A piece of Colorado is being sent into space with the launch of SpaceX Crew-5. In addition to the four astronauts heading to the International Space Station, 256 servings of instant coffee from Crested Butte's First Ascent Coffee Roasters
will be on board for the first time.
NASA's Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata from Japan and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina were all chosen for the mission, which was delayed several days due to Hurricane Ian but is now set for October 5. The historic launch will see Mann become the first Native American woman to reach space, and Kikina will be the first cosmonaut to fly to the orbiting lab with SpaceX.
When Mark Drucker and Sam Higby, the co-owners of First Ascent, received an email last August inquiring about their ability to produce a large quantity of instant coffee, they weren't certain what to expect. Details were vague, but the sender had a nasa.gov handle, so their answer was "Yes," and they sent samples of the company's three varieties of instant coffee to the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston. As it was explained to Higby, an unnamed astronaut had sampled five or six instant coffees, but all fell short. Another astronaut, who happens to be a backpacker, recommended First Ascent.
One year later, the company received word from procurement officers at NASA, who placed a bulk order for its dark roast, Dawn Patrol, which it fulfilled in September. NASA repackages individual servings into adult Capri Sun-like containers with a valve for hot or cold water and a straw, ensuring that the liquid is secure and able to be consumed in space.
First Ascent can also be enjoyed on Earth.
This isn't the first time First Ascent has received national attention. In 2019, Outside
magazine named its coffee the Best All-Around Instant Coffee. While it ships nationally, its instant coffees are available locally at the Denver REI Flagship store and other gear stores across the Front Range, as well as several other mountain towns. Although instant coffee can be enjoyed anywhere by anyone, First Ascent's version was crafted with the outdoors (though not necessarily outer space) in mind.
The method of freeze-drying to preserve food has a long history, but NASA played a large role
in the development of the process in the '60s and '70s, as well as its introduction to the American people. While NASA continues to work on ways to make freeze-dried food taste better and reconstitute more efficiently, the process is now mainstream enough that anyone can create and consume freeze-dried foods (and beverages) — not just astronauts.
Drucker, who started First Ascent in 2014 after starting as a home roaster, came up with the idea while on a backpacking trip in the Maroon Bells. He and his wife had brought a full brew setup, including a French press, coffee beans and a grinder, but all along they lamented the weight.
For his part, Higby, a climber, didn't even bother with a coffee setup, and instead relied on Gu packets for his caffeine fix. All wondered separately, "Why does instant coffee taste so bad, and can we make it better?" When Drucker returned home from that trip in 2017, he began experimenting with methods of freeze-drying. Higby says that even the prototypes tasted better than what was on the market for instant coffee at the time.
"We’re unique in that as far as we can tell, we’re the only folks that are doing it from roast to packaging in one facility," says Higby. Although its cafe closed in 2018, the company roasts twice a week at its commercial roaster in Crested Butte. While some beans are packaged and shipped out right away, others are ground, brewed and put into a freeze-dryer. After all the moisture is removed, the product is packaged.
Compared to traditional instant coffee, First Ascent sources green beans and roasts and then brews for taste, not for maximum yield. Higby thinks this is why its coffee tastes better than most instant coffees out there, and why the product was chosen by that unnamed astronaut.
"The space station definitely looks cool, but it’s not very warm feeling, and I know, for me, being able to drink a good cup of coffee every day definitely helps," says Higby, who's happy to help "provide creature comforts and a bit of home to those folks."