Instant Coffees and Starbucks VIA: Beyond Bad
Snobs are people who make judgments for non-intrinsic reasons. Like brands for example (Starbucks is great, Starbucks sucks), or market ideologies (corporate coffee is bad, coffee from tiny stores with a roaster in the back are good), or on the basis of various other untested assumptions. We try to be anti-snob at Coffee Review by tasting coffees blind and honestly reporting on our findings, even when the findings run counter to assumptions among some of our readers or preferences of long-time drinkers of certain kinds of coffee. We may not be right, of course, because last I checked there is no god certifying cupping results, but we’re honest and try to be transparent.
So when Starbucks’ launch of its VIA line of instant coffees challenged the assumption among specialty coffee drinkers that all instant coffee is terrible, and when we at Coffee Review consequently decided that we had better take instants seriously enough to do a proper, blind tasting of the leading brands, I was fully prepared, in fact looking forward to, some surprises that might rattle the bars of those who base their judgments on categorical assumptions rather than on actually tasting coffee. I recall we awarded an 87 to a roast-and-ground canned 100% Colombia from a standard supermarket brand some years back, provoking outrage that simmered through the coffee aficionado blogosphere for some time.
Worse than Bad
Alas, the instant coffees we tasted this month were not only bad, most were worse than bad. In their badness most of them actually transcended the most contemptuous of snob put-downs. True, at least a couple of them could be classed as close to smooth and drinkable by normal North American coffee-drinking standards (the 78-rated Colombia from Nescafé Taster’s Choice and 77-rated Starbucks VIA Colombia), but many approached the outright repulsive. (Again, please, keep in mind that I am not reporting this finding on the basis of some pinkie-in-the-air preciousness. Honest. Try the Folgers Classic Roast Instant, for example, and tell me what you think. )
Also note that the lowest possible score for a sample in the Coffee Review system is 50. In other words, a rating of 50 is the conceptual equivalent of a rating of 0. Only the worst of this month’s samples came close to this ultimate loser score. The main reason is that instants tend to display a relatively smooth, viscous body or mouthfeel. So with samples for which the aromatics, flavor and finish were exceptionally low the score for body tended to lift samples off the absolute floor of the ratings. Quite honestly, however, given how difficult it was to even taste much less swallow the very worst of these samples, I literally felt they deserved a negative rating – minus 15, for example, which might suggest the manufacturer should pay the consumer to take the product home.
Nevertheless, we did not dismiss any of these samples. We worked very hard at tasting them systematically and identifying and rewarding whatever sensory positives could be detected, while at the same time describing negatives with as much precision as we could muster.
Wet Board and Rotten Ferment
The often disturbing flavors that haunted many of these samples seem to originate from two sources.
The instant or soluble process itself. Most instant samples were marred by intense, non-coffee-like sensations that I am guessing result from extracting the coffee at very high temperatures under pressure or pursuing other strategies aimed at squeezing every last bit of soluble stuff out of the coffee to maximize yield and save money. I make this assumption because all of the various nuances of bad that didn’t appear to derive directly from bad green coffees shared a common denominator of burned or heat-impaired. Remember, we needed to invent our own vocabulary here, because the coffee industry does not offer classes on instant coffee processing taints. We detected what we decided to call wet board (the smell of boiling water poured over an old board), salted meat (very common), wool under a steam iron, rubber, and faint sulfur (the last two also could be green coffee related).
The green coffees. Given the historic high cost of green coffee over the last few months I suspect that these brands taste even worse now than they would have a couple of years ago when green coffee was cheaper and instant manufacturers perhaps used slightly better quality beans. True, we only occasionally detected flat-out green coffee defects of the textbook variety in these samples. The Folgers Classic Roast, a compendium of sensory faults, showed both a clear rotten ferment as well as medicinal or phenolic hints. Both of these faults are typical of the world’s cheapest carelessly dried-in the-fruit or natural coffees, which are usually but not always coffees of the Robusta species. In the case of the Folgers, these very dramatic green coffee taints allowed us deduct 10 points from the original rating of 62 without straying from Coffee Review rating protocol, netting a final rating of 52. But even with samples in which the off notes seemed mainly owing to the soluble process itself, the mediocre quality of the green coffee probably contributed to the general emptiness and depressing off flavors of the final product.
The Starbucks Effort: Good Try but No Stuffed Bear
Starbucks, regrettably, was not much of an exception to this tale of instant coffee woe. We could detect little sign of significant breakthrough in instant coffee quality in the two Starbucks VIA samples. True, the Starbucks VIA Colombia, at 77, essentially tied the 78-rated Nescafé Taster’s Choice Colombia at the top of our ratings. But the Starbucks VIA Italian Roast (68) seemed prey to the same inert character and vaguely burned or cooked notes that plagued most of the other samples in our tasting.
