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Starbucks moves into soluble coffee

17 February 2009 by
Starbucks moves into soluble coffee

Starbucks has today confirmed the launch of a new product already hinted at in the American press. The coffee chain is moving into instant or soluble coffee, which will be sold for the first time in Starbucks London stores on 25 March.

Speaking to Coffee House magazine, Starbucks UK managing director, Darcy Willson-Rymer, and Anthony Carroll, Starbucks manager of green coffee quality, said that the product uses a new manufacturing method and is intended to replicate the taste of the ‘brewed' or ‘filter' coffee sold in Starbucks cafes.

The product is a powdered soluble coffee packed in 2.3g sachets and sold in flip-top boxes of a dozen sachets. In the UK, the product is to retail at £1.20 for three sachets, or £3.95 for a box of twelve.

Although the product is intended for retail sale, Starbucks acknowledges that it has seen the vast potential for making its branded soluble coffee available through thousands of ‘tin-and-spoon' catering outlets, and also through instant coffee vending machines. However, it is understood that catering packs do not yet exist.

The product is called Via, a name which is partly a nod to the person who originally devised the idea, the late Don Valencia. The product is said to have long been a pet project of Starbucks chief executive officer, Howard Schultz, although some doubt does surround the history.

The Via packaging says that the process took 35 years to develop, but it is barely 30 years since Howard Schultz joined the company, and the three original founders were filter-coffee enthusiasts.

According to Darcy Willson-Rymer, the story probably starts in the late 1980s.

The manufacturing method now being used is partly the accepted method of making instant/soluble coffee, with an added twist. Starbucks has acknowledged that it is working with a known maker of soluble coffee, and also that its method is the spray-drying one, which allows for a powdered result.

Via fliptop boxes and sachets
Via fliptop boxes and sachets
"The process is that we take Starbucks brewed (filter) coffee, concentrate it and dry it," Anthony Carroll told Coffee House. "The patent-pending part is the 'microground' coffee - essentially, after the drying of the brewed coffee, we add more of the same coffee, which has been 'microground'. This powder is finer than an espresso grind.

"You will notice that, unlike most soluble coffee, a little sediment remains in the cup, as you would expect with a filter coffee. This is the suspended solid matter, which gives the coffee its body."

A leaked Starbucks email ten days ago said that its two versions of the instant coffee 'will absolutely replicate the taste of Starbucks coffee'. The goal, says Anthony Carroll, is to match the typical high-roast Starbucks taste of its Italian Roast, given the additional tag 'extra bold', and its Colombian medium filter coffees.

"If you were to go into a Starbucks store and have a cup of brewed Italian Roast or Colombian, that is the taste we have been looking to replicate," says Anthony Carroll. "Our expectation for the Italian Roast is of sweetness, good body, but dark-roast depth and roundness. Our expectation for the Colombia is of some acidity and a nutty complexity in the finish. This one is more about 'taste of origuin' than 'taste of roast'.

"The quality requirements of the green bean are exactly the same as for our filter coffee."

There is a generally accepted description of instant coffee in the British coffee trade, which says that instant coffee is a nice, comfortable warm beverage, but is a different beverage from 'real' coffee. Howard Schultz is expected to launch the product in the States by saynig that the coffee market is 'ripe for disruption', and the British managing director says that this relates to changing the image of soluble coffee.

"He means that this is a multi-billion dollar market which has had no recent innovation," Darcy Willson-Rymer told Coffee House. "The whole notion is to bring a completely different coffee into the category. We are talking specifically about bringing the Starbucks taste to coffee on-the-move, and portability is a great opportunity for coffee - I go camping, and my wife always objects when I try to pack a cafetiere! This is an opportnuity to bring a branded product to a new place."

He was asked by Coffee House magazine about the potential for the catering market, and whether 20,000 greasy spoons and roadside caffs up and down the UK, all of whom have relied on cash-and-carry tin-and-spoon coffee, could now legitimately become Starbucks outlets?

"This is a fantastic idea!" he replied, sounding slightly taken aback. "We're not doing catering packs yet, because it wasn't in our plans."

Equally, when asked about the massive potential for Starbucks branded soluble-coffee machines in offices, factories, petrol stations, and railway stations, he replied: "This wasn't in our plans either, but we are aware of the potential, and will be evaluating it."

By Ian Boughton

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