The VIA Challenge

This weekend Starbucks released VIA Ready Brew, their take on instant coffee, throughout the UK. To coincide with the launch they ran a series of tastings pitting the Colombian and Italian Roast VIA against their "freshly" brewed Colombian and House Blend. Starbucks isn't known in the industry for the freshness of it's beans. Nearly two years ago I blogged about a change in message from Starbucks USA; admitting they had had quality problems and launching a new house blend "Pike Place" which would be in stores within two weeks of roasting. Although expected at the time, this return to freshness never arrived in Europe. Less than a year later, in what seemed a contradictory move, Starbucks entered the Instant market with VIA; 100% microground soluble coffee bean, however that's done.

When I finally got a sample I was left very confused, here's why:


  • VIA tastes and smells almost identical to Starbucks brewed coffee.

  • It's better than any other Instant.

  • It's 100% bean, unlike the content of Instant


  • VIA tastes and smells almost identical to Starbucks brewed coffee. Not exactly a good starting point, if the production process for VIA was used on high quality fresh beans, I wonder how they would turn out.

  • It's NOT freshly brewed coffee. No Instant, Starbucks or otherwise will ever beat a properly prepared cup of freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.

  • This is where it get's weird, because it is actually real coffee, it's susceptible to problems with roasting, so one batch can be darker than another. This seems to be the case with the 3 and 12 pack Colombian. The 3 pack (with best before Nov 2010) tastes burnt, but less fresh (best before April 2010) 12 pack is actually mild and quite drinkable.

This last point surprises me and hints to a possible lack of quality control, unusual for a company synonymous with producing homogenous products; at least it assures you that it's real coffee.

Another issue, brought up on Saturday at Open Coffee Banbridge, was that VIA is not Fairtrade; despite Starbucks' promotion last year, that all their coffee is now Fairtrade. Another apparent contradiction to their existing message. I've already written about Fairtrade's strengths and weaknesses. Yes it's good for consumers to buy Fairtrade, providing they realise that it is not the only or even best way to give farmers a fair price; for companies it's a completely different matter. Too often used as ready-made promotion, Fairtrade is the bare minimum that a business can and should do to be ethically responsible. The Bible says that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags." This isn't the correct exegetical interpretation, but when a business switches to Fairtrade for the wrong reasons, it is nothing more than filthy rags, a front, which I hope the customer can see past. Through the release of VIA without it being Fairtrade, is it possible that this is the case with Starbucks?

Taste and Fairtrade aside, the real VIA challenge however, is to convince the UK public to spend 50 pence on an individual sachet of coffee!

Andrew Gribben @grib