Q. Dear Umbra,
I am curious about ground vs. instant coffee. Which requires most energy input?

Carol C.
Charlottesville, VA

A. Dearest Carol,

Here in the City of the Maximally Caffeinated*, where all new citizens are granted a free French press and city council meetings begin with a group triple shot of espresso, your ground vs. instant coffee query would generate some fierce opinions — about taste, that is. Far be it from me to call my fellow Seattle sippers snobs, but I fear anyone who dared to serve instant java ’round these parts would be bludgeoned into unconsciousness under a mountain of pour-over cones and burr grinders. But unhappily for those whose opinions about coffee run as strong as a cold brew, we do have some evidence that the lowly instant Joe may be the better pick, environmentally speaking.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I can say this based on three recent studies. In one 2009 life cycle assessment, researchers compared instant coffee (more technically, “spray-dried soluble coffee,” yum) to drip filter coffee and K-cup-style capsules in terms of energy use, carbon emissions, and water use. Their findings: Instant coffee beats the other two on all counts. The number-crunchers for this analysis come from a consulting firm that works for Nestle, maker of Nescafe instant coffee, so we’ll take that with a grain of sugar.

But another 2009 study, by Dave Reay, a carbon expert at the University of Edinburgh, came to the same conclusion. He reports that filter coffee produces 50 percent more carbon emissions than instant; by his reckoning, drip coffee costs about 125 grams of carbon per cup, while instant creates just 80 grams. Why? The roasting process for regular drip is more resource-intensive, and shipping light, packable instant grits uses less transportation energy.

The third analysis, a 2011 report out of Switzerland, also gave the edge to instant, but only by a slim margin. Both types soundly defeated capsule brews — and really, with all its packaging woes, who’s surprised about that one? Finally, the report argued that the way the coffee is grown and processed matters a lot more than how you end up consuming it. (Other estimates put the production/use balance at closer to 50-50.)

All this is to say, Carol, that you now have a “Nyah-nyah” rejoinder to the coffee snobs of the world if you prefer your brew quick and easy. But I’m inclined to agree with that last report that how our morning pick-me-ups are produced matters quite a bit: Sustainably grown and fair-trade beans mean greater forest biodiversity, fewer pesticides, more trees, more justice for agricultural workers, and happier, healthier songbirds. If you can find an organic instant brand with a respected eco-label (such as Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, and Fair Trade), so much the better. But often, instant brews use lower-quality, full-sun-grown robusta beans rather than environmentally preferable Arabica beans, so don’t assume any old instant brand is your best bet.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If you do find yourself a favorite dissolvable treat, don’t forget to minimize energy use on your end. Don’t prepare any more hot water than you need — doing so only wastes electricity and water — and heat it with an energy-efficient electric kettle, which bests microwaves and gas stoves. And skip the splash of cream if you can stand it: Your coffee break’s carbon footprint will shoot up with the inclusion of any dairy products.

Finally, Carol, thanks for being a conscientious coffee drinker. If we all paid as much attention to our mugs’ environmental impact as some of us do to the minutia of Chemex vs. Clover, I daresay the world would be a slightly perkier place.


*I’m talking about Grist’s hometown of Seattle, of course, and I’ve taken a few liberties with our municipal signifiers. We’re actually the Emerald City, new citizens are issued rain slickers, and city meetings kick off with a salmon bake. Naturally.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!