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Instant coffee - history, current technology,

and potential for a low energy future

Thanatad Ruengsuksilp
Magdalene College

Instant coffee is an economically important commodity, with market value of 616m (Leatherhead Food Research,
2009). Instant coffee mass production dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and since then, roasting
formulations for unique flavours and aroma has been developed to serve the demand of the consumers, along with
process developments which has enabled such feat. Instant coffee processing is counter-current water extraction
of roast ground coffee, followed by drying of the extractants; and the grade of instant coffee is ultimately
determined by the amount of flavours and aroma retained after the processing. In addition, efforts has been made
to re-create the texture of coffee from coffee machine with self-foaming instant coffee.
The most economical option is hot-air drying, whilst the more high-end coffee is made via vacuum freeze drying.
With ever-increasing pressure on low energy future, for both financial and environmental benefits, much of the
research has gone into modified forms of the freeze-drying techniques to lower the energy usage. In addition,
efforts has gone into exploring methods of recovering energy in coffee grounds, the waste generated after
extraction process.

1. Introduction
Production of instant coffee has been invented and continuously developed to refine the process for higher
efficiency and increase its similarity to roast and ground and coffee. Instant coffee is made by countercurrent
water extraction of roasted and ground coffee, typically with a blend of Brazillian, Central American and African
robusta coffees (Kirk-Othmer, 1979).
Making instant coffee can be thought of post-processing of making conventional coffee. Degree of roast depends
on species of coffee beans, blend composition, and the flavour and aroma is largely due to the breakdown and
interaction of amino acids, derived from soluble proteins, which accounts for 10-12% of green coffee. As of
current, 850 aroma compounds has been identified from roast and ground coffee (I.D. Fisk et al, 2012), and many
techniques has been developed to minimise the loss of these compounds.
With regards to the economics, the total market value of instant coffee is 616m, accounting for 81% of coffee
total market value (Leatherhead Food Research, 2009). In addition, there has been a trend of strong market
growth, with premium instant coffee sector growing by almost 8%, and super-premium sector growing by 9%. An
even stronger growth trend is organic and Fairtrade sectors, which has experienced double digit growths with their
instant varieties. With considerations to future competitors, three major players has been controlling the UK retail
instant coffee market shares: Nestl (48%), Kraft (23%), Supermarket own-label (12%).

2. Brief history
Instant coffee became a popular consumer product after World War II, however, patent literature on instant coffee
processes date back to 1865 (U.S. Pat. 48,268). The 19th century patents refer to liquid extraction and hot air
drying processes which leads to commercialising under brands such as Strangs Coffee, (Strang, 1890). The first
powder instant coffee, however, was introduced in 1901 by a Japanese Chemist, Sartori Kato, at Pan-American
Exposition (Rodney, 2005). It was only after 1910, where George Constant Louis Washington, who has developed
his own process, commercialised the powder instant coffee under his own brand (Rodney, 2005).
Nestl has been the worlds largest manufacturer of coffee with over 50% global market share, and its history can
provide valuable insights for our company. The following information has been cited from the company history of
Nestl (Nestl company website, 2013), which is not recorded in standard sources. One of the first attempts to
preserve the aroma of coffee was made by a Swiss team led by Dr. Max Rudolf Morganthaler in the 1930s, using
carbohydrates additives. Nestl then started commercialising instant coffee under its brand Nescaf since 1938;
with, 3/4 of its worldwide production was consumed by Switzerland, UK and US troops during the World War II
(1939 - 1945). In 1952, a innovation at a Nescaf factory in France made which eliminated the need for
carbohydrate additives, Nescaf Blend 37. Instant coffee made from freeze-drying process, which better preserve
the smell of the coffee, was introduced much later in 1965 by Nestl, under the brand Nescaf Gold Blend.

