Starbucks VIA Review: Just Stir and Enjoy?

Starbucks VIA

A few months ago, Starbucks announced that they’d found a way to create an instant coffee, called Starbucks VIA Ready Brew that tastes as good as fresh-brewed coffee. Named “VIA” after the Italian word for “road”, meant to conjure the idea that you can enjoy this coffee wherever you go. “Starbucks VIA Ready Brew is different,” the company says. “The magic is in a proprietary, all-natural process that we spent years perfecting.”

While most of the media and many of the coffee-lovers I know were skeptical, I was actually optimistic and, truth be told, a bit excited about the prospect and potential for high-quality instant coffee.

So how does it taste—what’s the verdict?

In a word: it’s good! But there’s more to this story.

My Past Life as a Coffee Geek

My friends know that I love green tea (Adagio’s Sencha is a great place to start if you’re curious). I drink it every morning, and it’s the primary way I get caffeinated these days. But it wasn’t always this way. I used to drink quite a bit of coffee.

In fact, I’d always considered myself to be a coffee purist. Back in the days before Starbucks was on every corner—before there were any Starbucks storefronts in Florida, even—I was overnighting freshly roasted beans and using an expensive burr grinder for preparation in—what else—a french press. I was discovering a whole new world of flavor, traveling the circuit of big roasters, from Starbucks to Seattle’s Best to Peet’s, trying them all. I even discovered a coffee underground made up of little-known local purveyors, running giant roasting machines out of dingy warehouses, garages, and otherwise abandoned shopping plazas. Talk about fresh roasted, these beans were just hours old when they hit the grinder and met my french press.

I had a thermometer to check the temperature of the boil. I only drank the coffee black. I had special mugs for “cuppings.” I would even heat the mugs with steaming water to prevent the coffee from cooling too fast when poured. I would remark about the delicate oil that forms on coffee’s surface when its prepared correctly (something you’ll never see with coffee made in a drip machine).

But despite all that, I actually have some history with, and a special place in my heart for instant coffee.

Pusan, South Korea, 2000

In 2000, I was visiting Pusan, South Korea with my wife, her mother, and her brother, spending time with their extended family. We stayed with them in their homes and lived, as they liked to call it, “Korean Style.” This meant both sleeping and sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating rice with kimchi and clam soup for breakfast, live octopus for dinner, and partaking of soju late into the evening. The works.

And, to my surprise, living like a Korean also means drinking instant coffee. That’s right, as a whole, the entire nation of South Korea loves instant coffee, prepared with a heavy dose of sugar and powdered creamer. At home, in fine restaurants, and in vending machines on every block, instant coffee is a ubiquitous and quintessential part of the South Korea experience. Brands like Maxim dominate this space, but American varieties like Folgers are available as well. In fact, as we quickly learned, a big jar of instant coffee makes the perfect gift when visiting family and friends.

At first, I was baffled. Why would this country with its deep, ancient traditions and venerated culture embrace something that seemed so disposable, almost devoid of character. Then it hit me … it’s about the preparation. Asia is well known for its love of tea, and if you think about it, preparing instant coffee is a lot like brewing tea. No new techniques, devices, or tools are required. It’s affordable, portable, easily stored, and available pre-mixed with creamer and sugar. And somehow, the instant-ness of instant coffee seems to meld perfectly with a culture that’s at once outwardly fast-paced, formal, and competitive, but privately peaceful, calm, and warm.

And would you believe me if I told you that upon returning home—eager to make a press pot of “proper” coffee to shake our jet lag—that it was “Korean Style” coffee I was craving?

It’s been about 9 years since I spent those weeks in Pusan and Seoul, but I still keep a small jar of instant coffee and powdered creamer in the back of the cupboard, you know, just in case.

Starbucks VIA

Acquiring Starbucks VIA

Last week I was at my local Starbucks, talking with the Barista about VIA and asking when it might be available here. She was actually surprised that I was so interested in trying it. I guess she’d been exposed to the same skepticism I’d seen. She explained that it was only available in select areas right now, specifically Chicago and Seattle.

Realizing that my interest was genuine, she introduced me to the manager who, it turned out, had a similar experience in Russia to the one I’d had in South Korea: they love instant coffee there too.

“Hmm,” she said, tapping her chin and furrowing her brow a bit, “don’t go anywhere.” She disappeared into the back room and returned, handed me two individual packets of VIA: Colombia and Italian Roast. It’s not for sale yet, she told me, “But give it a try. I prefer the Italian Roast.”

Starbucks VIA

The Taste Test

The next morning, it was time to give it a try. I decided to try the Italian Roast because it was the manager’s favorite. I just followed the instructions printed on the packet, starting by emptying the coffee into a mug.

The grounds were incredibly fine (Starbucks calls them “microgrounds”) far finer than any expresso roast I’ve ever seen, and completely unlike the Folgers instant coffee grounds you’ve probably seen, which are huge and gnarly by comparison.

There wasn’t much aroma from the grounds, but once I stirred in the recommended 8oz of boiling water, I could detect that familiar smell of brewed coffee. It wasn’t as intense as as you’d get if you brewed a whole pot of course, but it was there.

I didn’t add any cream or sugar of course. Things like this are best tried in their original state. So then, I gave it a taste. And you know what?

It was pretty good. On the whole, a nice experience.

Sure, I’ve had better coffee. Fresh roasted, burr-ground, french pressed, yeah, that’s better. Sitting in Stumptown Portland talking with James Duncan Davidson, yeah, that was a whole world better. But generally speaking, Starbucks VIA is about as good as the coffee I’ve made here at home in our drip pot. It’s as good as most of the coffee we make with our Keurig B60 single cup machine (my favorite K-Cup coffee is Black Tiger). It’s as good or better than the coffee you’d find in a decent restaurant. It’s much better than any coffee I’ve made in a hotel room, while camping, or while on a road-trip. And of course, it’s far superior to any instant coffee I’ve ever tasted. The Colombia was good too, but I agree with the Starbucks manager: the Italian Roast is the better of the two.

Final Thoughts

At $9.95 for a box of 12, that’s a cost of about $0.83 cents a cup. That’s about twice the cost of a K-Cup ($0.42), and a whole lot more money than a cup of coffee from a french press or drip maker. But for a completely portable, long-lasting, instantly-brewed cup of good-tasting coffee anytime, it’s well worth the price.

If you don’t want to wait for it to arrive in your town, it’s available from the Starbucks online store.

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