Starbucks’ Ice Age

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In 2009, Starbucks shocked the coffee drinking world when it started selling instant coffee. Starbucks gave it a fancy name, “VIA Ready Brew Coffee,” but it was still instant coffee.

For years Starbucks had promoted the idea that if you want a good cup of coffee, you have to make it from freshly ground beans. Now it was telling its customers it was OK to drink instant coffee. What was next, instant espresso?

Well, hold on to your hats, Starbucks is doing it again. On June 29, Starbucks will take the summer plunge and introduce VIA iced coffee.

What the heck is going on with Starbucks?

Recently nine journalists from around the world gathered in Seattle to attend two days of classes at Starbucks Coffee College to go behind the scenes and answer that and other questions.

I jumped at the chance to attend because coffee has personal meaning for me. Growing up, my father drank a 7&7 (Seagram’s with 7-Up) every night along with an appetizer plate of pickled herring on pumpernickel and, without fail, while my mom enjoyed a glass of beer or wine with dinner, he always had a cup of coffee. I never understood his affection for 7&7s or pickled herring, but I grabbed onto his love of coffee.

Starbucks Coffee College

Our classroom sessions began at Starbucks corporate headquarters in the “cupping” room, where it was explained to us that because coffee is an agricultural product, the quality and flavor can be different year to year. To pick out good from bad beans, the Starbucks Quality Team tastes 250,000 cups of coffee each year.

coffee college

Giving us a demonstration in proper tasting technique, our instructor, Jason Simpson, bent close to a heavy glass tumbler filled with 4 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee and 8 ounces of hot water. With a large soupspoon in hand, he broke the “crust” — the ¼-inch of grounds that accumulate on top — as if he were cracking open a creme brulee. Inhaling deeply, he held on to the coffee-fragrance in his nose.

Once the crust is broken, the heat dissipates quickly. To give each coffee a fair evaluation, the tasting has to be accomplished before too much heat is lost. Picking up a second spoon, he efficiently removed and discarded the crust.

At this point, the process was similar to a wine tasting: slurp, swish, taste, spit. Evaluate the flavors but don’t drink the coffee, otherwise you’ll overdose on caffeine.

Jason’s slurp had a crisp, clean sound, as if the hot coffee had been sucked up in a waterspout. His spit, an elegant burst, passed cleanly from his lips to the spittoon in a fraction of a second.

Jason turned to our gang of nine and, with a smile, told us, “It’s your turn.” You could have heard a pin drop. We had slurp envy and performance anxiety.

We assumed our positions in front of the tumblers. But our slurps sounded more like the wheezing of punctured lungs and our spitting produced sprays that spotted our clothes, the cupping table and our neighbors on either side.

Even with the mess, we surprised ourselves, realizing we could differentiate between the coffees. Ethiopia Sun-Dried Yirgacheffe had strong blueberry notes with a heady, floral aroma. Guatemala Antigua tasted subtly of cocoa, the acidity reminding us of citrus.

The tasting was intended to make a simple point: Starbucks cares about the quality of the coffee experience, and that’s where instant coffee fits in.

Starbucks banking on VIA

VIA Ready Brew is just one of the ways that Starbucks has reacted to a series of challenges to its dominance of the specialty coffee business.

Starbucks VIAOver the past 10 years, in metropolitan centers as geographically diverse as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Denver, St. Louis and Seattle, local coffee shops serving quality coffee were opening at a caffeine-induced rate: Stumpworks, Caffe Luxxe, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Co., Stella Caffe, Victrola Coffee Roasters, Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea Co., Lamill Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee Co., Caffe Vita Roasting Co., Novo Coffee, Kaladi Brothers Coffee, Catalina Coffee Shop, Umbria Caffe and Espresso Vivace to name a few.

At the other end of the market, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts targeted Starbucks’ customers using low-cost, hot and iced coffee beverages, with offerings that looked very much like Starbucks’ mochas, lattes, cappuccinos and frappes.

Facing these challenges, when he returned as CEO in early 2008, Howard Schultz fought back aggressively. He closed 700 Starbucks stores, reemphasized quality by retraining the baristas and improved the coffee-making technology in all U.S. and Canadian stores by installing new espresso makers.

Wanting to expand his reach into customers’ homes, he needed new products that fit with everyday needs. He expanded a consumer products line that already included bottled frappuccinos and premium ice cream.

To purists, instant coffee may be anathema, but to busy people, it’s better than no coffee at all. To Howard Schultz, if Starbucks was going to sell an instant coffee, it had to be better. VIA’s point of comparison, he decided, couldn’t be Taster’s Choice. If VIA was going to succeed, it had to taste like brewed coffee. Before the launch, when friends stopped by his home or when he had meetings in his office, he secretly served VIA to see whether they noticed a difference. According to him, they didn’t.

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, so as the next part of our education, we were served VIA Italian. Now that we were experienced tasters, we knew what to do. We sniffed, slurped, swished and tasted, but this time we did not spit. There were clear citrus notes and a full-bodied flavor. We had to agree, the coffee tasted remarkably good. Even the doubters among us were impressed.

What makes VIA better than traditional instant coffee, we were told, is the extra care taken to protect the natural coffee oils during processing. To avoid additives and chemicals, the coffee is ground fine enough to dissolve in hot water.

With much fanfare we were then offered glasses of VIA Iced Coffee. The coffee comes presweetened with cane sugar. Clearly, the appeal is to people accustomed to drinking iced tea. If VIA Iced Coffee gains the wide acceptance of VIA instant coffee, Starbucks will have taken another step in making their brand as ubiquitous in their customers’ homes as their coffee shops are on the streets of America.

When the class was finished, I was struck by the Starbucks story. Begun by coffee aficionados, who had a small-scale goal to sell freshly roasted, high quality beans for their customers to brew at home, Starbucks has expanded into a multibillion dollar company with thousands of stores and the prospect of thousands more as it moves into new markets in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Even though the company sells music, T-shirts, mugs, aprons, ice cream, bottled beverages, specialty water, snacks and cookies, on some atavistic level, Starbucks hasn’t forgotten its roots. As Howard Schultz told us, “Starbucks is a lifestyle brand, but we are [above all] a coffee company.” My dad would have appreciated that.


Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blogBittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.

Photos from the top:

Starbucks coffee.
Starbucks Coffee College classroom.
Label for Starbucks VIA Ready Brew Coffee.
Credits: David Latt

 

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