The Starbucks Via Taste Test -- Is it really better than your mother's instant coffee?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was putting on the hard sell in New York on Tuesday morning to a room full of investors and journalists as he unveiled a taste test of the company's new instant coffee, Via. Ever since the news broke that Starbucks was entering the instant coffee market as its next big hope to save the struggling company, the response has been cynical -- and that's a generous term. So today was about Starbucks turning the tables and getting its products out there in front of influence-makers. They seemed pretty confident it would pass muster.

So does it?

Most of the investors I talked to were playing it close to the vest, as they were there to determine whether or not to help uplift Starbucks' stocks. They deemed it "good," without further elaboration. Back at the WalletPop office, we doused a couple of packets of our own and tasted them -- our regular office supply is Starbucks house blend, so our tasters are used to the real thing. (I'm not a coffee drinker, so the fact that it almost made me throw up should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Michael Rainey, from our new sister blog DailyFinance.com, pronounced it as good as "slightly stale regular coffee." He said, "Not too bad, better than most instant coffee, which typically tastes like hot water with coffee flavoring. Starbucks instant tastes like real coffee, albeit slightly stale real coffee."

Says Ashley Green, an account executive with Platform-A, "So the coffee wasn't bad but I definitely wouldn't start using it in place of Starbucks brewed coffee. I drink my coffee black so I might tend to notice the differences more than someone who adds in cream and sugar. The instant coffee was a little more bitter tasting. Also it didn't seem to stay completely 'mixed' as there were some of the coffee grounds floating around in the bottom of the cup (but I've seen that with other instant coffee's as well)."

Amey Stone, the founder of WalletPop and current editor of BloggingStocks and DailyFinance, told me,"The instant has less of the fresh-burnt bitterness of Starbucks' regular brew, but has a slightly gritty texture."

News editor Claire Robinson added, "I tried the medium and bold blends first black and then with milk, which is how I usually take my coffee. I found them both to have a decent normal coffee taste mixed with a funny taste that is not pleasant on the finish. The funny taste was worse with milk than black. I don't know how this compares to other instant coffees, but I'd probably only choose to drink this over brewed coffee if I were desperate or camping or something -- and definitely without milk."

Technical publisher Amelia Marzec had the most positive things to say: "First of all, the package is killer. It is so small you could fit it in your wallet, your belt, your shoe. The Starbucks branding is so subtle I didn't even notice it. But the burned-coffee smell that seems to define Starbucks was unmistakable. The smell was so strong I didn't expect it to taste so pleasant."

You can try yours by ordering a free sample online.

Is that faint praise good enough to help out Starbucks? Schultz said during his presentation that Starbucks customers have actually been blind taste-testing the product for months as it was slipped into locations in place of regular brew. He said nobody ever stopped and said "hey, something's wrong with this coffee!"



Via will be sold at Starbucks locations, Target and Costco, and you can order it direct from the company at StarbucksVia.com. It will roll out starting March 3 in Seattle and Chicago, hit London on March 25 and then go national in the U.S. in the fall of 2009 with a huge marketing campaign. A 3-pack will go for $2.95 and a 12-pack for $9.95, which averages out to a little less than a buck a cup -- the price point that matches McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, among other competitors.

The theory the company was trying to sell to investors is that U.S. customers who want the equivalent of Starbucks will shell out a premium price for the "good" instant coffee -- rather than brew a Starbucks blend at home. But the big prize will be the overseas market, which the company sais makes up 40% of the global coffee market.

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