Who knew that a Korean drink made with much-denigrated instant coffee could produce a sought-after specialty drink? But it does, and Dalgona coffee is simple to make, lovely to behold, and provides a happy jolt of sophisticated caffeine in either hot or cold form.
Dalgona seems like a crazy drink for a coffee lover even to consider. It’s a frothy concoction made with instant coffee, which is anathema to those who love specialty coffee from remote hillsides. But the fact is that instant coffee was once seen as something of a miraculous life-saver, first for soldiers in both world wars and then for harried housewives and businessmen in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s, and it came to dominate in less developed countries because it was cheap and fast, often sold loaded with sugar and powdered milk.
Consequently, it’s unlikely that Wine Spectator readers have tried instant coffee recently, despite the fact that freeze-dried coffee is superior to the older powdered varieties, and that Starbucks’ Via and other "high end" instants such as Sudden Coffee have upped the game somewhat in recent years. Even today, about half the world’s coffee is produced in soluble form.
Surprisingly, however, even though instant coffee is produced from mediocre beans, it is the basis of the Dalgona drinks that have created a sensation through social media. So I put aside my prejudices and tried it out.
Possibly the most exciting thing about Dalgona is that unlike the latest pourover kettles and so on, it is in fact a truly novel way to make coffee.
The drink craze all started in South Korea, credited to actor Jung Il-woo, who praised a whipped coffee during an appearance on a cheesy show called Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant. The actor praised the drink and said it was similar to Dalgona, a kind of frothy Korean honeycombed toffee. That’s how the drink got its name, though it doesn’t in fact have any of the toffee in it. (The drink is actually based on an older Indian whipped coffee beverage. It’s very similar to the Dalgona, but it combines the frothed coffee with the milk instead of leaving the two separate.)
In the world of social media and the pandemic, with people locked in their houses not only in South Korea but the rest of the world, the do-it-yourself drink soon proliferated on YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, coffee websites and elsewhere. That’s how it came to be called the "quarantine drink." It may be a passing fad, or it may actually stand the test of time, so I decided to try it myself.
I must admit that, although it does not have the specialty nuance I value, it’s fun to make and, if you like sweet coffee drinks, it’s quite tasty. And when the era of quarantine ends, it wouldn’t be a bad party drink. You can show off your frothing skills as your guests sit around the kitchen awaiting their treat. They will most likely experience that childlike moment of joy and surprise as the dark concoction forms into tan-colored peaks, and then the smooth, creamy mouthfeel as it hits the palate.
How To Make Dalgona
2 tablespoons instant coffee
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons hot water
1/2 cup milk or cream
Mix the first three ingredients with a blender until they form a foam, about 6 minutes. Dollop onto the milk or cream (it’s usually cold, but hot works too).
To make more, simply increase the amounts while keeping the proportions the same.