3. Current technology
3.1 Countercurrent Water Extraction
In most processes, the components of roasted coffee are first extracted with boiling water at atmospheric
temperature, which is followed by pressure extraction, where the higher temperature causes hydrolysis of
hemicelluloses and other components of the roasted coffee, making them water soluble, (Kirk-Othmer, 1979).
Countercurrent water extraction is carried out in percolators, cylindrical vessels, typically with height-to-diameter
ratio range of 7:1 to 4:1, operated in semicontinuous units of 5-10 percolators. The feed and exit water
temperatures with no heating on percolators ranges from 154 to 182oC, and 60-82oC respectively (Kirk-Othmer,
1979). Plate heat exchangers can be used to minimise flavor, aroma loss, and effluent extract temperature. The
yield depends majorly on properties of the composite coffee blend, operating temperature and percolation time,
and the range of the yield is 24-48%. The yield can be controlled directly by adjusting the weight of soluble solids
Good flavor retention and reduction of evaporative load is achieved by having high soluble concentration,
typically ranges from 20-30%. Prior drying, some processors increase concentration of the extract solution
processors using vacuum evaporation, and use centrifugation to remove small insoluble particles. In addition,
aroma substances can be recovered at percolator vents, or collected at coffee grinders (Kirk-Othmer, 1979).
3.2 Drying
There are two drying processes currently used in the industry, with hot-air spray drying as the more economical,
and vacuum freeze drying premium coffee with high aroma retention. In general, freeze-drying costs 4-8 times
higher (Flink, 1977a; Malfart, 1991).
3.2.1 Hot-air spray drying
Pressure nozzles are used to spray small coffee particles into a flow of hot, co-current air. The air inlet and outlet
temperature ranges from 200-260oC, and 107-121oC respectively. The powder is then agglomerated with steam
and low level heat, (Macleod & McKittrick 2008).
Spray dryers are typically made of stainless steel, where the particles of dried instant coffee are collected at the
conical bottom through a rotatory valve. In addition, dust collection systems such as cyclones or bag filters needs
to be incorporated to the system (Foote & Sivetz, 1963).
3.2.2 Vacuum Freeze Drying
In freeze drying, coffee granules needs to be rapidly frozen, as slow freezing leads to large ice crystals and porous
product. Water is removed through sublimation of ice crystals to water vapour under very high vacuum,
approximately 1/1500 atmosphere. Drying chamber is then warmed by radiation, and previously frozen water
expands to 10 times its previous volume, giving exit temperature is ranges from 38-49oC (Meyer et al. 1908). This
energy intensive method gives lower yield, but better retention of volatile aromatics.

3.3 Packaging
In Europe, instant coffee is packaged in paper, plastic, glass jars, plug-closure metal containers with foil liners.
Protective packaging prevent moisture pick-up to prevent caking and flavor changes. Recently, US producers
incorporate natural coffee aroma in the powder. To prevent reactions of aromatic compounds with oxygen,
vacuum or inert-gas packing was introduced (Kirk-Othmer, 1979).

3.4 Self-foaming
In the 2005, Nestl patented its self-foaming instant coffee to improve the texture of milk froth, and
commercialised under the brand, Nescaf Caf Menu. According to the claims in the patent (Fritz, M., 2003), the
invention is mainly concerned with oligofructose, which serves as a filler, together with soluble coffee solid,
constituting of 35wt% of dry foam (matrix) mass. It has been found that the oligofructose has little effect on the
This is an attempt to recreate the texture, colour and mouthfeel of the freshly brewed espresso from coffee
machines. It has been noted in the patent that the foam stays longer on the surface due to higher stability for higher
foam volume.

4. Potential Low Energy Future

4.1 Improving Vacuum Freeze Drying
In freeze drying process, freezing only takes 4% of the total energy (Ratti, 2001), hence improvements need to
focus on: improve heat transfer to help sublimation, reduce drying time to reduce vacuum, avoid using condensers.

