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EXPLAINED: How Switzerland won the global race to invent instant coffee

In our series on quirky Swiss facts, we bring you the story of the Swiss inventor who finally cracked the instant coffee code.

A person spoons instant coffee granules into a cup. Photo by Amr Taha on Unsplash
A person spoons instant coffee granules into a cup. Photo by Amr Taha on Unsplash

It might not be a favourite of coffee snobs, but in desperate times – think camping, travelling or staying over at your weird tea-drinking friend – a cup of hot instant coffee can really do the trick. 

But while the beverage is now consumed the world over, few know that one of the most popular ways of drinking it – from its instant form – was invented in Switzerland. 

The Swiss are an inventive bunch. For a diverse country with a small population, Switzerland has made a number of notable novel contributions to the world. 

Swiss inventions include some well known ones including muesli, Helvetica font and the Swiss army knife, while some lesser known Swiss contributions are absinthe, milk chocolate, cellophane and LSD. 

And while the Swiss love their coffee – which other country has a strategic coffee reserve as per government law? – the road to inventing instant was not an easy one. 

READ: Understanding Switzerland’s strategic coffee reserves

The worldwide search for quicker coffee

Instant coffee in its current form was invented in Switzerland, but the Swiss were not the first to try. 

Given the benefits of coffee and its popularity, cultures around the world had sought to find a way to make it easier to consume. 

READ: Where is the cheapest coffee in Switzerland?

READ: Swiss coffee prices drop for the first time ever

The first incarnation of what would become instant coffee was developed in the mid-1800s during the American Civil War. 

The substance – which resembled a paste more than today’s granules – contained not only coffee but also milk and sugar, and was designed to be added to hot water.

It was quickly discontinued due to its unpopularity with the troops of the Union army and the quest for a better tasting instant went on. 

In the latter part of the 1800s, inventors in both New Zealand and France both patented a powdered form of coffee which would dissolve in water, although it lacked the taste and quality to be marketed in a widespread fashion. 

Along came Switzerland…

Enter Max Morgenthaler, a chemist who moved to Vevey on Lake Geneva to work for a small start-up Swiss food company called Nestle in 1929. 

Against the backdrop of the market volatility that would bring about the Great Depression, coffee prices had plunged significantly – so much so that coffee beans had become worthless. 

Nestle saw the solution of avoiding such shocks as creating a water-soluble coffee which would be able to withstand price shocks. While Morgenthaler worked on the project for three years, he was unable to crack the code – with the project eventually canned (so to speak). 

Image: Nestle

Refusing to be deterred, Morgenthaler continued the project at home – eventually making a breakthrough in 1937, five years after being assigned the project. 

The product would become known as ‘Nescafe’ and would spread across the globe – growing in popularity during the Second World War – to become a ubiquitous presence in pretty much every cupboard. 

While the product was popular on both sides during the Second World War, Morgenthaler would later say that he was proud that his product would later be considered an integral part of the post-war rebuilding efforts. 

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Kaffee und Kuchen: The history behind a very German tradition

This leisurely afternoon ritual is key to the German lifestyle.

Kaffee und Kuchen: The history behind a very German tradition
A family takes part in the Kaffee und Kuchen tradition in Zellingen, Bavaria. Photo: DPA

The mid-afternoon is a signal to many Germans for a traditional pick-me-up in the form of “Kaffee und Kuchen” – literally, coffee and cake. 

Be it with coworkers, friends, or family, the culture of “Kaffeeklatsch” (the act of catching up over the two delights) enjoys nationwide popularity, typically between the hours of 3 and 4pm. 

READ ALSO: Nine German treats you'll want to eat right now (and one you won't)

You might invite guests to your home to show off your own hand-baked goods, or if you prefer to trust someone else to take care of the baking instead, countless cafes and the more authentic ‘Konditorei’ are dotted all over the country – and as a general rule of thumb, the more old-fashioned, the better.

A typical selection at a Konditorei. Photo: DPA

A longstanding tradition

The origins of the beloved custom can be traced back to the 17th century, when coffee was first imported to Germany. In these times, it was only the aristocracy who would indulge in the pastime, but by the 19th century the indulgent treat became more accessible, and the combination has since become a cultural staple.

Whilst the working world often only allows for a quick, shop-bought treat during the week, Germans will often make use of the weekends to celebrate with large pots of coffee and a selection of delicious sweet treats.

READ ALSO: A brewing moment: Germany's baristas compete to create world's top coffee

And despite being somewhat comparable to the English custom of ‘afternoon tea’, the cakes you’ll find in Germany are nowhere near as dainty.

Expect to see a big slab of decadent Bienenstich, Erdbeertorte or Baumkuchen enticing you from behind the glass counter of the patisserie. 

Regional variations

Exactly how your ‘coffee and cake’ set-up may look differs across the country and time of year, as traditional German cakes vary according to both region and season. 

In the Black Forest, cafes are known for their Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – indulgent layers of whipped cream and chocolate sponge (with added cherry liquor as the secret ingredient) are topped with chocolate shavings and cherries. 

A slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Photo: DPA

In Bavaria, it’s the Prinzregententorte, which combines seven layers of sponge and chocolate buttercream to symbolise its seven districts, finished with apricot jam, dark chocolate and cream. 

Frankfurt’s speciality is the Frankfurter Kranz, a Bundt cake layered with jam and buttercream and sprinkled with caramelised nuts. Over the festive period, Germans enjoy Stollen, a Christmas speciality from Saxony – a fruit bread made of nuts, spices and dried fruit and coated with icing sugar. 

Bringing together the chance to catch up with friends and to sample some delicious German delicacies, indulging in ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ really is the perfect way to spend your Mittagspause (afternoon break).