Both the Starbucks VIA Colombia and VIA Italian Roast are produced using the spray-dried process, which essentially evaporates the water from the brewed and concentrated coffee by spraying it in fine droplets and allowing it to drift down through a very large heated chamber. In most other samples the fine spray-dried particles appear to have been agglomerated, or recombined into larger chunks that vaguely resemble coarsely ground coffee. However, Starbucks retained the powdery spray-dried particles and added very finely ground (“microground”) actual coffee to the instant powder. I also am told that Starbucks dehydrates only the choicer, more aromatic elements collected during the complex multi-staged extraction process that precedes drying.
Unfortunately, none of this innovation appeared to help much in significantly differentiating the Starbucks VIA products from the best of the competing instants. The Starbucks VIA Colombia displayed only faint hints of what I am assuming are processing faults, but the more conventional, probably freeze-dried Nescafé Taster’s Choice Colombia was equally free of processing faults. Certainly Starbucks managed to preserve some of the character of their medium-dark-roasted Colombia and dark Italian Roast in the VIA products, but it is a character muted, dulled and mildly to dramatically tainted by the soluble processing.
The claim that one can’t tell the difference between the conventional roasted versions of these Starbucks offerings and the instant VIA versions is, of course, plainly mistaken. This claim must be a great if secret embarrassment for many of the dedicated coffee professionals at Starbucks. Perhaps the marketing people put something in Howard Schultz’s drink. Naturally we purchased whole-bean versions of the Starbucks Colombia and Italian Roast and tested them against the VIA versions. Whole bean Colombia 84; VIA Colombia 78. Whole bean Italian Roast 80, VIA Italian Roast 68. Ratings aside, the blunt sensory differences between the VIA instants and their whole-bean counterparts were inescapable. We used supermarket versions of the whole bean Colombia and Italian Roast for our comparisons, by the way. Coffees sold at Starbucks stores are usually produced from higher quality green beans and could stand out even more dramatically compared to their VIA counterparts.
A Liquid Concentrate Alternative
Finally, we added a kind of ringer to the tasting, a bottled cold-brewed liquid concentrate coffee sold on the West Coast, the Victorian House Mocca Java (85). Like soluble coffees, this product is an “instant” – just add hot water. Liquid concentrate coffees have made some headway in the food service industry (the Douwe Egberts concentrate for example). Victorian House, owing to its cold-brewed method, produces a cup that is particularly delicate, sweet and caramelly, with a smoothly viscous mouthfeel and a tendency to fruit notes. Some consumers love this rendition of coffee; others find it far too delicate and weak-kneed. It also is quite expensive per serving.
Computing Costs for Instants
Presumably, one of the appeals of instant coffee, in addition to convenience, is price. And on a pure price basis most instants are standouts. Instants not packaged in single-serve envelopes like Starbucks’ VIA typically recommend one “rounded” teaspoon per 6-ounce cup. In computing our price-per-serving listed in the notes sections of this month’s reviews, we figured 3 grams of instant to about 7 to 8 ounces of water. Three grams by volume is roughly a (very) heaping teaspoon. We used approximately the same strength of solution for our reviews, though modifying it for a smaller cup size: 2.5 grams of soluble powder to 5 ounces of water.
Much Too Cheap vs. Considerably More Expensive
Our analysis of cost per serving dramatized two points. First, ordinary supermarket instant brands are very cheap: 9 to 15 cents or so per serving. Second, they probably are too cheap. The fact they taste so bad is likely driven by a need to contain costs by squeezing every last bit of soluble material out of the roast and ground coffee, including some pretty ugly stuff that ought to get composted with the coffee grounds rather than dried and put into a jar for human consumption. Ordinary brewing takes about 20% solubles out of the coffee, mostly the good stuff. Instant coffee production takes out considerably more; if I understand my technical references correctly instant production extracts 30% or 40% solubles. And the processes necessary to get the additional 10% to 20% solids out of the coffee do not sound pretty, and can’t have a particularly benign influence on flavor.
But all of that is theoretical assuming. We prefer to taste and report, and on that basis most instants in the North American market today are, for whatever reasons, barely drinkable to terrible. You do get what you pay for here, however; the decent-tasting, top-rated Nescafé Taster’s Choice 100% Colombian cost around 30 cents per serving, as opposed to an average of about 12 cents per serving for competing instants.
Except, of course, for the Starbucks, which costs an amazing one dollar per serving, or eight to ten times as much as most competing products, and three times as much as the top-rated Nescafe Taster’s Choice 100% Colombian. I am not complaining about the price. I only wish the Starbucks VIA instants justified that price in the cup. For us they flat out did not.