Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Battle of the instant(s)

A few years ago, Starbucks attempted to displace a number of indigenous coffee shops and brands in Vietnam and other regions of Southeast Asia. Due to a number of economic and societal factors, they were mostly unsuccessful. Not to be outdone, they decided to copy the success of the indigenous coffee companies and try to beat them at their own game. One result: Starbucks Via, the new instant that "tastes just like our brewed coffee". As to whether that is a good or bad thing, we will leave it up to Starbucks fans.

We purchased some Via to see what it was all about... reviews are really not enlightening because people don't usually understand the process technology or have much frame of reference for instant coffees.

Basically, the process uses roasted beans, and they simply powder them to make them soluble. That is why they really can claim that the instant tastes like their brewed coffee, to some extent, it's pretty much the same beans, just powdered.

They have an Italian Roast, which is totally mislabeled. It claims to be "Extra Bold" but it's actually much milder than the Columbian, which claims to be "Medium". In short, the Italian Roast is quite good, to my tastes, but the Columbian had all the worst that Starbucks has to offer -- it tasted like charcoal, and even a few sips produced indigestion in our tasters, due to the acids and indigestible burnt elements. They need to go back to the drawing board on the Columbian, at least, in the samples we tried. Who knows if the formula changes from batch to batch (another Starbucks specialty!)

Why is G7 Instant different from Via? It uses a proprietary technology to create powder from green coffee beans, roasting them in the process. When you capture the powder at the same point as roasting, apparently you eliminate loss of flavor and aroma and create an instant free of the typical bitterness and acidity of instants made from brewed coffee, as most are.

In our taste tests here at open coffee hours, people preferred the G7 to Via by a sizable margin. Many found the Italian Roast Via to be a good cup, but found it weak or too light a roast for their tastes.

Considering that the cost of a serving of G7 Black is about 1/6th that of Via, well.... what can we say. Pick your best value.

We also have brought out a new entré in the 3-in-1 genre, a brand called MaqRoma. We did this because we have learned through all our testing that some people really do have a palate taste preference for Arabica freeze-dried, as long as it is not bitter. There is a "tang" to it that is not in the G7, which could be better described as rich and mellow.

The MaqRoma is a very high quality coffee mix produced by Reviva, one of Southeast Asia's leading manufacturers of coffee for dispensing machines. In these countries, dispensers deliver truly gourmet quality. Some of the machines actually grind and brew a cup of coffee from whole beans while you wait! And the instant machines do not get a following unless people really like the cup they get. MaqRoma has been very successful, so we tested it here and liked it, and now offer it as the best Arabica freeze-dried instant we can find (out of over 40 brands).

Here's a fun thing to do: Mix a packet of G7 with a packet of MaqRoma and get a Robusta/Arabica mug-size brew that has the best of both worlds. Many people in our testing declared this truly the best instant cup of all.

Watch for a whole plethora of new instant coffees as the world discovers the potential of truly gourmet instant coffee!