Astronauts wanted better coffee on board the ISS — so NASA reached out to Crested Butte, Colorado’s First Ascent Instant Coffee to fill a stellar order.
The email arrived in First Ascent’s inbox and confused company co-owner, Sam Higby. It was a very short message, from a “navy.NASA” email address that read, “Can you accommodate a large bulk order of instant coffee?”
That piqued Higby’s curiosity. So he followed up and discovered that he was talking with a Navy test pilot from Colorado, who’d been picked for a mission to ISS. The pilot explained how NASA lets astronauts select their own menus to take to space with them. But when he had tried their instant coffees, he had been disappointed. They were all terrible.
“One of his co-astronauts is a backpacker and hiker in her time off and had discovered our coffee,” Higby said. The pilot tried First Ascent and was apparently blown away by the difference in quality. “So they bought 250 servings.“
On October 5, those 250 servings of First Ascent Instant Coffee, brewed and dehydrated in Crested Butte, ascended into the stars on Space X’s Crew 5 mission. It’s heading for the space station with a handful of astronauts, where it’ll keep the crew caffeinated and energized for long days spent running tests and operating the ISS.
“Our coffee was really developed so that you could have delicious coffee in really hard to be places,” Mark Drucker, the founder and co-owner of First Ascent said. “And, you know, at the time we came up with it, I never could have imagined that a ‘hard to be place’ would also include space.”
First Ascent Instant Coffee: From the Fam to the Space Station
First Ascent is based out of Crested Butte, Colo. The company started when Drucker and his partner Allison were on a backpacking trip in the Maroon Bells. They’d brought all of their coffee nerd equipment with them: fresh beans, a hand grinder, a french press, the works. But Drucker said that as the weight of all that java gear started to weigh on them, a conversation started that would change their lives.
“I don’t remember if it was Allison or I, but we just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just drink instant coffee instead? And it actually tasted good?'” Drucker recalled.
The idea struck them both as a huge opportunity. So when they got back to Crested Butte, they started prototyping their first batches of First Ascent Instant Coffee. And just like any other gourmet artisan coffee company, they put a lot of attention to detail and care into every step of their coffee-making process from bean to backpack to space station.
Repackaged for the Stars
“[Our coffee] is going into [NASA’s] food labs. And from there, they transfer it into these pouches that are made to have hot water added directly to the pouch,” Drucker explained. (Not totally unlike the pouches of certain backpacking meals that are rated for boiling water.)
Opening a regular pouch of dehydrated coffee in zero gravity would be a messy ordeal. These special pouches are NASA’s way around that.
Check out the video below for a visual of how astronauts make their joe in space.
“This was an idea that was born in the mountains of Colorado. So much of the Colorado economy is based around space,” co-founder Drucker said. “From research at CU, to the mirrors on the new James Webb, to Lockheed being here. So here we are playing another small, small part in that.”
Behind the Scenes at First Ascent Coffee
“Sourcing is such a huge part of what we do,” Drucker said. First Ascent gets samples from small farms and coffee producers from all around the world. The brand holds “cupping” sessions, where it blind samples the different coffees. First Ascent then orders green coffee beans in bulk to its factory space just outside of Crested Butte.
“Since we’re starting with good coffee and we don’t have to roast it as dark, then when we brew it, we’re using a traditional brewing method,” Drucker explained. “When that brewing is done, this slurry of coffee gets poured into a press.”
What comes out tastes like high-quality espresso, which goes straight into the dehydrator. That process takes all of the moisture out of the coffee. What’s left behind is instant coffee: just add water.
And no one else is doing it quite like them. While other companies have ventured into the realm of gourmet instant coffee, none are sourcing green beans straight from farms, and then roasting, brewing, dehydrating, and packaging it all on their own. Higby explained, “Other than growing the coffee, we’re doing it all right here.”