Starbucks’ new high-tech coffee

October 2, 2009, 2:52 PM UTC

Think of the new Via product as “instant 2.0”

It’s been decades since coffee has received an upgrade. Sure, there has been a steady beat of packaging improvements. All those cute, colorful foil pods that get popped into machines that then spit out a variety of brews. But according to coffee historian Mark Pendergrast, not since coffee giants General Foods (now part of Kraft (KFT) )and Nestle (NSRGY) spent millions in the late 1960s figuring out how to freeze-dry our morning addiction, has the actual coffee been the subject of a technological push forward.

Let’s face it, that has been a good thing. No offense to all you Taster’s Choice die-hards, but trying to improve upon a well-roasted coffee bean, ground to perfection and then brewed to your personal taste (I’ll take a double espresso with a little bit of foam) has mostly been a big mistake. We have all benefited from coffee’s return to its low-tech origins. But now the company that arguably has benefited the most from the artisan approach to coffee, Starbucks (SBUX), is taking us back to the future with its new line of instant coffee dubbed Via.

You no doubt already heard this was coming. The rollout of Via started in Starbucks’ home turf Seattle, and in recent months has been expanding to places like New York and London (both tremendous cities with on-average tremendously bad coffee). This week it went nationwide. So early-adopters, now is your chance.

In making its bid for a chunk of the $20 billion worldwide instant coffee market, much of that is the United Kingdom and Japan where instant is the de-facto coffee mode, Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schulz says his company spent 20 years perfecting a top-secret technology that ultimately results in a cup of coffee made with Via, that is indistinguishable from Starbuck’s typical brewed coffee.

So, of course we want to know what this patent-pending process is all about.  I called Andrew Linnemann, director of green coffee quality and operations at Starbucks. He’s the guy who makes sure all the beans are up to snuff before they get roasted. For the last two years he’s been focused on making sure Via lived up to the Starbucks’ reputation (this the perfect spot for all you Starbucks haters to draft your inevitable rude comments).

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Via is a combination of dried coffee and “micro-ground” coffee. According to Linnemann the dried part follows what is recognizable as industry procedure. Starbucks takes its beans and makes a liquid coffee extract, which gets reduced to dried form. But whereas your typical instant coffee maker is focused on yield and output, the Starbucks gang focused on taste, Linnemann says. Start with better beans, brew the coffee, and then break the coffee drying process down into smaller sub-steps to preserve the flavor. All with no chemicals. “We use the same equipment as the other guys, but how we use the equipment is much different,” Linnemann says. What that likely means is that the yield in the Starbucks process is much lower (the extraction level is lower). That is by far a more expensive way to go but one that preserves more of the flavor. It may also explain why Starbucks is charging around $1 per packet of the stuff.

So far so good. “But it is the micro-grinding technology where we really cracked the code,” Linnemann says. Aha! Now we are getting to the real “bean” of the matter. “The key is how do you grind freshly roasted coffee fine enough to preserve its character, add flavor and texture without adding grit?” Linnemann says. And how does Starbucks do it? “I can’t tell you that,” Mr. Green Bean says laughing. He did say, “it’s as if the coffee bean went to a spa.” Which means exactly what?

So Starbucks is serious about keeping this micro-grinding technology a secret, at least for another 18 months or so and the patent is made public. Clair Hicks, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky, figures what Starbucks does is a lot like grinding pepper. “You can seen how it would release more of the flavor components, and could improve the taste,” Hicks says. ‘My first bet is that they take the extract and the micro-grounds and run the whole thing through a freeze-drier.”

Whatever the ultimate secret technology is revealed to be, you can taste the results at your neighborhood Starbucks. Samples of Via are being offered  in a free side-by-side taste test with brewed Starbucks coffee through Monday. Free coffee? Now that is an upgrade I can get behind.

Watch me and fellow Fortune writer John Fortt taste the new Starbucks Via on Techmate:

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