Most coffee-drinkers – at least the ones I know – don’t want their pick-me-ups in packet form, especially when Starbucks (or Caribou or Peet’s or Coffee Bean or Seattle’s Best) is right around the corner. But that didn’t stop America’s largest coffee chain from launching VIA Ready Brew, a new line of instant – excuse me, “soluable” – coffee that hits U.S. stores March 3.
The brew comes in two flavors, Colombia and Italian Roast. It’s also packaged with typical Starbucks panache: On the back of each three-serving pouch ($2.95), a quote reads, “Never be without great coffee.”
Presumably, this mantra references VIA’s portability. Each one-serving packet is roughly the size of an old-school pink eraser, and each 3”-by-5” pouch easily slips into your purse or pocket.
But it also begs a venti-sized question: Is VIA, in fact, great coffee?
At a Feb. 17 promotional event in New York City, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz dismissed the skeptics. “This is not the instant coffee your mothers and grandmothers drank,” he said, claiming that VIA would “surprise and delight” his customers. Perhaps. But Fast Company wanted proof.
So I gathered two more coffee samples and devised a blind taste test. And within minutes, our staff’s 10 biggest java junkies were sipping from four rows of unmarked cups: Medaglia D’Oro instant coffee ($4.49, 2oz); Starbucks fresh-brewed, store-bought original blend ($1.75, 12oz); Starbucks VIA Colombia ($2.95, 0.35oz); and Starbucks VIA Italian Roast ($2.95, 0.35oz).
MEDAGLIA D’ORO (INSTANT)
If Americans have actually been “enjoying Medaglia D’Oro since 1924,” as its Web site claims, I’m guessing they haven’t tried its instant espresso. Because our tasters universally panned the Italian-style brew: The aroma was too pungent (“Is that soy sauce?”), the flavor was blasé (“It’s like brown water, only more bitter”), and, in one cup, “there were flakes at the bottom – the mix didn’t totally dissolve.” To be fair, Italian-style espresso is an acquired taste, and most of our judges had been weaned on American coffee. But the verdict stands: Medaglia D’Oro got roasted. Overall rank: 4
STARBUCKS ORIGINAL BLEND (FRESH-BREWED, STORE-BOUGHT)
You’d think one of America’s most popular pick-me-ups would receive generally positive reviews. But our judges were split on Starbucks’ fresh brew. Some called it “burnt and bitter,” and one “gagged because it was so strong.” Yet others praised the “rich flavor,” calling it “much more satisfying” than the other three. As one taster pointed out, these particular results might have been a lot different (read: more positive) had we allowed the use of cream and sugar. But rules are rules. Sorry, Starbucks. Overall rank: 3
STARBUCKS VIA – ITALIAN ROAST (INSTANT)
The race was close, but the VIA Italian Roast definitely edged Starbucks’ fresh-brewed blend. A few of our tasters said the sample “just plain sucked” because it was “bitter” and “unsatisfying.” But most were impressed, calling the flavor “impressively rich” and noting that “the color, taste, and consistency are identical to a $2+ venti.” Not bad, eh? Overall rank: 2
STARUCKS VIA – COLOMBIA (INSTANT)
It came from coffee powder and hot water. And yet, somehow, this brew garnered all-positive reviews. Tasters raved about its flavor (“balanced, not bitter”), texture (“by far the smoothest”), and aroma (“smells like fancy coffee”). And one called it – irony alert! – “better than the coffee you buy in Starbucks.” ’Nuff said. Overall rank: 1
Once the true brews were revealed, the tasters were – as Schultz predicted – surprised and delighted by Starbucks VIA, which was just as good (if not better) than some upscale coffee drinks. Nobody made immediate plans to switch their morning routine, since the idea of instant coffee remained “kind of gross.”
But one taster saw potential: “This is dangerous news for us café junkies,” she joked. “It’s the coffee equivalent of carrying around a needle.”