Starbucks VIA Ready Brew was unveiled nationwide last week to a cacophony of scoffers and naysayers. Kneecapped already, Starbucks is competing with itself for market share by launching instant coffee? And instant coffee, the antithesis of everything the Seattle giant has fought against since its inception in 1971?
Thus far available in a medium-bodied Colombian version and a darker Italian roast, it comes in a pack of three or 24 individual servings, each serving priced at about $1 (Costco is selling them for 67 cents a packet). Each packet makes an 8-ounce cup of coffee, brewed either hot or cold (for iced coffee, add 8 ounces cold water, stir, add cubes and your coffee accoutrements of choice).
Notorious coffee hounds that we are, we picked up a couple of packets of VIA and set to work pouring and stirring.
The results? Quite stunningly close to a real cup of coffee. Gun-shy from years of insipid Sanka and Nescafé, we approached VIA as skeptics. Easily mixed with no graininess at the edges, it had that distinctive signature Starbucks flavor, robust verging on burnt.
Neither the flavor nor the aroma was quite as rich as those of a freshly brewed cup of Starbucks. Flavor came closer, just a bit thinner than a brewed cup. That unmistakable, heady Starbucks scent was there, but fugitive, fainter to begin with and dissipating more quickly.
On the other hand, not only did VIA taste better than any instant we could recall, it had more character than a lot of middling brewed coffees do.
So who might buy this product? VIA is too pricey to take over the instant coffee market, and by definition it isn't going to replace the social-networking advantages of visiting Starbucks to hang with your friends (and the little packets it comes in don't provide free WiFi).
But for addicts who are traveling to someplace so unimaginably remote it might not have a Starbucks, or who need that afternoon jolt even (or especially) when they're chained to the desk, it's a great niche product.
Laura Reiley is the Times' food critic and Colette Bancroft is the Times' book editor. Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Bancroft at email@example.com.