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Instant Coffee

December 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

Steaming hot, bitter, and slightly sweet. The first sip is delightful, but by the end I can barely stomach another gulp. Instant coffee is many things, pleasant isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a yuppie; there’s nothing I enjoy better than lounging in a coffee shop, enjoying a good meal, engaging novel, and a rich cup of coffee. But in Sri Lanka I’ve almost stopped drinking coffee all together.

Where tourists go, it is possible to find real coffee. In the more affluent cities, there are shops that cater to the locals. In Colombo there are a plethora of European-esque coffee houses, which serve delicious and authentic brews.

In Colombo I even found a coffee shop that really surprised me when I walked in; jazz was piping in over speakers, the lighting was dimmed, and the chairs looked comfortable. I approached the counter and could hear the familiar sound of milk being steamed, and I ordered a cappuccino. The coffee was some of the least expensive in Sri Lanka, only 100/ ($0.75), and I watched with anticipation as my drink was created. It was then that I realized this café did not have an espresso machine, and I saw the barista mixing a spoonful of Nescafé with water – topping it with foamy milk. This ‘cappuccino’ wasn’t bad, an improved version of instant.

As the wealth of a nation grows you start to see these western style cafés spring up. They are a luxury that many Westerners take for granted. It makes me happy to see locals mingling among visitors in these places. Trinco has not yet reached a state where the local citizens can afford the luxury of coffee, so for the time being my only reprieve is the occasional cup of instant.

Sri Lanka has some amazing teas; you may know them as Ceylon Teas. And prior to growing tea, Sri Lanka was one of the coffee capitals of the world. That is, until a virus wiped out coffee production across the island, and someone thought to try planting tea on the now idle coffee plantations. It worked out well for them, save for the lack of coffee production on the island.

Nescafe, the gold standard of instant coffee, is a bitterly repulsive drink. I find myself making a latte out of the stuff hot milk. Business meetings will regularly serve the stuff aside bags of tea. (For those interested, here is a great article on how to make instant coffee more palatable.)

I’ve tried most of the instant coffees on the shelves, and there is one that is a clear cut above the rest. Starbucks, a coffee chain which I tend to avoid, has introduced an instant coffee by the name of Via. My experiences in China gave me the foresight to pack a healthy supply of the stuff, which helped wean me off coffee. Now that that supply has dwindled, I am back to Nescafe, saving my Via for special occasions.

Most of the world’s instant coffee is consumed in Asia. When I lived in China most of the instant coffee I had was served in 3-in-1 packets, complete with sugar, creamer, and coffee. The instant coffee market is valued at $21bn a year, and only 5% of that is in the U.S., according to the WSJ. Nescafé controls most of that market.

Starbucks has a tremendous opportunity with Via, in the global market. Rather than selling Via in single serve packets, if they jar it and sell it in bulk I think there is quite a market in the developing world. Many people cannot afford to drink a real cup of coffee, but instant coffee is within their price range. Starbucks, which based upon their pricing in the US, would come in as a premium instant coffee. It would still be less expensive than regular coffee, especially as you don’t need to invest a large amount of money into a machine to brew coffee. And by launching their product in these emerging markets they could get consumers familiar with their brand, helping them as they enter new markets.

Starbucks has already begun to sell Via abroad, they recently launched it in China. I wish Starbucks was being more aggressive with their expansion plans – mostly out of personal desire to avoid drinking Nescafé.