I am sitting in Starbucks again, contemplating the two cardboard cups in front of me.
I am here wearing my metaphorical “suffering academic” hat; this is all in the name of research. Somewhere along the line I have gotten myself on the Starbucks UK mailing list, and lo and behold, I received an invite to the Starbucks Via Taste Test. They are launching their new product, called Via, which although has no mention of being “instant” coffee, comes in single-cup satchets and is completely soluable. Yep, they are figuratively – and literally – scraping the bottom of the barrel and selling instant coffee. Three sticks of the stuff will set you back £1.20 (at the introductory rate, £1.45 in a few weeks’ time.), and I am assured it is made from “100% natural roasted arabica beans – the same high quality as all our coffee.” Now, we can “never be without great coffee” thanks to Via Ready Brew – as if I am going to carry sticks of instant “coffee” around in my bag, like tampons or something.
Starbucks “believe Via tastes as delicious as our fresh filter coffee. But don’t take our word for it. Try it yourself.” they beg. The Taste Challenge involved being given two free ‘tall’ cups (that is code for ‘small’ in here, or “not-served-in-a-bucket” to everyone this side of the Atlantic). One contains their Colombian single origin filter coffee, and the other this Via stuff which is apparently made from the same Colombian beans. Could I tell the difference?
Well yes, of course I could.
The whole ‘blind’ test idea was rendered obsolete as soon as the poor barista had to stir the soluable stuff for me, but even if I had attempted this blindfolded, the differences were immediately obvious.
I can’t be sure on this, but I am fairly confident that the process employed to make coffee soluable results in the loss of any natural fragrance and aroma of the brewed drink, and certainly a great deal of the flavour. Consequently, as I mentioned in my recent rant about Nescafe, any aromas that are present in instant coffee must therefore be chemically added back in afterwards. This is exactly how Starbucks Via smells – artificial. My nose maybe going in to overdrive at the moment with pregnancy hormones, but I could smell coffee candles – that artificially sweet scent with vanilla and malt that makes up most coffee-esque air fresheners and scented candles. As it cooled, I swear I could smell powdered vegetable soup as well. Definitely not natural. On the other hand, the filter smelled extremely citrussy and mildly alcoholic, like dry white wine – to my (limited) knowledge of cupping, that implies overly acidic coffee and possibly over-fermented beans where the cherries have been left on too long.
On tasting it, the Via taste liked instant coffee. There are few other ways of describing it. Flat. Smooth. Not incredibly bitter, almost waxy, if that means anything. And no aftertaste at all – it doesn’t linger in the mouth. The Colombian filter tasted very very bitter in contrast – stronger tasting all round, but with an acrid aftertaste – like the flavour you get in your mouth when you smell burning rubber. It also tasted very “thin” which to my mind, most single origins do. But the overwhelming flavour and smell was just BURNT. In my opinion, Starbucks burn their coffee anyway – that is the way they can guarantee the same flavour in every batch of coffee in every shop in the world. They bake the coffee to effectively flatten any nuances in the beans, to keep the flavours consistant. But even so, the filter was especially burnt – the roast was far, far too dark for filter coffee.
I have to admit I am now feeling bad about not liking this. Whatever else I can say about this place, the staff are lovely and I kinda feel obliged to enjoy my Third Place experience, or something….Yes, I am weak.
One barista has just said she can’t tell the difference between the Via and the filter!!! I am keenly following other people’s views on this on the Starbucks Facebook page too. There are many, already, who “failed” the taste challenge, and couldn’t tell the difference. This actually frightens me. However, after experiences in Sheffield over the past few days, I am now rekindling my interest in what non-coffee-geek people actually think. I have always tried to avoid customers’ opinions throughout my PhD research because they are just messy, most of the time, and so much has been written on coffee shop culture already. Yet, if I am going to look at ideas of quality, I need to find out if that quality is recognised, appreciated and demanded by consumers. The basic premise of my thesis was that in order to produce high quality coffee, more has to be wasted in the process. But if customers do not actually recognise ‘quality’ and don’t necessarily demand it, then the waste cannot be justified and the extra effort that goes into improving the quality is also wasted. And then we are back to my (now infamous) question at the Ohio conference: Why not let them drink crap if they want to?
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get invited to see Pollards coffee roasters in Sheffield (actually thanks to a throw-away comment on this blog! yay!). Simon, the owner, seems to be a kindred spirit – ie: equally cynical about many aspects of the coffee industry and proved very very interesting to talk to. The roasting is done on a very hands-on basis still, using roasting machines which are “partially” computer controlled. The computer monitored the time, temperature and energy consumption of the roasting beans, and the roast profile for that particular batch was neatly plotted on a graph on the screen in a neat curve. As the beans roasted, the computer plotted another line showing the actual temperatures of the beans – it was pretty close, although with a few extra wobbles – thanks to the proportion of the blend that came from Honduras, apparently. I asked Simon how he had learned to roast, and all the intricacies that go with it (he had also designed a roaster machine that could potentially run off vegetable oil, and made an ingenious contraption out of plastic piping and a hoover to move the roasted beans around the workshop without breaking any – and saved himself £25,000 in the process). He said most of his knowledge was as a result of his physics degree!! NOW I know where I’ve been going wrong, messing around with arts and social sciences for all these years…..
On the subject of academic research, however, Simon is very keen to do the Quality Test. That is, to get a goodly sized sample of coffee drinkers together, and do a taste challenge a la Starbucks, only offering one very high quality coffee and one low quality (based on price of the beans involved from origin – he will do the roasting and it’ll all be espresso based.). Basically, we want people to tell us which one tastes better to them. This should tell us once and for all, if your average coffee consumer actually notices and prefers “high quality”. This could be EXTREMELY handy for me too – not just for my research, but also for the Doc Coffee van. All being well, I could print posters like Costa’s – 80% of people prefer high quality (Costa advertise the fact 7 out of 10 “coffee lovers” prefer Costa. Tested on 174 people. In Glasgow.). And if the cheaper blend is preferred, I shall jack it all in and buy up loads of Starbucks Via for the van…. ye gads I hope not!!! To this end, I am planning on getting something together at the uni – I’ll hire a room there, Pollards will supply the coffees and the espresso machine, I can bring cups and round up coffee drinking students and university staff. We’ll do this over two days, and it would be great to get over 100 people. I’ll be plugging this as much as possible when we’ve decided a time so if you’re at all interested and fancy a couple of free coffees then pleeeeeeeeeease get in touch, come along, and give us your opinions!
On that note, if you’ve done the Starbucks Via Taste Challenge, PLEASE give your views on here! I’d be really interested to hear from you. Thanks all!