It's the Starbucks VIA Italian Roast vs. Starbucks Ground Italian Roast vs. Taster's Choice Original taste-off. Via was launched earlier this year with a bold claim--that it tastes as good as fresh-brewed coffee. Let's just see how this claim stands up shall we?
First a note about the two judges: Me and my wife. We're biased. We both worked at Nestlé on its instant coffee business (which includes Taster's Choice). Before taking the test, we promised not to let our undying loyalty for our old employer impair our judgment. Honest. (We did blind tasting to compensate for bias.)
The results: The VIA claim more or less stands up. In terms of appearance, aroma, mouthfeel and taste, VIA is pretty close to the Ground Italian Roast and miles different/better than Taster's Choice. Lots of body, no off-notes and no artificial flavor. We both agreed that sample #2 (the Ground sample) had a slightly richer and more distinctive taste than sample #1 (VIA) but nothing that either of us would have picked up without a side-by-side comparison. I think it's fair to say that Starbucks has successfully reinvented the instant coffee category and shown what's possible.
The problem: So what? How does Starbucks benefit from having the best instant coffee on the market? One reviewer said that he really liked VIA and would be sure to take it with him the next time he went camping. Ouch! Is that the market? Overseas will be a better opportunity. There are many countries (mostly the original tea-drinking countries like England, Japan, China and Korea) where instant coffee is a much more important category than it is in the States. But what's the angle in the States?
Pricing, another problem: VIA is quite extraordinarily high-priced. Its cost per cup is 83 cents vs. (roughly) 32 cents for the ground coffee and 21 cents for Taster's Choice. Is this price point an attempt to signal quality? Or is it a reflection of production costs? I can't imagine that such a price point would work in supermarkets which would otherwise be a natural outlet for distribution.
The potential winner: Instant coffee and, curiously enough, Taster's Choice. If VIA makes enough of an impression to change consumers ideas about what's possible with an instant coffee product, then all the players in that category can benefit. Nestlé has succeeded with more expensive blends in other markets but those same products have failed here. Perhaps VIA will open the way for another try?
On the technology: VIA is described on the label as "soluble and microground" coffee. What that means to me is that the product is a mix of traditionally-prepared instant coffee (which is brewed and then dried) and some coffee beans that have been ground but not brewed. These "microground" beans may not add significantly to the taste but they will add mouthfeel - the undissolved solids provide a thickness to the coffee that typical instant coffees lack. (You can actually see the grounds in the cup after drinking.) I imagine that the other way they improved the taste was by having a much lower extraction level than is typical for instant coffees (which does drive the cost up).
On other reviews: There are many other reviews of VIA. Most of them say the same thing: surprisingly good for an instant coffee.
On the new Taster's Choice packaging: Sorry, gang, I hate it. Not only have you killed the Taster but the cup of coffee itself looks like a grey, solid slab of cooking chocolate with zero appetite appeal. It's Tropicana-bad. Sales down 20%?
Monday, April 27, 2009