Living in West Seattle as I do, whenever I come into the city proper, I will pass by the Starbucks Center. After 4 years plus, it stands to reason that I have passed by a LOT, which has given me ample time to idly think about what goes on inside those walls. Sometimes I wondered if there were any oompa loompas in there working away feverishly to be paid in joyous coffee beans, but I have never had occasion to actually go inside and see for myself. So this afternoon, when I finally stepped off the elevator on the 8th floor and was escorted into the office, I felt a little like Charlie Bucket stepping into Wonka’s factory. Sadly, there were no hands in the walls that grabbed my coat or lickable snozzberry wallpaper.
Walking into the room where we’d do the tasting, I was overwhelmed by the aroma of coffee, not unlike the pleasant chocolate aroma that overhangs Theo’s Fremont factory (tours: $5!). I wondered if being around such a fantastic smell permeates your being as it does when you are surrounded by the theobromides at(again) Theo. The great smile and enthusiasm of Starbucks’ PR representative, Sonya, is an argument that it indeed does. I immediately decided that I wouldn’t mind working there.
In any case, I, and the smattering of other “press” in attendence, was there to preview Starbucks’ latest product line: VIA. VIA, if you haven’t heard, is instant coffee. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever had a cup of instant coffee prior to today. Sure, I’ve had some crystals in my pantry, but only to use in baking. The reputation is as such that I always felt, why bother? If I want something fast and caffeine filled, I need only brew some tea. The overview of instant coffee manufacture only reinforced that opinion. Sure, our tasting was being led by a company man, but I don’t have reason to doubt that his synopsis: low-quality coffee combined with bottom-line-improving quick and dirty techniques are what go into the average grocery store brand. Isn’t that the story of most mass-produced products on our shelves?
VIA’s story is different, we were assured. VIA was the brain child of Don Valencia [pi], former R&D executive at Starbucks, whose first instant coffee experiment is what brought him to Schultz’s attention. Almost two decades later, that same R&D department that Valencia founded has discovered (and is patenting) an entirely new method of turning brewed coffee into powder. Sadly, we weren’t let in on the top-secret scientific details. In addition to this new breakthrough, Major Cohen, our coffee experience specialist (read: guide), assured us that in order to produce VIA, Starbucks is not only using the same quality beans used in brewing operations, the same roasting and brewing process is duplicated as well. And finally, they also add microground beans to the final product. The result is an entirely new process of manufacture and, they hope, an infinitely better product and experience.
So, we brewed up our two cups of instant (Columbia and Italian roasts). And by brewed, of course I mean, poured hot water and stirred in the coffee. And I…well, I liked it. I preferred the Italian roast, but that’s just my personal coffee preference anyhow. The flavor was clean and crisp. While not a perfectly thick and slightly sweet Italian espresso, it’s not meant to be. Rather, it’s meant to duplicate a drip coffee and it does so nicely, even rounding out with French Press-y bean remnants floating around the bottom of your cup. I really hate to be all company shill-like, but I think they have a good product on their hands.
If you’re interested in trying out VIA yourself, packets for purchase ($2.99/packet of three) and home use will be available in Starbucks and select Target stores starting tomorrow in the Seattle metropolitan area (and in Illinois).