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First instant coffee

I always assumed instant coffee was a modern invention, but it turns out I was very wrong. The earliest known recorded reference was for a ‘coffee compound’ (essentially a powder that dissolves in hot water) created and patented by an Englishman called John Dring in 1771.

Dring was a Londoner. From historical records, we know he lived in Tooley Street, Southwark, just on the south side of London Bridge. From his warrant on 13th February 1771 (a warrant was the application to law officers to draft a patent of invention) his profession was listed as ‘grocer’. But from his patent, which was awarded on 6th March but was only officially drafted six months later, on 5th July 1771, he calls himself a ‘Coffeeman’.

To all to whom these presents shall come, I, John Dring, of Tooley Street, Southwark, in the County of Surry, Coffeeman, send greeting.

We don’t know everything about his coffee invention, but patent No. 984 does reveal some interesting facts about how he went about creating this very earliest version of instant coffee.

Dring’s preparation of coffee Turkey and West India coffee, when fresh roasted, is ground into a fine flour, then worked with fresh butter and sewett on an iron plate, heated with a gentle fire, till it acquires the consistence of a thick paste; one sort flavored with venela, cinnamon, and musk, another sort made up with coffee alone; both sorts put in tin moulds first prepared with lucee oil.

It seems his ‘coffee compound’ was more like a reduced and ground-up paste that was moulded into solid ‘cakes’ that the drinker would break into bits and dissolve in hot water. And it came in different flavours!

Dring, it seemed, had form when it came to ‘instant’ inventions. Three years earlier, he was issued patent No. 906 on 25th November 1768 for the “Manufacture Of Ink Into A Solid Body, Called Cake Ink”. Like the coffee, the ink was dried and the user had to break a piece off and add water before starting to write. What a creative fellow!

It’s worth giving a bit of historical and coffee context to John Dring’s invention. King George III was on the throne. The American War of Independence, between the UK and the USA, was in full swing. Captain James Cook had just discovered Australia and the Industrial Revolution was steaming ahead. Coffee had been around for well over 100 years in the UK, with coffee houses springing up all over London. And its appeal was still growing. It started as the drink for the curious, the adventurous and the rich, but had become a surprisingly democratic pastime in London – anyone, of any status or education, could drink in a coffee house, rubbing shoulders with commoners, intellectuals and people of different classes. Anyone, in fact, who could spare 1 penny to buy a cup (which included as many refills as you wanted!).

We don’t know how popular John Dring’s invention became (but it is thought to have spoiled too quickly, perhaps the addition of the butter, to be a viable commercial product), but his was the first step in a longer journey to creating a new, more convenient and more affordable way of enjoying coffee.

First instant coffee in America

The next recorded foray into the instant coffee world wasn’t for another 90 years, in 1861, and it came from across the Atlantic Ocean.

Like in England, coffee was hugely popular in the United States. In fact, since the Boston Tea Party in 1773 (where a British tax on tea essentially sparked the War of Independence) probably more so – the bean had almost been adopted as the national drink.

Two things happened that led to the re-invention of instant coffee. In the early 1830s, President Jackson ordered that a soldier’s daily ration of booze be substituted for coffee and sugar (I wonder how that went down…?). But of course, it had to be given in bean form – so each soldier would then have to carry, roast, grind and brew the coffee themselves, an incredibly laborious and time-consuming process. This was also a logistical nightmare for the military, who had to lug tons of coffee beans and sugar to troops all over the world. The second pivotal point was the invention of condensed milk by Gail Borden in 1856 (when he was granted a patent). It gave the US military an idea: If you could condense milk then why not coffee?

And so just at the start of the American Civil War in 1861, the Army and Navy started investigating the possibility of a concentrated ‘instant’ coffee, putting the brief out to three innovative manufacturers: the New York Condensed Milk Company (owned by Gail Borden), the American Desiccating Company and H. A. Tilden & Co. Trial samples were made by all three, with H. A. Tilden & Co eventually winning the deal – and ultimately creating a snappily-titled product called “George Hummel’s Premium Essence of Coffee”.

It was a combination of coffee, evaporated milk and sugar that had been concentrated and dried into a powder. The full coffee experience in one cup! It essentially saved the military from having to haul all those beans, milk and sugar across the country, freeing up valuable transport space for weapons and other goods.

Presented in a small cylindrical tin that claimed “...Coffee made by this Essence preserves perfectly the real taste of the best Coffee and will have a more delicate and finer flavor, a finer color, and will be much more wholesome than pure Coffee...”.

In theory it was the perfect invention, but in practice it was universally hated by the troops who had to drink it, regularly being compared to ‘axle grease’. With so many refusing to consume it, it was quietly but quickly discontinued.

First commercial soluble instant coffee

Roll on a few more years to 1889, when David Strang of Invercargill, New Zealand, made a new important breakthrough – he created a soluble and stable dry coffee powder that was capable of being sold commercially.

He was owner of the Coffee and Spice Works factory, later called the Invercargill Steam Coffee Mills, based in Esk Street, where it is said he produced spices, jellies, essences and coffee. He was an innovative man with an innovative brain, filing patent No. 3518 for a "soluble coffee powder" under the name Strang's Coffee, the first of its kind. He was also awarded many other patents relating to coffee, including for a "coffee-roasting apparatus of novel design" and “Strang's Eclipse Hot Air Grain Dryer”, all of which perfected his method.

His invention was called ‘Strang’s Patent Soluble Dry Coffee-powder’ and was made by blowing hot air over freshly brewed coffee until it evaporated into a powder, much like he’d done for his spices. It was certainly more commercially viable as it was lighter than previous instant coffees, which were brick-like, so was easier and more economic to ship. It also had a longer shelf life. And because he had experience in retailing his spices, Strang packaged it in the same kind of tins, marketing his invention successfully as a drink of convenience that could be enjoyed anywhere. One of his ads reads:

“The most enjoyable drink you can have at Picnics, Camps and Out of Doors is this delicious Coffee. Made in a minute, milk and sugar to taste. Far superior to any so-called coffee essence.”

Of course, today’s more modern instant coffees are made using different processes, by either a freeze-drying or a spray-drying, but Strang’s hot air drying technique was the start of commercial instant coffee as we know it today.


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