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.