At What Cost Convenience: Tasting the New Crop of Single-Serve Coffee Systems
The idea, of course, sounds seductive enough: slip a little paper-covered pod or plastic pouch or capsule in a machine, press a button, and out comes a single serving of terrific, freshly-brewed coffee. No ground coffee on the counter, no arguments about whether to brew dark roast Kenya or decaf French Vanilla, no waste. A pod for everyone. You can brew a cup of pungent, dark-roasted Sumatra, your spouse a sweet, low-acid Brazil and your embarrassing, coffee-naïve neighbor an Irish Crème. Furthermore, in most cases you can brew tea and in some cases even make a cappuccino!
This is the promise, explicit or implicit, made by the new single-serve machines and their publicists. How well does performance measure up to hype?
Not very well, although we found a few attractive exceptions amid the fifty or sixty cups of listless, mediocre coffee we slogged through, and perhaps there will be more as the best machines emerge from the pack and the market starts supporting them with more and better coffee choices. For more on general issues and the quality and character of current single-serve coffees, read on. For a detailed examination of the machines themselves, go to A User's Survey: Single-Serve Coffee Brewing Systems.
More Coup than Revolution
Right now, aside from the Keurig B60 and the Bunn My Café (more on these later), the new single-serve machines represent, not the "revolution" the trade papers describe, but rather an attempted coup engineered by the same large coffee companies that degraded American coffees in the first place. Most of these companies are playing a variation on the old marketing ploy: give away the razor and soak the customer for the blades. Except in this case the razors are not that cheap, and many of the blades don't give a very good shave.
I could produce a template for our tasting notes: "Shallow, subdued aroma with some caramel and hints of fruit. In the cup thin body, lean mouthfeel, sweet but limited flavor and a continuing sweet but slightly astringent finish."
Most of these machines offer a choice of serving size. We began our tasting using the 7- to 8-ounce option, but found the body so consistently thin that we changed to a 4- to 6-ounce serving size. Surprisingly, not much changed. The body was often a bit fuller than at the larger serving and the mouthfeel less lean, but the fundamental weakness in most of the coffees themselves — staleness, poor quality green beans — became even more pronounced.
The rest of this introduction falls into three parts: First, gripes and low-points. Second, winners and hopeful signs. Third, some (brief) thoughts on who might actually benefit from buying one of these devices. Again, for details on the machines themselves, go to A User's Survey: Single-Serve Coffee Brewing Devices.
Gripes and Low Points
Gripe #1: Limited coffee choices. The world of fine coffee is based on two premises: One, better coffee, and two, more coffee choices. To say that most of these single-serve machines offer neither is only a slight exaggeration. At this writing only the Keurig B60 offers a robust choice of coffees, both single-origins and blends: Approximately 70 single origins and blends from five roasting companies, all with a tradition of quality, can be purchased in the K-Cups that fit the Keurig machines.
To call the coffee selections offered with the other machines limited is an understatement. After two years on the market Melitta still offers the same half-dozen flaccid coffee choices. The high-end, high-tech Kraft/Braun Tassimo system currently offers somewhere between four and six coffee choices. Right now buying one of these machines is like building a wine cellar and discovering that you can only fill it with Trader Joe's Chardonnay and Lancers Rose.
Furthermore, if you plan to buy your coffee pods or capsules in person at a supermarket you had better forget the whole single-serve idea. Right now, it's either buy through the Internet or mail order or relegate your new machine to the garage for the next yard sale.
The only promising development here comes from the redoubtable Internet coffee underground, which is beginning to produce third-party coffees in a variety of pod formats that will fit most of the single-serve machines, at least those that take paper-format pods. The downside to this development is the continuing issues of staling and second-rate green coffee quality. We tried an assortment of pods from Internet pod seller www.podhead.com, including many with impressive single-origin credentials — Kenya AA, Kona, Guatemala Antigua, etc. — and found the coffee generally better than produced from the competing corporate pods, but still nowhere near the quality we obtained simply by buying whole beans at our local Safeway supermarket and brewing them in a single-serve French press.
