If You Read Just One Review of Starbucks' New Instant Coffee This Year, Make It This One

That is to say, read the review of someone who actually drinks instant coffee. Mind you, I will usually only let this slip around the fourth or fifth date, or when I'm simply cold busted by a kitchen-cabinet snoop. Some people actually find it endearing. OK, nobody finds it endearing, but the point is this: I do drink instant coffee on a regular basis. I'm not one of the coffee-scenti, and I'm not going to claim that my qualification for reviewing the product is "having imbibed a lot of instant overseas"--as the Chicago Tribune critic says. (I love how her familiarity with instant coffee becomes just further testimony to her own cosmopolitanism.)

So what's the verdict from someone who actually represents the target market for this stuff?

Well, after preparing a cup of Starbucks VIA Italian Roast this morning according to the roaster's specifications--empty envelope into cup, pour in boiling water--I can say that it is marginally superior to Folger's or Taster's Choice. A little rounder and more full-bodied. But somehow also manages to be more bitter and burnt-tasting. All things being equal, yes I'd probably choose VIA over what's currently in the supermarket, though not by much.

But all things are not equal. The most compelling issue is the price: At around a buck per cup, Starbucks instant is over ten times the price of other instants, which come in at closer to 8 cents a cup. I'd happily pay it if it were some kind of new, environmentally and socially virtuous form of instant coffee. Starbucks says the beans are "ethically-sourced." Not sure what that means. But if only on principle (and those of us who drink instant coffee tend to have very strong principles), it just seems absurd for Starbucks to charge a price for a packet of instant that's more than half what it charges for fresh-brewed at one of the stores. Until I find out more on the "ethical" question, I'll be sticking with my mountain-grown, fill-it-to-the-rim, best-part-of-waking-up, coffee crystals.

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