cheaper, and involves spraying a fine mist of coffee into a large heated drying tank. The result is a very fine powder that's then put through an additional step so that its particulate matter is a more usable size. Freeze drying is somewhat more complicated and more expensive, but delivers a higher-quality product. The brewed coffee is flash-frozen and then placed in a drying chamber. The coffee is then subjected to heat in a vacuum. The vapor that results is removed by a condenser, after which the granules that are left behind are packaged and sold. Instant has its advantages. It's very shelf-stable, it's highly portable (great for camping and backpacking), it lasts for years, and can even be used as a film developer.* It also has its disadvantages, among them a lower caffeine content, possible carcinogenic effects, and interference in iron absorption. And that's before we get to the fact that it doesn't taste nearly as good as brewed coffee. But it's one of the technological marvels of the last century, and a lot of people still can't imagine life without it. Further Resources: on instant coffee Learn more about the various World's Fairs: Milan, New York (1964-65 and 1939/40), and Buffalo (1901). Learn more about developing film with Caffenol via PhotoJojo and Rochester Institute of Technology And check out this video on the making of instant coffee: