Starbucks Via
by Peter Zelchenko March 13, 2009

If you haven't tried Starbucks Via, you aren't missing much. The coffee giant has generously descended on Chicago and is now dropping these little packets everywhere, having tastings, really pushing the buzz.

Annual shootings of children are now routinely in double digits in our grade schools, but it's more important for our major media to cover the debut of Starbucks Via. Fortunately, they found two people with their heads on straight, who called it "weak" and "watery," and so the world is again at equilibrium.

There's nothing to see here, folks. It's a very finely ground powder, and it tastes like it. If it were suddenly better than Starbucks' brewed coffee, that would be cause for celebration, because you can find a lot better coffee at independent places. What if your cousin Nick could make a better car than the all-powerful Ford Motor Company? What would it say about the company?

Freeze-drying was a far more revolutionary concept in making instant food. Instant mashed potatoes, coffee, and dry milk are pretty amazing products, when you come right down to it. And although they don't taste exactly like fresh potatoes, coffee, and milk, they are still amazing, and if we weren't such food snobs we wouldn't be thumbing our noses at them. They're really not bad.

(Tip: Always keep some nonfat dry milk handy, tightly wrapped in the freezer, where it keeps indefinitely. Make a cup of nonfat dry milk, add a couple teaspoons of heavy cream or a tablespoon of half-and-half, and you can have whole milk that tastes just like the real thing, mostly because it is the real thing.)

It sounds to me as though Starbucks found a new toy. Some patent attorney came to them with a new process or something. Their CEO says Via will "disrupt (= good) and reinvent the instant coffee" market. That way, they can ignore their massive labor and environmental issues.

I have gotten exactly one nondisruptive (= good) thing out of Starbucks in my life. Way back in 1989, not long after they entered the Chicago market, I was working on a story about coffee and needed to know if it was possible to make a good crema on espresso -- that thickish texture crowned by that beautiful light-colored foam -- using a moka, as is sometimes claimed. (I believe a moka is sometimes called an espresso in Italy.) I called Starbucks corporate HQ in Seattle for some reason. I spoke to their coffee expert at the time, who actually had tried this, and he said it was possible to come close, important factors being how finely ground and compacted the beans are and how high the heat is. He recommended pretty firm compacting and only low-medium heat. I don't remember brewing a perfect espresso with it, but I encourage you to play.

(Three competing theories for the Italian word espresso: (1) "express," meaning fast, as in fast coffee; (2) "expressly," meaning a single coffee expressly for you; (3) "pressed," as in pressurized steam driven through coffee grounds.)

David Meyers, the proprietor of Michigan-based CSA On-the-Fly Farms, sells a beautiful locally roasted coffee called Resistance. The beans are grown by a woman's farming cooperative in Nicaragua, and David roasts them in Chicago. He is doing his annual benefit for Chicago Women's Health Center. Contact David at

Or, you can have yourself a handy little package of that nice, crunchy Starbucks Via.

Not that I am a big coffee expert. When Peet's (the original inspiration for Starbucks) first opened by the Whole Foods on North Avenue, somewhere around 1999, they were giving away one-pound bags of their coffee. I went right in and got it and kept it in the freezer for years. Last week, I finally used it up. It was still delicious because it was in the freezer. I don't drink much coffee.

If you're thinking this hard about coffee, you're drinking way too much of it. It's a dangerous drug, you know.

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