The reason instant coffee often tastes like scrapings from the inside of your oven is it starts out as a poor-quality (read: cheap) raw product. Some companies also introduce additives to augment or simulate flavours. Then there’s the murkiness around sourcing practices and ethics – two contentious keynotes of contemporary coffee discourse – that arises when brands scoop up massive quantities of beans at low prices.
Voilà is doing things differently. It’s an instant-coffee manufacturer using 100 per cent traceable, specialty-grade coffee – beans that score 85-plus points on the SCAA scale, an industry benchmark – from start to finish. The company uses a freeze-drying method, which is one of two common methods in the instant industry.
Founder Kent Sheridan explains it as “pouring brewed (or pre-extracted) coffee onto slabs that are refrigerated to sub-zero temperatures. Then, with the use of a vacuum chamber” and some fancy physics, “the water is slowly removed from the frozen slabs, leaving soluble coffee crystals”. He reckons he’s onto something, and is keeping the all-important brewing recipe under wraps.
Voilà is not a coffee roaster. Instead, it partners with roasters from around America and now, the world – Sheridan and Melbourne-based roaster St ALi and its founder Salvatore Malatesta have collaborated to release Finca La Laja, a coffee sourced from James Fernandez’s five-hectare plantation in Colombia’s El Tambo region. It presents with tasting notes of plum, brown sugar and florals.
At $16 for 25 grams (five by five-gram sachets), it won’t upend the bulk-buy supermarket competition. But, even at that price point, this first release sold out in just three days.
It marks St ALi’s first foray into a specialty-grade instant coffee. “We’re early adopters of anything we think is new and cool,” Malatesta says. “We decided that a collaboration with those guys was a must.”
“It follows on the molecular movement,” he adds. “Chefs like Heston [Blumenthal] have been dehydrating things for years.” Dehydration intensifies flavour and extends the life of a product.
Broadsheet had to see if the hype was true. We did an in-house flavour comparison, pitting Voilà against a couple of the big names in the instant business. It was the clear winner, with a flavour comparable to a pour over, but not quite the game-changer we’d hoped for.
“What you miss out on, what we haven’t replicated yet, is the bouquet,” Malatesta says.
There’s also a quality to the body that's distinctly instant – a flatness that misses out on the juiciness of a filter or espresso. So while Voilà will likely win best on ground against direct competition, a well-made pour-over will beat it for flavour and subtlety every time.
It also looks very, very different to other instant coffee products. But that's a good thing.
“The problem with instant coffee is that it’s ugly – ugly and disgusting,” Malatesta says.
There’s no denying that instant coffee is screaming for an image makeover, and Voilà has given it one with its slick, recyclable packaging and flip-top box.
St ALi instant coffee is available online and in St ALi and Sensory Lab locations.