Single-Serve Coffee Pods – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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    Do you own a Keurig machine? I was given a basic model as a gift from my mother-in-law back when they first appeared on the market. Bless her sweet southern heart; she tried. While she personally doesn’t like coffee, she knows that I adore it. Whenever my husband and I visit her home and stay overnight, I bring my French Press along with me. In her TV-watching, commercial-influenced mind, convenience trumped everything else about the beverage and the machine. That includes the beverage quality, price, and product sustainability.  And there is no denying the fact that the Keurig is the very essence of convenience.

    Let’s take a look at each of the other issues.

    The Price of Convenience

    What do you normally shell out per ounce for your beans our grounds? Not per cup; per ounce. As a cheapskate through and through, I admit that price per ounce is critical to me. Every item at the grocery store is selected with a calculator in hand. I pay $0.33/ounce USD for whole bean coffee at Aldi, and I grind the whole beans at home in very small batches. This comes to $5.28 per pound, plus tax. I can buy WAY more expensive beans, of course. Starbucks has quite a number of unique beans from growing regions all over the planet. If you shop Starbucks online (at the time of this posting), a pound of Guatemala Casi Cielo runs $14.95 + tax USD, and a pound of Nicaragua Maracaturra (a Starbucks Reserve product) will run just over $31.00 + tax USD per pound. Even Organic, Non-GMO, Fair Trade, small-batch, Rainforest Alliance/UTZ certified beans can be purchased for less than $20.00 + tax USD per pound. Seem high? Au, contraire! An article by the respected New York Times details the true cost of single-serving coffee pods when compared to coffee purchased in bulk. Would it surprise you that the final price per pound for Folders® brand packaged into single-serve pods is close to $50.00? And Folgers® is not considered “gourmet” or “high end” by most industry experts.

    A single-serve beverage that you make at home is no doubt cheaper than driving to a café and paying $1.75 + tax for a 10-ounce cup of the good stuff. But for cost-conscious java lovers, the true price of the single-serve pods is shocking.

    The Sacrifice of Quality

    When trying to pack the most amount of flavor into the cup, we have to accept the truth that coffee is a demanding mistress. The narrow optimal temperature range for brewing coffee is between 197.6 F and 204.8 F (92 C to 96 C). Most single-serve brewing machines simply do not heat the water high enough, and this means the grounds are under-extracted. It’s just scented brown water.

    Another critical factor for a good cup of Joe is the ratio of water to coffee. Again, the bean wants what it wants, and the process requires fastidious attention to detail. The standard measure across the industry is six fluid ounces (177 ml) of water to 10 grams (+/- 1 gram) of coffee. Coffee drinkers are limited in their options for a stronger cup of coffee using coffee pods, because the water levels are at a preset minimum, and the coffee is pre-measured.

    The newer Keurig® machines have attempted to address these problems, adding options and bells and whistles regarding strength and temperature. But in regards to flavor only, the upgraded models still didn’t match a brew made with other methods. Coffee connoisseurs look for very specific aromas, flavors, acidity, and tasting notes in their cup, none of which can be achieved from a K-cup no matter how fancy the machine gets.

    I acknowledge that all humans are equipped with taste buds that differ greatly. My son and my husband are fully satisfied with the flavor of the brew created by our old Keurig® machine. Some people prefer hot dogs, while others prefer a medium-rare filet mignon, and the steak-lover has no right to pass judgment on the one who loves frankfurters. On both sides of the table, consumers eat and drink what they like.

    The Lack of Sustainability

    This is by far my biggest pet peeve with the Keurig® machine and its minions. It’s probably not news to you that K-cup® pods are unfriendly to the environment. In 2014, Green Mountain (the company that makes the K-cup® brand of pods) made a whopping $3.6 billion (with a “B”) from sales of K-cup® pods, and that figure has grown each year since then. This sales figure amounts to nearly ten billion new little plastic pods appearing on the earth annually. In the U.S., more than a quarter of coffee drinkers get their morning java from a single-serve pod. According to motherjones.com, a single-serve brewing system generates TEN TIMES the solid waste that is generated from other coffee brewing methods. The hard truth is that, although current K-cups® are technically recyclable, few consumers are willing to take the time to disassemble the product correctly. When it comes to the environment versus convenience, it’s no secret that the majority of humans will pick convenience every time. The inventor of the K-cup® even stated himself that he regrets inventing the product, due to its wastefulness.

    The coffee pod as a product has begun to receive some backlash in the marketplace. In Germany, Hamburg’s government has banned the use of single-serving pods in their state-run offices in order to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and reduction of waste. (Kudos!) Green Mountain has also vowed that by the year 2020, 100% of the materials in their K-cups® will be recyclable (but, notably, not compostable, and not reusable). Currently you can buy 100% biodegradable and compostable coffee pods from Vancouver’s Ethical Bean Coffee, and (surprise!) they are compatible with the Keurig® machine. Earth-conscious consumers have always had the option of buying reusable single-serve pods, but they simply aren’t very popular.

    The coffee pods aren’t the only environmental concern with this method of brewing. What about the brewers? According to this article, the machines themselves are also winding up in landfills because they are not made to last. The author states the facts as follows:

    It’s worth noting that while you can’t toss a Keurig in your curbside recycling bin, Keurigs technically can be recycled…Like many companies, Keurig doesn’t sell replacement parts… you can find parts… on eBay and from third-party sellers on Amazon.”

    Ouch. Sorry, Mother Earth. We have a long way to go in this arena.

    Single Serve Coffee

    Final Thoughts

    My apologies if the title of this post seems misleading. As much as I tried, I couldn’t find anything good about the single-serve quick-brew pods, except for convenience. As an admitted coffee snob, I will always pass up the Keurig® machine, unless I am travelling and it is literally the only option available. I limit myself to one 10-ounce cup of coffee daily, and I want that cup to be the absolute highest quality and best flavor that I can afford. To that end, I’ve done the research and picked the method I like: the French Press. I purchase freshly roasted whole beans, grind them daily, and brew with precise measurements and an accurate temperature. I savor a delicious beverage that is friendly to the environment, and toss the used grounds into the compost pile.

    For me, no matter how you look at it, the Keurig® doesn’t cut it.

    *NOTE: these are the author’s personal opinions, not necessarily shared by everyone affiliated with this site

    Reference:
    http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/03/coffee-k-cups-green-mountain-polystyrene-plastic
    https://news.vice.com/article/consumers-are-dumping-keurigs-single-serve-coffee-and-thats-great-news-for-the-environment
    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35605927
    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/business/energy-environment/keurigs-new-k-cup-coffee-is-recyclable-but-hardly-green.html
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/the-abominable-k-cup-coffee-pod-environment-problem/386501/
    http://ifixit.org/blog/7668/unfixable-keurig/
    https://babelniche.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/keurig-dumps-inventor-builds-millions-of-junk-coffee-makers/
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/dining/single-serve-coffee-brewers-make-convenience-costly.html?ref=dining
    http://www.dearcoffeeiloveyou.com/love-keurig-nope/
    https://www.cnet.com/news/how-you-make-your-coffee-matters/
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