Starbucks Via Instant Coffee
The other day I made a slightly snide comment about using Starbucks’ new instant coffee in making our Mangy Werewolf cocktail, as though it was the kind of sad thing that people who aren’t me would do.
Of course, that should have been your first clue that I have had some for ages, and was waiting for the chance to use it. But it’s hard to openly talk about Starbucks, for all the people out there who still complain about it. If I were to try to score the hate, I’d say it’s on a sliding scale that begins with:
- BOO the EVIL Corporation!, before moving up to
- What The Heck Is a Venti Anyway Who Do These Guys Think They Are?, until finally arriving at
- Non-Fat No Foam Chai Latte Who Do You Think You Are?
And while I do enjoy taking a cup of not-actually-that-much-more expensive coffee now and then, I’m less interested in taking fire for my choice in vendor — particularly when my home country has an unwholesome fascination with Tim Horton’s, whose food starts at “stale” and ends with “painful stomach cramps”, and whose coffee absolutely defines the combination of brown and water.
So I keep my head down about my Starbucks love, not because I’m embarrassed by it, but simply because I have no wish to join the coffee discourse. I have made my choice of Apple versus PC, Nintendo versus Sony, Coke versus Pepsi, and so on — now I just want to enjoy them a little.
Yet still, I felt some degree of trepidation when I went to try Starbucks new instant coffee powder, because I wondered if this was the point at which I would have to admit how badly a favorite of mine missed the mark. One always feels a little nervous when a product is being sold so hard as Via is, to the point where Starbucks has started advertising on TV for the first time:
…and then going with a taste-test angle. “Say, these obviously well-groomed actors can’t taste the difference in the clearly empty cups they’re pretending to drink from… will I?“
In Canada anyway, Via is available in 3-packs and 12-packs, each nicely packaged in a little sleeve that reminds me of a high-fashion matchbook. The coffee is pre-portioned into wee little nicely-decorated sleeves, and you’ll be pleased to see the checkbox graphics that feature prominently on Starbucks cups, if consistent visual branding is the sort of thing tickles you.
There are a few reasons that I can put together for the portioning here, which are both practical and a teensy bit scurrilous.
- The concentrated powder is really potent, and over-mixing could easily lead to a horrifying beverage. More on this in a bit.
- The wee mini packages allow it to become more portable, so that truly devoted consumers could stick one or two of them in their bag and take it anywhere — which would be unlikely with the way most instant coffee is packaged.
- It exposes portioned pricing to coffee drinkers, so that they know exactly what a portion is worth to them, and how it compares to having it made for them at a store.
This last point is the one most interesting to me, because it seems to strike right at the heart of the common objection that Starbucks is always more expensive — if Via can produce coffee that’s the same quality (as the Civil War recreationists and people who resemble their dogs would have us believe) at fifty or more percent less than store-bought Starbucks, then why go to a McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s? The ambiance?
Of course, the coffee actually has to be good, and there’s the true test.
When you pour it out into your cup, you may experience a moment of dismay/rage. Did you just go to the trouble of opening up a paper sleeve, pulling out a plastic slip, and prying it open with your teeth only to get this sad little gram of instant coffee (half of which you may have spilled during the teeth-prying step)? Did that just happen? At least Folgers gives you the satisfaction of heaping a good tablespoon into your cup in the morning, for Christ’s sake.
But incredibly enough, the wee little pile of dust mixes up nicely with a steaming (250mL) cup of water, and doesn’t require the interminable stirring that you usually need to break instant coffee fully into liquid. So the process is quick, the little portions make it easy, and all that’s left for it to do is taste good.
Which… well, so, we should talk about that.
First of all, there are two Via flavors available: Italian Roast, to satisfy the Bold lovers; and Columbia, to appease the Mild drinkers. I bought the Italian Roast, because I figured that instant coffee by its nature would be wimpy and it could use all the Boldness it could get. This may have been a miscalculation on my part.
Remember my earlier comment about potency? Italian Roast has it in spades, and comes rushing out of the corner at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your guard up. For some people, that’s exactly what they want out of the kind of coffee they can make in thirty seconds — in which case, great! You’re set, and if you really want to test your limits, mix it with half the portion of water and look forward to waking up in a ditch on the side of a highway, with no memory of how you got there.
In fact, mixing out of proportion at all is a hazard, which is why the single-serving slips make so much sense. It’s not like going overboard will ruin your appetite for coffee eternally, but it’s worth noting that Starbucks took pains not to allow your judgment to enter into how much powder should be in your cup. Heed them.
Now, that said, the coffee itself is okay. Maybe I don’t have the palette of an actor playing a nurse or a coffee shop patron, but I could pretty much tell the difference between Via and brewed coffee — and that’s okay, because I hate brewing coffee and would gladly pay someone else to do it. Via’s finish is a little hollow and a touch bitter, but it’s decent for the price (which works out to just shy of a dollar a cup, in Canada) and an easy way to a quick cup of joe.
Plus, it’s easy to make cocktails out of ‘em. And ya’ll better know that counts for a lot in my book.