Taste-testing Via

A Wall Street Journal reporter did a taste test. She admits to not having a sophisticated coffee palate. Her verdict: not quite as good as freshly brewed Starbucks coffee, but significantly better than other instant coffee.

The big question is how management decided making instant coffee would be a good idea in the first place. Answer: A guy walked into the Pike Place location and had the barista sample a version he’d concocted:

Mr. Schultz then said he wanted to tell me a story. In 1993, a man named Don Valencia walked into the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Mr. Valencia was an immunologist who was a fan of Starbucks coffee. On his visit to the store, he gave a soluble coffee substance to a barista, told her to mix it with water and taste it. Mr. Valencia had created the concoction himself using Starbucks beans so he could drink Starbucks on camping trips. The barista was blown away by the taste, Mr. Schultz told me.

Two days later, Mr. Schultz invited Mr. Valencia to come to his office so Mr. Schultz could try the creation. Mr. Schultz was so impressed he hired Mr. Valencia to lead the company’s research and development department. That soluble extract morphed into the flavoring for Frappuccinos, ice creams and other coffee-flavored products Starbucks makes.

The reporter also explains some of the process that went into it:

From Mr. Schultz’s office, I went down the hall to the coffee tasting room and met with Anthony Carroll, Ann-Marie Kurtz and Andrew Linnemann — three coffee experts who helped develop the product. The process starts by roasting and brewing coffee from Starbucks beans, reducing that to a concentrate and then removing the water so they’re left with an intensely flavored coffee powder. Mr. Linnemann explained how they went through about 700 versions to find one that wouldn’t have the bad attributes of most instant coffees — hints of paper, cardboard and malt. He and his colleagues tried adding coffee oils to make it thicker, but it wouldn’t stay fresh. Fine-grinding the beans created so much heat that it burned off the flavor of the coffee.

Improving the taste of instant coffee is a good trick. Not destroying their brand image in the process would be an even better one.


3 thoughts on “Taste-testing Via”

  1. Why is this bad for their brand image? I also balked at the quote you prevously posted, about it “absolutely replicat[ing]” the taste of the fresh-brewed coffee. That’s not the road they want to go down. But what’s wrong with them saying this: “Hi, we’re Starbucks. Come to one of our stores and we’ll brew you some fresh, awesome coffee. If you prefer to stay home, brew some coffee from our freshly roasted beans. And if you don’t have time for that, we also make the absolute best-tasting instant coffee on the market. It isn’t quite as good as our fresh-brewed coffee, but if you’re on the go, it’ll do the trick.”

  2. Yeah, it will be interesting to see which route they take. The latter would be less destructive.

    Still, the project is a complete reversal of their rebranding project of the past year, which was supposed to be getting back to basics and restoring its gourmet, trendy image. I just don’t see how instant coffee, even if it’s better than Folgers et al, can be a part of that. The company has lost all focus, and it won’t be in a position to sell it self as an upscale retailer once dark economic days or over.

  3. Perhaps the first argument would be valid if their stores actually brewed fresh awesome coffee. In fairness I haven’t tried any there since they revamped their standards but why should I when places like Peet’s have had strict standards from the beginning?

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