It's official>. Starbucks is getting into the instant-coffee business. So how does it taste?
The coffee retailer unveiled its new line of instant coffee, called Via, with much fanfare in New York City Tuesday. At an event in Chelsea's Metropolitan Pavilion, we had a chance to sample Via for ourselves. The result was surprising but more on that in a moment.
Instant coffee is, of course, practically the antithesis of everything Starbucks stands for. The company helped turn coffee from an everyday diner staple into practically a fetish with devotees rattling off such elaborate orders as "venti nonfat extra-foamy misto." In contrast, instant coffee has a reputation among many as the java of last resort.
But much like the customers who might be expected to buy Via, Starbucks is in need of a jolt and fast. Mired in the sagging economy, Starbucks suffered a 69% drop in first quarter profits and a 45% dip in share price in the last year. Via, it is hoped, will rack up sales by appealing to Starbucks loyalists who want the convenience of an instant beverage, as well as others who may finally be tempted to give the retailer a try. The suggested retail price for Via is $9.95 for 12 single-serve packets putting a single cup below $1 and making it more affordable than Starbucks' traditional fare.
The problem with instant coffee is simple: the taste. As coffee aficionados will tell you, their favorite beverage delivers flavors of substantial complexity leading some to describe different varieties with jargon that's reminiscent of wine tasting lingo. But coffee is only at its best when brewed perfectly from freshly ground beans.
"Even with the best instant coffees (freeze dried) complex aroma and flavor notes are lost during dehydration," says Kenneth Davids, editor of The Coffee Review web site and author of "Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying." "So far the best solution has been capturing aromatics during the roasting process and actually adding them back to the freeze-dried coffee."
Could Starbucks really improve on a product with such an undistinguished reputation? As frequent coffee drinkers, we at SmartMoney were interested to give Via a try. To prepare our palate, we consulted coffee experts on what goes into a great cup of java and then held an office tasting of supermarket instant-coffee brands. Trying out Sanka, Maxwell House Instant Coffee, Folger's Classic Roast and Nestle's Taster's Choice, we all agreed the taste of the instant products was drastically different from fresh-brewed dominated by bitterness in many cases, and lacking in complex flavor and aroma.
So when we finally had the opportunity to sample Starbucks' new Via instant, we were surprised: It actually tastes like coffee. With a more pronounced coffee flavor, that instant-cup bitterness receded. And while the aroma isn't quite up to par with brewed coffee, Via had more body and no chemical aftertaste. Bottom line: It was more flavorful than the other instants we had tried.
Instant coffee reached its peak of American popularity in the early '80s, but its market share has since dwindled. Only 7% of American coffee drinkers consume instant coffee, said Mike Ferguson , spokesperson for Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world's largest coffee trade association.
"Consumers want coffee that is good enough, not the greatest cup," says Ferguson. "This is a push back at a convenience sector which has made inroads into their market share." But whether Starbucks can retain its brand of premium coffee with an instant product remains to be seen.