Starbucks releases instant coffee to mass retailers :: Yum

It may be unseemly to pick on a coffee chain that has received its fair share of beatings in the last couple of years, but this news release prompted me to discuss some of the differentiating factors between generic, mass quantity coffee such as Starbucks, and the specialty coffee that is quickly gaining traction as a more delicious and carefully crafted product, and often at the same price as a sack of beans at Starbucks.

The other prompter for this post is the fact that Starbucks is now claiming to have the best coffee according to Zagat, and are promoting this factoid in their stores. Here’s the catch: the small type at the bottom of the signage in their stores says “among fast food restaurants.” I walked into a local Starbucks to see this for myself, and it’s true. I believe Starbucks is trying to be all things to all people by purchasing the high end commercial coffee maker company, Clover, while simultaneously releasing instant coffee. I’ll let the free market and Starbuck’s customers and shareholders decide if this is a smart move or not. There’s plenty of room for all sorts of coffee and coffee shops in our world, and I completely support Starbuck’s desire to maximize shareholder value in any way they can.

That being said, it’s time to clear up some misconceptions about the differences between Starbucks and small batch roasted coffee.

In short, Starbucks is releasing Via, an instant coffee product that is supposed to taste the same as other Starbucks coffee. To prove the similarities of Via to their other brewed coffees, Starbucks is holding “tasting challenges” that will take place at Starbucks stores. Customers will be asked to determine which cup holds the inherently inferior product. This should not be understood as compliment on the taste of Via, but rather an indication on the abysmal quality of what passes as “good coffee” these days.

There are significant differences between mass market, generic coffee, like you find at Starbucks and other chains, and the coffee that you’ll find around the country that is roasted by small, independent operations that deal in much smaller quantities.

First, mass market coffee is standardized to low standards. In order to ensure consistency of the product, Starbucks buys coffee in massive volumes – they bought 385 million pounds of coffee in 2008. Starbucks is purchasing lots that number in the millions of pounds. This is not a specialty product. It’s a mass market commodity when you’re talking about numbers this high. There are numerous factors that influence the final cup of coffee, including the widely varying growing conditions found around the world, how the coffee cherries are harvested and milled, transported, roasted, then finally brewed in to a cup of coffee. The standards that Starbucks adheres to are inherently low to allow for purchasing such gargantuan amounts of coffee.

Second, Starbucks is roasting in such large quantities that the innate nuances in small batch coffee is covered up with a overwhelming flavor of dark roastiness, and the beans usually glisten with an oily sheen. There’s a reason why their espresso is not palatable by itself. It’s highly carbonized and basically burnt to a char.

Third, Starbucks has to have a long shelf life for their product in order to maximize efficiency. They allow up to 1 year shelf life for their roasted coffees. Coffee oils quickly oxidize after a matter of days, not months. The one way valve bags that a lot of roasters use (including Clive Coffee) give you a little more time, since they prevent oxygen from entering the bag and let the beans outgas the Co2 that they produce, but the coffee should still be consumed within 30-40 days after being roasted. Once the bag is opened, it should be used within 7-10 days. The one year expiration on Starbucks Coffee pretty much guarantees that a lot of their coffee is stale, in addition to burnt, so to be a product fit for human consumption it must be heavily dosed with milk, sugar, caramel, syrups, etc.

This is why an instant coffee product like Via tastes just like a cup of brewed Starbucks coffee. That instant coffee could have been manufactured 6 to 12 months ago.

Coffee lovers: there is no reason why you should pay for an inferior product from Starbucks. I would encourage you to find a local coffee shop or roaster and try out their beans. Ask them the story behind the beans and how the coffee is processed. You’ll find that small batch coffee has nuance to it just like a bottle of wine that was carefully harvested and fermented by an artisan vintner and winery. It’s really not the same product as a bottle of wine that was made from a million ton batch of grapes that were blended together then sugared up to create a mass market fruit bomb.

If you don’t have a small roaster or coffee shop in your area, check out the coffees we have on offer. You’ll find the price is the same as Starbucks but the taste is dramatically different. One to three bags are shipped via Priority Mail for only $3. We’ll be roasting up another batch of the Nicaragua Miraflor co-op coffee in October, and we’re donating 100% of the proceeds to a very good cause in Nicaragua that builds homes for children that used to live inside the garbage dump of Managua. Our last special roast of the Nicaraguan coffee raised $1,650 for this cause.