Caffeine ‘VIA’ Any Means Necessary? Examining Starbucks’ New Instant Brew

Starbucks' New VIA instant coffee

The latest in our “We Try it So You Don’t Have To” series, we see if there’s any redeeming value in the instant coffee offerings from the polarizing coffee giant Starbucks.

Legions of aficionados would agree that coffee is an instrumental part of their lives. Some are simply in search of a caffeine boost to start the day; others are enthusiasts who savor it as a gourmet experience, either provided by a specialty cafe or though careful home brewing.

Starbucks, in searching for the sweet spot between the two, has come out with VIA Ready Brew, a packaged, instant coffee purported to taste as good as the ubiquitous chain’s fresh-brewed offerings. While many might see that as a somewhat dubious goal, does the product live up to that claim? Can instant coffee have any redeeming value for fans of specialty coffee, or will it, even with VIA in the mix, remain the bailiwick of the Folgers, Nestles, and Taster’s Choices? And will fans of those freeze-dried granules find value in what may prove to be a step up in taste?

(It bears mentioning that Starbucks’ methodology for making instant coffee comes from a process it calls “microgrind technology”)

A Little Context

Starbucks presents something of a conundrum for many coffee enthusiasts. The company’s rapid expansion helped introduce the United States to a new kind of coffee culture. Freshly roasted beans were ground to order for espresso drinks; strongly prepared, piping hot drip coffee was available all day; the folks working the espresso machines ascended to a high position in the culinary pantheon.

It may not be to your taste for many reasons. “It tastes like it’s burnt,” is a common complaint about Starbucks coffee; others find it too strong. True coffee nerds resent that the corporation replaced the manual espresso machines with 100% automatic machines, both generally reducing the quality and changing something that took some manual magic into an exercise in button pushing.

But let’s give the Green Giant credit where credit is due. It introduced lots and lots of people to specialty coffee. It served as a bellwether; raising the coffee game a little higher across the board from where it had been before. It led many on a journey of further coffee discovery, wherein we gained the knowledge that now allows us to thumb our nose at Starbucks. It virtually guaranteed that we could seek at least passable java in any American city, and bypass crusty ladies in pink polyester and aprons calling us “hon.”

Luckily the American coffee scene has been less affected by the many infractions perpetrated by Starbucks that followed. There’s the aforementioned dumbing down of espresso creation. There’s the overreliance on cloying drinks more akin to milkshakes than coffee drinks. There’s the transformation of the cafes into de facto music retail stores. Some of the other big chains and ignorant newcomers have adopted the same, but today’s true innovators (take my favorite, Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, for example) are blessedly free of such baggage.

Indeed, while these have undoubtedly been profitable initiatives, to anyone more concerned with coffee itself, certainly, it appeared that Starbucks had taken its eyes off the prize. With so many wonderful other options having popped up — specialty roasters and cafes in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and, well, everywhere — there’s really no need to pin hopes on SBUX to further the industry along.

Some might say its latest move is an effort to go backwards.

To Market, To Market . . . Who’s a Pig?

Here’s a fact: Starbucks exists to make money and please shareholders, not necessarily in that order (though the two go together hand in hand).

Things started to slow down for company sales-wise for the first time in 2008. There was (and is) a down economy, competition from lower-priced, richer companies willing to spend money; and increasing competition from other specialty cafes and roasters. The instant coffee market, which is thought to be about $21 billion worldwide, may be rife with opportunity. Americans account for a mere 4% of instant coffee sales. The company can use its very own retail outlets to put VIA in front of customers already predisposed to Starbucks’ coffee and products.

The company — from the CEO on down — claims VIA’s comparable to coffee brewed at a Starbucks cafe. A way that fans can have the experience at home, on the go, at their convenience, as if kiosks in supermarkets and banks and full-service cafes on every city block weren’t enough. Further, it may represent a value proposition to regular customers, as a store-bought brew (drip) approaches $2. The instant is closer to a buck for an 8 oz. cup ($2.95 for a three pack; $9.95 for a 12 pack).

A value proposition for some; a luxury expenditure for others? In addition to Starbucks stores, Costco, Target, and camping-centric REI are selling the product out of the gate, with plans for grocery stores to carry it starting in 2010. Costco and Target both put a premium on value, and at least the former is sure to have the product below the usual sticker price (albeit you probably have to buy pounds of it). Those are good test markets to see if maybe the Maxwell House crowd might take a chance on something a little pricier that’s purported to be better and just as convenient.

Of course, SBUX customers, instant aficionados taking a chance, and those of us that are just curious won’t be back for more if the product stinks. On with the test.

The Proof is in the Cupping

If you’re inclined at all to try this product, you may as well do it today: there’s a buck off and a coupon for free “tall” cup of regular bundled with an in-store promotion at Starbucks.

I went for the Italian Roast variety, using the preparation method exactly as described on the packaging. I cross-compared it with my free “tall” cup of brew (which admittedly was of the ‘Pike’s Place’ roast) and with a pot of coffee I brewed at home in a Bodum Electric Vacuum Pot using beans from a local specialty brewer.

Something VIA definitely shares with bargain-bin instant coffee: a distinct bitterness, one that would not be cured with subsequent milk and sweetener tests. I might compare it to the bad flavors you get from over-extracting freshly ground coffee. And then the real flavor of the stuff was bit weak, certainly weaker than what I got from the store.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t horrible. But I can’t call it good.

I’ll take the 3 minutes at home to make coffee with a one-serving conical filter before I ever drink this stuff again. Or the 5 minutes for a French press. or the 8+ minutes for a moka pot, or my vac pot, or . . .

What would I use it for?

Well, it’s better than the coffee you get in packets in your hotel room, that’s for certain. Better than any other instant I’ve ever had. Better than what they typically serve on an airplane, so the fact that United Airlines is carrying it might work in your favor (though for me the Styrofoam taste from the cup itself tends to be problematic).

In summary: this product is no miracle, at least taste-wise or experience-wise. It may prove a miracle for Starbucks’ balance sheet — after all, like the Mencken quote says, “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

But I doubt people that enjoy specialty coffee will go for this. Starbucks has further removed itself from wanting to advance coffee as a sensual culinary experience and has instead gone for the quick-fix crowd.

Of course, if you want to give this stuff a go on a lark, you should. It’s cheap! But since I did try it . . . you really don’t have to.


5 comments for “Caffeine ‘VIA’ Any Means Necessary? Examining Starbucks’ New Instant Brew

  1. horsethiefbandit
    October 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I added three packets of the Italian Roast to my basic sweet cream ice cream recipe, plus a couple ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate, to make my own rendition of Starbucks Java Chip ice cream. Oh yeah!

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