Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Starbucks VIA: A review - and some musings on the upscale coffee shop industry

Mabie and I decided to treat ourselves to Starbucks Coffee yesterday and we got something extra to go along with our two grande Cafe Mochas and slice of Mango Yogurt Cheesecake. The friendly baristas threw in a sample of the coffee giant's latest product, VIA Ready Brew. Essentially it's the closest Starbucks has ever had to instant coffee.

Does VIA have an uphill battle against frappuccinos?

Three steps to genuine brewed coffee
I decided to try it this morning. According to the sachet, you just empty the contents into a cup or mug, add 177 mL of boiling water, and drink. The barista gave me the Colombian variety, although there are at least three others to choose from for retail sale.

It's patently amazing how such a small, thin sachet, with barely a handful of "microground" coffee beans, can release such a strong, full-bodied mug of coffee. Drink VIA Colombian as black coffee, and it's as if you ordered a Cafe Americano (essentially, an espresso shot with added hot water) from the baristas themselves. It's that strong. 

Adding a teaspoon and a half of sugar cuts the bitterness more than it would in a Cafe Americano, though, purely because there's less water for the sugar to saturate. Still, given how much smaller the sachet is compared to most instant coffee out there, VIA is strong stuff, and great for real coffee enthusiasts.

There lies the rub, however...

From my narrow point of observation, Starbucks and its competitors have split personalities. They have made coffee-blended cold drinks their bread and butter. They may offer exotic coffee variants from around the world, but I don't exactly see people my age enthused about the nuances and flavor notes of, say, Guatemala Casi Cielo beans vs. Ethiopia Sidamo beans. People my age, they're more likely to just order a Java Chip Frappuccino or a Caramel Macchiato - and maybe add more whipped cream or caramel syrup. Beans and brews comparisons, I'd usually hear about from my mom or my aunt Hedwig, because we're fond of tasting different kinds of wine, beer, or other similar-looking drinks and picking out how they differ from each other (e.g. "Carlo Rossi's red wine is very sweet, while a Napa Valley Racehorse Red is very very dry").

Mango Yogurt Cheesecake at Starbucks
VIA seems to fly in the face of the "blended drink" model that upscale coffee shops, Starbucks itself included, have made their millions from. I think it's more in the "exotic coffee" side of things, meant for enthusiasts who may be interested in saving a buck or thirty while still getting a variety of strong coffee to choose from. (A 12-pack of VIA is ultimately cheaper than buying a Cafe Americano every day.) The casual frappuccino-drinking Starbucks patron, on the other hand, may find it too bitter or "hardcore" and steer clear of it altogether. 

Which is a shame. I hope I'm wrong. I'm hoping there are more coffee enthusiasts my age than I think there are, who are open to tasting new roasts, brews, basically everything beyond the ubiquitous blended-coffee drink. Openness to new things is always good - especially in VIA's case, where you can have your premium coffee fix and save some money in the process :)


  1. I'm not into black coffee. And I distinguish coffee beans of different kinds very poorly. But I do have a friend my age who drinks black coffee in starbucks. I'm not into drinking boldly-flavored beans but I'm into smelling them relentlessly :)

  2. I have the same sentiments on Starbucks. I like to taste different kinds of coffee. I love drinking coffee and I want to "get to know" my coffee. I don't know if Starbucks provides enough education to their patrons on what they are getting.

    I like getting local coffee when I visit Batangas and Baguio. It's my way of immersing myself into the place that I go to.

    I just wonder what other coffees taste like.

    I've tried Figaro's coffee and I don't know what kind of beand they use or whatever but it's soooo good!

  3. @ChewOnThis Me too, I'm not really into drinking black coffee. I like mine sweet and creamy:). But its also nice to try Starbucks Via:). Thanks for visiting!

    @Diane Oh nice! There's a Cafe in Baguio that serves really good coffee. I think its called Cafe by the Ruins. Thanks for the visit! :)

  4. @Diane:
    Thanks for the visit :)

    In terms of being a coffee enthusiast, I'm a newbie at best, myself. However I guess it's not so far removed from observing the differences between tea, wine or beer - three beverages I've taken to enjoying different varieties of. Perhaps it's just a matter of getting used to.

    Haven't tried Figaro's brews yet, but I do recommend Bo's, another local premium coffee chain. :)


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