Starbucks is the company that coffee people love to hate. They’re an easy target, after all, our favorite whipping boy.
That’s why it surprises people when I tell them I don’t hate Starbucks; in fact, I owe them a debt of gratitude for doing the market development that enables our business. They’re not my favorite, either. But when I’m away from home, with no other alternative, I’ll drink an SBUX beverage. Sometimes I actually enjoy them, like when I can get the Pike Place Blend at the flagship store in Seattle. Other times, it’s good enough in a pinch. Not their espresso, that’s never good enough, but their brewed coffee. And I will even acknowledge the elephant in the room – while I am a strong supporter of independent coffee shops, they are all too frequently not nearly good enough and deserve to lose to the big green mermaid.
I hope I come across as I see myself – not a Starbucks hater, not a Starbucks lover, but someone who respects what they’ve done and the reality the operate under, and someone who acknowledges that for what they are (a big, multi-national corporation), they do a reasonably good job, frequently better than the independents who should be much, much better.
But instant coffee?
I was surprised when Via, their new instant coffee, was announced. Seems like a strange strategy for a “premium” coffee company. But the reality is that Starbucks is a mass market company, trying to be at the high end of the mass market. And after thinking about how much our own customers value convenience, I realized that if they have a decent product, it’s a brilliant strategy. So I’ve been wanting to try Via, and this turned out to be my lucky week when somebody gave me a serving.
My first reaction was a kind of pleasant surprise about the package itself. Overall, the form factor is quite attractive: a 2-3 inch long plastic tube, kind of like a sugar stick. Easy to carry with you (my road coffee strategy may be forever altered). I’m no fan of plastic, but I have to admit it makes sense in this application. The other thing about the package is that it specifies two details I never thought I’d see on instant coffee: an origin (Colombia, in the case of my sample), and an expiration date. An expiration date! All in all, this package gives the impression they actually care about the quality of the coffee. I did find a little irony in the expiration dating, however. While SBUX does not stamp their bean coffee with a roast on date, they do put an expiration date on it, and the conventional wisdom is that the product has one year dating (which, of course, is at least 10 months too much, but that’s another topic). Well, my tube of Via had an expiration date of 25 July 2010, so it’s not a stretch to think it was made in July 2009 and has the same dating as their bean coffee.
I think we’ve established that the package itself is reasonably well done. The proof, of course, is in the beverage. Here’s where I made a couple tactical errors. The first involved the powder pour. The Via powder has a strange consistency (relative to other instant coffees) – it doesn’t have good flow properties. Instead, it’s almost “moist” though I find that hard to imagine. It tend to flow in clumps, and is subject to static. The net result of all that is that it wound up sticking to the side of my cup in a rather unsightly way.
The second error was a failure to follow instructions. I fully admit I did this on purpose, when I should have listened to the package. The painfully simple diagram showing how to prepare clearly says to add 8 ounces hot water to one tube of Via. My rather limited experience with instant coffee, however, is that the instructions result in weak coffee, so I always use slightly less water than instructed – in this case, about six ounces instead of the recommended eight. The result was, well, strong coffee. Overly strong. I suspect that 8 ounces was the right number, but at that point I was already 200 feet from the hot water source and not looking back. I like strong coffee, but my advice is RTFM and follow the instructions.
All of which leads us to the ultimate question – how did it taste?
My honest answer: not bad. Recognize that not bad is a different thing than good. But better than most of the swill prepared from beans in this country.
The flavor profile itself is rather flat. Somehow this makes sense, as I would expect acidity, along with other nuances, to be a casualty of the drying process. I would have been hard pressed to identify this coffee as a Colombian, but I’d like to think I would have correctly identified it as being from the Americas, as it did retain enough of its identity to distinguish it from, say, Africa or Indonesia. I also have to admit that I probably would not have identified it as instant coffee. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it to be a mediocre but not terrible brewed coffee. And who knows, if I adulterated my coffee with cream and sugar it may have completely fooled me into thinking it was good.
Certainly this product is good enough for the mass market in the United States. Which is a sad commentary on the mass market in the US, but true nonetheless. All in all, I suspect Starbucks may have a winner with this product.