Just add water: Can granules ever pass the taste test?

Instant coffee has an image problem. But Starbucks hopes to stir things up with its own brand.
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For a coffee-scented blast from the past, go to YouTube and search for "Nescafé Gold Blend Adverts 1980s". You'll find an eight-minute compilation of TV spots starring Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan that do much to define not only a drink, but a decade.

Arguably, it's been downhill since then for instant coffee. More than 20 million people turned it to the middle-class soap opera that was the 12 Gold Blend ads, in which the nameless neighbours became perhaps the first people to use freeze-dried coffee granules as a seduction tool. The campaign marked the zenith of "instant's" place in the kitchen, when 1980s materialism meant grinding one's own beans was seen by some as a bit backwards. Breaking the gold foil on a jar of Gold Blend, by contrast, meant "sophistication".

Watch the Gold Blend ads

Today, "instant" is still a supermarket staple – the drink makes up 80 per cent of Britain's retail coffee sales – but for a generation of coffee drinkers now more familiar with cafetières and stove-top espresso makers, the drink has become decidedly naff.

But there are moves afoot in the $21bn (£15bn) global instant coffee industry to rescue the image of the drink and market it as a recession-friendly alternative to the kind of organic, hand-roasted, Arabica whole beans that now appear in the supermarket coffee aisle. Last month, Nestlé, which sells almost half of all the instant coffee in the UK, re-launched its Original recipe. The food giant says the new recipe, which they are marketing with a £3m ad campaign, includes "more beans for a richer and fuller flavour".

Away from the supermarkets, Starbucks is about to stir up the coffee market by launching its first instant powder. Despite its relentless march to bring real coffee to the global high street – the chain has 16,000 stores in 44 countries, including 700 in Britain – Starbucks now wants a share of the $21bn (£15bn) global market for "instant".

The chain's VIA Ready Brew, which comes in Italian Roast and Colombia varieties, has been launched in parts of the US and will go on sale in 32 London branches of Starbucks on Wednesday before a wider launch later this year.

Starbucks says VIA marks a major footnote in instant coffee's 100-year history. The chain's slick marketing campaign includes a video also on YouTube. "There are two ways to make instant coffee," the voiceover booms, "the old way and the Starbucks way". The clip finishes with the VIA slogan "Starbucks VIA Ready Brew – Not instant, instant."

All very clever, but is VIA really good enough to tempt "real" coffee drinkers from their beans, or to make instant fans fork out more for their brew (a pack of three VIA sachets will cost £1.20, or 40p per cup). And what about Nescafé's new improved recipe? Is an "instant" revolution brewing on the supermarket shelf, or is this nothing more than a marketing storm in a coffee cup? To find out, The Independent took a preview box of VIA sachets, a jar of Nescafé Original, as well as four other instant coffees, to the experts for a blind tasting.

Watch coffee being made the experts' way

The first challenge: to find a willing expert. One man brave enough to give instant a go is Ben Townsend, a self-confessed coffee geek from south west London. We meet in Brighton at Taylor St Baristas, one of the south coast's best coffee shops, where Australian baristas Andrew Tolley and Fergus Power join the blind tasting.

As Power prepares the glasses we'll be using, Townsend talks about how a "rising tide" in the market for real coffee is improving Britain's relationship with real coffee – but that we still have a long way to go. "Most of us are aware of the difference between, say, a Sauvignon and a Chardonnay but if you present two coffees and say this one's from Brazil and this one's Ethiopian, you'll get a blank look."

But what about the difference between the "deliciously mild" Mellow Bird's and Starbucks' "not instant" offering? With a row of six numbered glasses brewing on the coffee shop counter, it's time to conduct the blind taste test. The results, below, are disappointing, with no coffee scoring more than a five out of ten. Phrases like "dishwater", "Marmitey" and "meaty broth" don't appear on the packaging.

So why does instant so rarely compare to the real thing? "The first problem is that many manufacturers will use poor quality beans to start with," Townsend says. "Coffee is also very sensitive; anything you do to it damages the delicate flavours." The processes used to make instant have improved since a Japanese scientist called Satori Kato invented soluble coffee in 1901. Back then, liquid coffee that had been roasted and brewed was heated on huge drums to turn it into a powder. Then, in 1938, a Swiss company started spraying coffee into vast heated columns of air: Nescafé was born. The biggest leap came in 1964 with the advent of freeze-drying, a process which sees fast-frozen granules dried in a vacuum.

Starbucks says it uses the same high-quality beans and roasting process to make VIA as it uses for its real coffee. It then employs a "gentle" brewing process before "secret" technology reduces it to powder. Finally, "micro-ground", fresh-roasted coffee is added to the mix, which, according to Starbucks coffee expert Major Cohen, "adds aroma and mouth feel. It's a different taste experience."

Cohen, who works at Starbucks' Seattle headquarters and has been with the company for 15 years, is disappointed with the results of The Independent's blind tasting and insists VIA has gone down a storm in the States: "Customers have been sceptical at first but then they are shocked by what they're tasting." Cohen says VIA is initially being marketed at Starbucks loyalists who want a taste of their coffee in the few places where they can't get the real thing – on aircraft, at meetings, or on the road. He believes the relative high price of VIA (more than four times other instant coffees by weight) reflects its superior quality.

Experts such as Townsend, Power and Tolley, therefore, are perhaps not the people Starbucks are hoping will make VIA a hit (although this Starbucks regular and coffee ignoramus was similarly underwhelmed by VIA). If it takes off, it will do much to reverse the chain's fortunes – Starbucks outlets are being closed by the thousand. And if the revolution in taste hasn't arrived, Townsend believes one day it might. "I've always got faith in technology and hold out hope that someone will make instant good," he says. "Until then, I'm happy to go back to my cafetière."

Blind tasting: How the brands scored

Starbucks VIA Ready Brew

Price per 100g: £12.12
They say: "Not instant coffee as you know it"
The experts say: "The Italian has quite a strong taste of roasting but would be OK if you chucked in milk and sugar. The Colombia is bland."
Score: 3/10

Sainsbury's full roast

Price per 100g: £1.12
They say: "Rich, full flavour"
The experts say: "This has the distinctive taste of instant coffee. It has an almost meaty, brothy taste. If I wanted to drink gravy, I'd drink gravy."
Score: 1.5/10

Mellow Bird's

Price per 100g: £1.97
They say: "Deliciously mild"
The experts say: "This is like dishwater. I don't know what to say. It's just bad."
Score: 2/10

Carte Noire

Price per 100g: £3.18
They say: "Un café nommé désir"
The experts say: "I could actually drink this if pushed – the powder tastes a bit vegetably but with water it has a recognisable coffee taste. I could drink this."
Score: 5/10

Kenco Rich Roast

Price per 100g: £2.65
They say: "Only quality beans go into Kenco Rich Roast"
The experts say: "It's quite mellow and doesn't taste that instant. Still a sweet yeastiness – a sign that it's processed." Score: 3.5/10

Nescafé Original

Price per 100g: £2.24
They say: "Now even better!"
The experts say: "There isn't much to like about this. There is a yeastiness to it and it tastes a bit like stale filter coffee."
Score: 2/10

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