4.1.1 Adsorption Freeze-drying

This technique involves the use of a desiccant to create a high vapor drive at low temperatures (Bell & Mellor,
1990a), and this can lead to 50% reduction of the total costs. Similarly, this leads to lower product quality (Bell &
Mellor, 1990b)
4.1.2 Atmospheric Spray-Freeze Drying (ASFD)
ASFD is injecting spherical droplets, atomisation, of a solution into a
stream of fast moving cold dry air. This has been shown to decrease the
energy requirement by 34% compared to vacuum freeze drying (Wolff &
Gibert, 1987).




ASFD is based on the finding that drying rate is a function of partial

pressure of water, not total pressure (Meryman, 1961). Small particle size
means large surface/volume ratio, yielding more uniform convective heat
and mass transfer, shortening the time for the freezing stage. In addition,
there is greater control over the microstructure, with improved particle size
and homogeneity of crystal size of granule produced.


However, drying times are increased by 1-3 times as the use of atmospheric
pressure slows the kinetics of heat and mass transfers (Wolff & Gibert
1990). In addition, product quality was not sustained with the risk of
product collapse (Lombraa & Villarn, 1997), and this is being addressed
Figure 1: Energy usage on conventional by current research (MacLeod & McKittrick 2004).
vacuum freeze-drying.
4.1.3 Microwave heating
The advantage of this technique is that the energy input is not absorbed by the dry region, and that the frozen
region has high thermal conductivity, leading to to 60-75% reduction in drying time (Rosenberg & Bgl, 1987).
This has shown much promise as the product quality is similar to conventional freeze-drying, however, the process
cost is not reduced. In addition, technical problems has prevented the industry from adopting the method, such as,
corona discharges, melting and overheating of the frozen region, non-uniform heating.

Rate of Net Energy Produced (MJ/hr)

4.2 Energy Extraction from Coffee Grounds

In the low energy future, to reduce the amount of energy required to run an instant coffee plant, it is possible to
recover the energy from coffee grounds. A review of methods (De Villiers & Moubray, 2011), performed in the
context of Kraft Food, Banbury (2011), which manufactures 16,250 tonne/year of coffee, and produces 10,000
tons/year of coffee ground, suggests that anaerobic digestion is the most economical method in the future.
The current method used as the baseline is
burning the coffee grounds in a modified cyclone
wood chip burner, and this is highly energy
intensive due to the high water content (65wt%).
Drying the coffee ground before burning is
inherently unsafe, with risk of dust explosion.


Anaerobic digestion is done by using a consortia

of bacteria, and the advantage of this is not
having to dry the coffee grounds. The bacteria
would convert glucose and amino acids into
turned into methane.


Many possibilities has not been explored, which

makes it plausible to believe that it is possible to
extract more energy from this process in the
future. Experiments performed for direct
Figure 2: Comparison of rate of net energy produced from
on different consortia of bacteria in
different methods of energy extraction
the context of coffee grounds is limited and crude.
De Villiers & Moubray (2011) compared only two inoculates the only other work (Boopathy, 1987) compared 3
inoculum. In addition, unknown inhibitory component has been reported, although not characterised (Lane, 1983;
De Villiers & Moubray, 2011).



Biodiesel Anaerobic Digestion

5. Conclusion
Instant coffee has been developed since 19th century, and its has grown into a prominent industry. Much of the
core principles remain, i.e. the use of counter-current water extraction and drying. Previous work has addressed
flavours and aroma, leading to the use of vacuum freeze-drying. With ever-increasing pressure to reduce the
energy requirements, technologies such as atmospheric spray-freeze drying and adsorption freeze drying, energy
recovery from waste via anaerobic digestion has been developed. Much work would be required in tuning the
techniques for use on instant coffee industry.

6. References
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50(2), 48-53
Bell, G. A., & J. D. Mellor (1990a). Adsorption freeze-drying. Food Australia, 42(5), 226-227
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Date retrieved: Oct 16, 2013
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