I forgot to write about this when I did it, but here it is. I tried that Starbucks Via Challenge. I lost, I suppose. I guessed that the Via was the drip. I haven't had Starbucks coffee in years, so I had nothing to compare it to, but I guess that's not the point. The Via was not disgusting. There was a difference between the two, but nothing about the Via stood out in a "blech! This is crap!" sort of way. I certainly didn't feel the same as the people here.
I haven't had instant coffee in quite a while, but my memories are pretty good, and Via seems to be the best on the market. It's a bit more acidic than the Starbucks drip I tried, and would be a reasonable cup on the go. Would I replace some homemade pour-over coffee, or french press, or even freshly brewed drip, with this? Not a chance. It's the best instant, but not as good as most other fresh options.
Now to bash the test. The acidic wateriness of the coffee compared with acidic wateriness of the drip coffee possibly because they had both been sitting in carafes for an unknown amount of time. If a cup had been freshly brewed and the Via freshly mixed, the experiment would have been better, although admittedly much more difficult to stage. Second, Starbucks drip coffee is frequently mocked for some good reasons.
It's Pike Place launch was a disaster. It was light, weak, with damn-near no body, but sour. The old house roast was too dark, with not enough body to explain the deeply roasted beans. Basically, light roasts should be bright, acidic, and fruity; dark roasts should be less acidic and bright, but with greater body and deeper chocolate tones. I'm not sure what the deal is. Perhaps running such a massive organization results in problems in quality control down to that level, and if I drank more drip from Starbucks I'd feel different. This is a real possibility.
Unfortunately, from my experience, I've never gotten a cup of coffee from Starbucks that wasn't burnt. So that means Via is trying to live up to merely adequate coffee. That it does so is perhaps not a surprise, but, again, all of this is something of a misdirection. It's close to Starbucks brew, but still different. What it certainly is, and what the advertising should focus on, is better than the direct competition, and that in itself is an achievement. Moreover, since my coffee from Starbucks is always burnt, freshly made Via is definitely better than burnt drip. Which is all worse than a big pot of french press made in the morning.
And that's a big problem for coffee purchased, it is never as good as the coffee made at home with cheap, easy methods like a french press, Aeropress, or pour-over:
Starbucks and its espresso exist for a good reason: it costs a lot to make good espresso. You need expensive machines that require maintenance and it requires more than a small amount of skill to get it right and steam good milk. Coffee requires very little work and only a little bit of knowledge to get it right. If you only ever drink drip, trust me, make it at home. You'll be much happier.
I just got some free Via in the mail and had a chance to try it legitimately. There were two big differences between the cup I made and the cup I got to try for free. First, it's cool enough to drink. Second, it's from an actual Via package in a cup.
Where the large karaf of coffee had none of the grittiness that usually accompanies instant coffee, the smaller amount of water in the cup brings it out loud and clear. Second, when the coffee gets cool, it begins to taste like instant coffee. Hot, the differences between it and a Starbucks drip are small. But while good coffee, cooling, is a chance to taste different flavors as they are revealed, Via, like all other instant coffees, becomes unpleasant.
If you drink your coffee while very hot, I think it's still a reasonable purchase if ordinary coffee is too difficult to come by. But otherwise, It's not worth it.