When Starbucks invited us to The Drake for a big announcement last week, we instantly started dreaming up the next designer drink. Mayan chocolate mochaccino? Lavender latte? Bacon frappuccino? Once there, we were plied with non-stop coffee and served chef Anthony Rose’s java-inspired spread. Just as we were settling in with our second cup, company representative Anthony Carroll gave us the news: the brew that we were sipping was—gasp!—instant. The just-add-water Via blend (three pack $3.45, 12 pack $11.95), which will appear in Canadian locations this fall, is what Carroll calls “the newest coffee innovation.” Apparently, for Carroll, it’s 1901.
Once the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter astonishment subsides, we slip into panic. Instant? We felt so used. Many have their squabbles with Starbucks, but few contest the beanery’s role in the explosion of gourmet coffee. And while even casual sippers have learned to take their cups with a two-sentence explanation, “instant” is still a dirty word in Toronto’s burgeoning coffee culture. Carroll cajoles us with assurances that he was skeptical, too—his tasting team has been slurping and spitting the blend for four years to get it right. The Via mix has insoluble “micro-ground” beans to give it added body and complexity (a gunky residue of which lingers at the bottom of our mug). One packet of Colombian or Italian makes eight ounces and, we are told, can also be added to a bottle of water for neither iced nor hot coffee. The packets are apparently perfect for on-the-go scenarios, when the ubiquitous storefront is nowhere in sight. Like when canoeing, say, or window washing.
Our table of media types decided to give Via the DIY treatment. We added a packet to hot water, stirred and sipped. Though the premixed pot tasted all right, our version is thin; it tastes like weak, watery decaf. One adventurous taster blended the powder with the Drake’s cucumber water. Note to Starbucks: cucumber coffee is a no-go.
The real star of the night was not the coffee, but chef Rose’s Starbucks-tinged menu. Cured salmon with maple syrup and crème fraîche was a kicky twist on classic gravlax. The Drake’s scrumptious grilled cheese with house-smoked ham and aged white cheddar also gets the breakfast treatment to tasty effect (the acidic coffee cuts through sharp cheese). A fresh-fried doughnut—a food chef Rose says “makes life worth living in the morning”—conjures delicious reminders of a classic maple brown sugar Beavertail. A dunk of the sugar-dusted beignet is enough to make any java junkie sigh.
“We’ve always used a little bit of coffee,” says Rose of getting creative with coffee, “but Starbucks is trying to take it to the next level. I like the idea.” While curious about how coffee fits into the culinary conversation, we were still not convinced that instant gratification is the way to go. Chefs and purveyors are going grassroots to bring hands-on organics and slow food options to the table, but Starbucking the trend with expediency basically kills the sacredness of coffee. We’d rather brave the morning line than get mixed up with sub-par brew.
Still, after four cups, we’re pretty keyed up. The taste may disappoint, but at least it feels like the real thing.