WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT.
Back in the last century, in my package goods days, I worked on the Taster’s Choice brand, where I had the pleasure of trying to convince people that instant coffee was…coffee. Now, let’s talk a little bit about Taster’s Choice.
If ever there was an instant worth drinking, it was Taster’s Choice Meragor Bold. Nestle dispatched bean buyers into the high plantations of South America, with some very specific standards—high altitude, shade grown, specific soil acidity, specific time in season…blah, blah, blah. These guys were serious (like nuts) about beans. They had mobile cupping stations, where they would roast a sample of beans on the spot, brew up the coffee, and “cup” it. These “tasters” rejected the vast majority of all beans (and some entire countries). They spewed them out of their mouths.
Taster’s Choice would ship these 90th percentile “choice” beans to their roasting plant (one plant for the entire WORLD), where they would be batch roasted, to the exact specifications of their roast master. Just a word about roasting—a precise roast, even from one batch to another, is almost impossible to get. This batch will end up a little darker, that batch a little lighter. Starbuck’s solution (for example) to this consistency problem was a marketing solution. They convinced the world that “French Roast = good coffee.” Now, to a true coffee connoisseur, French Roast = burnt coffee. But that’s exactly the point. Bean quality doesn’t matter. Roaster ability doesn’t matter. Batch-to-batch consistency doesn’t matter. Because with French Roast, most of what you are tasting is the carbon from burning the beans. That was Starbuck’s solution, but not Taster’s Choice’s.
Taster’s Choice, as I said, started with choice beans. They roasted to a specific “finish,” pursuant to their roast master. They matched both bean and roast from batch to batch. Coffee came out of the roaster, into the grinder (we’re not just talking fresh, we’re talking hot), and into the brewer. And then, directly, in-line, it was freeze dried. The result was the perfect cup of coffee—crystalized in time—ready to be reconstituted and enjoyed.
If ever there was an instant coffee that was real coffee…that was it. And then, they spend about $20 Million a year for about 30 years to convince people that this was the real deal. Should have been an easy sell, since it WAS the real deal. How frustrating, then, that consumers consistently reported that Taster’s Choice was the best instant coffee…not bad for an instant coffee…pretty good if you don’t have time to brew your coffee…” stuff like that.
Fast forward. I was delighted, having come up through the coffee culture, to see a company come along that was totally devoted to … coffee. Starbucks has, from day one, been all about helping people love all things coffee.
So, imagine my surprise to learn that Starbucks is now in the instant coffee business. It’s a product called Via® (sounds like a pharmaceutical to me, but who knows about those things). I tasted some this morning. It wasn’t bad. About the same as Meragor, actually. My comment to the barista running the show that it was not bad for an instant, but that I anticipate Starbucks having the same problem Taster’s Choice had experienced—it is almost impossible to convince people that instant coffee is coffee. Her response…
“Well maybe it’ll be different, since Starbucks is the World coffee leader.”
Just got this news flash from last century…if Nestle (Taster’s Choice), General Foods (General Foods International Coffees), and Proctor and Gamble (Folgers) can’t change consumer perceptions on a given issue (with the billions they spent trying, and with their mastery of consumer marketing), Starbucks will crash and burn as well. So, I give Via a year. It’ll be part of the Starbucks museum of things we tried that didn’t work. But, maybe I’m wrong.
For me, the hardest part about making a cup of coffee is boiling the water. So, there’s really no convenience advantage to instant. That’s something we all learned from Starbucks.