Sunday, 14 March 2010

Will you eschew the new instant brew?

My mate Barry loves coffee.

He loves coffee so much that when he grows up he wants to be a Starbucks barista. Never mind that he’s grafting for his MBA in New York - that’s just the first step to becoming top barista aka CEO.

So when I was invited to smell, slurp and savour Starbuck’s instant brew with a couple of other bloggers, Barry’s Glaswegian lilt popped into my head. After all, he would wrinkle his nose up at instant in an instant. And as I’m not a particular Starbucks-lover, I asked myself - would he love this? Would he give up his ritualistic brewing ways for a gratifying quick-fix caffeine hit? In fact would it be gratifying at all?

What Starbucks doesn’t really have to do is convince on taste. Yes I’ve had the odd burnt coffee in-house now and then, but I blame that on a barista’s slip of the hand rather than the basic quality of coffee. I had absolutely no doubt that the new Starbucks VIA would taste anything less than marvellous when pitched against another brand of instant brew. And indeed it did.

I’m sure Barry would know the real thing from the instant, as I did when tested. But half the room of bloggers didn’t. So instant-brew kind-of-almost wins against the freshly brewed stuff by getting a mixed response.

Now don’t get me wrong - Barry’s not a purist by any means. He jams frozen potato waffles into toasters and loves shortcuts as much as the next person. But for him, coffee is so much more than just a taste.

It’s the backbone of his working day - his guilty pleasure, his fag break.

For him the ceremony is as enjoyable as the slurping – the scoop of the grounds, the warming smell that fills the house followed by that reward of exotic black liquor in a beloved mug.

And clever ol’ Starbucks has caught onto this. The feelings that coffee evokes, that is. They’ve engaged the heavyweights from the food world – Kevin Gould, of Guardian and Waitrose Food Illustrated fame, and Professor Charles Spence – a pioneer of ‘neurogastronomy’ (how environment influences our interpretation of food and drink) who’s worked with Heston Blumenthal on the menu and atmosphere of certain Fat Duck dishes (like ‘sound of the sea’, for which you plug in iPod earphones while you eat).

Gould telling us we live in the age of sophistication

Composers commissioned to devise music that increases your coffee-drinking pleasure, formulas cracked by Prof Spence that tell us the perfect time to quaff (11am for those who are curious. Most of us, including Winnie-the-Pooh, were already familiar with the joy of elevenses), Starbucks certainly has been busy. And Gould tells us that he personally does serve his unwitting guests VIA after dinner, followed by a ‘ta da’ moment when he reveals the cheat.

All this is admirable to say the least. But does this enhance the instant coffee? Only as much as it would enhance a filter coffee - it's not quite foie-gras to the sound of trumpets. My advice to Starbucks would be to upgrade those who swear by other instants. Wow them with your jazzy technology.

Yes it is better than the nearest instant brew and no it isn’t the same as my lovingly filtered cup of joe. I will be using VIA in cakes. Delia’s coffee and walnut to be precise. And I doubt the Barrys of this world will be turned.

Well, not until he becomes CEO.


Wendy R said...

Nice hymn to coffee. Very nice writing.

Helena Lee said...

Ah, thank you Wendy. You're very kind.

I'm trying to cut down on the coffee now, but proving unsuccessful!

Anonymous said...

Nothing quite beats a freshly filtered cup of coffee but I do think Starbucks has done well to instantly gratify the masses!

To cut down on the coffee I've started drinking the English Breakfast tea latte at Starbucks- milky yet refreshing but less sweet than the chai tea! see if they'll do it in London, it's on the regular menu in HK now xx

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