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Instant sensation: Starbucks VIA coffee does well in taste test

FARGO, N.D. - Instant coffee has been around for 100-plus years, yet it's taken almost that long to make it not taste so, well, instant. Now coffee giant Starbucks challenges our Nescaf? notions with its own foray into instant coffee, VIA Ready Brew.

FARGO, N.D. - Instant coffee has been around for 100-plus years, yet it's taken almost that long to make it not taste so, well, instant.

Now coffee giant Starbucks challenges our Nescafé notions with its own foray into instant coffee, VIA Ready Brew.

A Starbucks spokesman says VIA is different because its Arabica beans are "microground" in a way that preserves their essential oils and flavors.

To see if VIA warranted the hype, a group of newsroom coffee-loving taste-testers sampled the just-add-water java last week.

As a frame of reference, we compared the VIA - sold in three single-serving packs for $2.95 - to Starbucks' fresh-brewed Guatemalan and Italian varieties.

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Almost all of the tasters were pleasantly surprised by the VIA, citing its full-bodied flavor, "Starbucks zing," and convenience. (You simply add 8 ounces of hot water to the contents of a packet and stir.)

They also liked the coffee's price tag. At just 99 cents a cup, it costs less than a small cup of McDonald's Joe.

A few of the java-philes actually preferred the VIA over Starbucks' fresh-brewed stuff. And the instant coffee's caffeine punch is comparable to 8-ounces of store-made brew, averaging about 165 to 175 milligrams per cup. (A decaf version is also available.)

Still, some weren't so eager to jump on the VIA-wagon. "It's a little sharp, and kind of bitter," said Cara Akers, Forum switchboard operator.

"Given the opportunity, I would take the fresh-roasted," says Jeff Kolpack, Forum sportswriter and devoted Starbucks fan. "This (the VIA) is OK, it's just not as fresh tasting. It tastes like it's been in the coffee pot awhile."

Our taste-testers' comments:

Kelly Smith, reporter: "Normally I buy the cheap stuff, like Folgers. (VIA) does have a little bitter aftertaste, but it's 99 cents. Yes, I'd buy it. I thought it tasted just as great, if not better, than the fresh-brewed - and for a cash-strapped young adult, the price tag is a bonus."

Dianna Baumann, Celebrations editor: "You still get that Starbucks zing, that Starbucks rush. It doesn't taste like cheap coffee. I would definitely buy it. My husband goes bonkers for it."

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Mike Vosburg, photo editor: "Starbucks coffee always tastes a little on the burnt side, but between the two I don't know if there's a significant difference. The fresh is maybe just a little smoother. But you have the convenience of being able to make (the VIA) at your desk."

Jack Zaleski, editorial page editor: "I like the 99-cent one better. It's got more character. It's stronger. It tastes like real coffee. The other one tastes like the stuff you get at a drive-through at McDonald's. (The VIA) has a little kick. I would normally cut it with creamer, so it's just right. That takes some of the bitterness out."

Pat Springer, reporter: "The instant is creditable, better than expected. That said, the fresh-brewed is fuller bodied and more robust. I still think it's a good instant. I wouldn't have guessed it was instant."

Dave Roepke, reporter: "This is kind of blasphemous, but I like the instant better. The VIA tastes stronger. It's not as chewy. It has a thinner taste, but a stronger zip. As someone who tried instant not so long ago (on a camping trip), I can say this is 18 to 20 times better than the Folgers instant packets. Next time I go backpacking, I would use it, and I would keep a few in my desk."

Norris Thompson, technician: "It definitely doesn't taste like an instant. It seems to be stronger than the fresh-brewed. It's got more coffee taste than the fresh-brewed actually. The only thing that kind of turns me off is the line of stuff (grounds) around the top."

Mark Merck, copy editor: "The instant has more of a full flavor. The other stuff (fresh-brewed) seems bland to me. Would I buy (VIA)? Probably not. I want to drive through. I don't want to get out of my car."

Where to get it

- What: Starbucks VIA Ready Brew, available in Colombian and Italian roast.

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- Where: Available at Starbucks stores or by ordering online at www.starbucksstore.com .

- Info: Cost is $2.95 for three one-cup servings.

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