Gripe #2: Mediocre coffee quality. Why are so many of the podded and otherwise encapsulated coffees so fundamentally thin-bodied and characterless, to the point that 85 is an outstanding rating? No way to tell for sure, but here are some guesses:
• Lousy coffee to start with. For an extreme example, take the dreadful Folgers Classic Roast, one of the main coffee choices in the Home Café line of pods that is touted by literature associated with the Krups, Black & Decker, and Mr. Coffee single-serve machines. I would not be surprised if the samples we tried, with their dull neutrality overlaying suggestions of rot and mildew, did not consist of 80% or more steam-treated dry-processed Vietnamese robustas (for newcomers, the cheapest, dirtiest, lowest quality coffee category in the world). And even pods that ostensibly contained some of the world's most elite coffees tended to turn out a flat, subdued cup, only vaguely resembling their namesakes as brewed in conventional apparatus from fresh whole beans.
• Staleness. Contemporary coffee packaging has become more and more effective at protecting freshly roasted coffee from staling oxygen, but the sensory signs of staling in some of these podded coffees were inescapable: cardboard notes, old board notes, even hints of the smoked meat tones that are a sign of a very badly oxidized coffee. Literature from www.podhead.com, a well-meaning producer of third-party pods, seems to imply that its pods carry an expiration date of two years after roasting and packaging. Best-by dates on other pods and capsules appear to imply an assumed shelf-life of about a year, still much too long in my experience.
• Brewing limitations. Most of these machines appear to use a mild form of pressure extraction, which involves pushing the water through the coffee under pressure in a ramped-down version of espresso brewing. I am not technically apt enough to argue for or against this approach, but I will report on the following: We brewed a Folgers Classic Roast pod in the Bunn My Café, an excellent machine, and compared it to the same coffee liberated from its pods and brewed at the same water-to-coffee ratio in an inexpensive Proctor-Silex four-cup automatic drip coffee maker.
Result: The conventional drip-brewed version was dramatically different from (read: better than) the Bunn/pod-brewed version: considerably fuller-bodied, more intense in aromatics, and rounder in mouthfeel.
Gripe #3: Coffee Cost. I became so depressed by the worst of these single-serve coffees that, at one particularly dark and palate-numbed moment, I considered titling this piece Pay More for the Same Old Swill: The Single-Serve Conspiracy. Not fair, of course, nor even, given the nice collection of coffees available for the Keurig B60, across-the-board accurate. But the notion that the single-serve format permits certain large coffee companies to charge more money for the same tired coffees is inescapable. Folgers Classic Roast in a can: $3.70 per pound at my local supermarket. Folgers Classic Roast in pods: approximately $14.00 per pound. If this represents a coffee revolution, then, please, give me back the old days.
And, to be fair, putting coffee in pods and properly protecting it is expensive, no matter how well-intentioned the producer of the pods. The selection of decent to fair coffees offered at www.podhead.com cost roughly 60% more than similar (and usually much fresher) coffees purchased whole-bean.
Gripe #4: The Faux Cappuccino Ploy. Some of these devices offer the option of producing versions of beverages like cappuccino or caffè latte. All but one of those we examined involved some scheme for combining regular pod-brewed coffee with a soluble powder creamer, usually sweetened and artificially flavored. In the case of the Flavia, one is asked to first brew a cup of coffee, then use the machine to prepare a frothy creamer mix to combine with the coffee. The more ingenious Home Café specialty pods for the Krups, Black & Decker and Mr. Coffee machines hold the coffee in a chamber above the sweetened, artificially flavored creamer. As; as the coffee brews it carries the creamer mix with it into the cup.
We did find, however, one determined effort to produce more authentic with-milk drinks. The Braun/Tassimo device uses a mildly sweetened liquid milk product together with a coffee that has some of the weight and syrupy authority of true espresso. You use one Tassimo T-Disc (a flattish plastic capsule) to produce the espresso component, and another, fatter T-Disc to produce the milk component. If you let the barcodes on the T-Discs tell the Tassimo how to prepare your espresso and milk you will end up with two ounces of rather thin-bodied espresso and six ounces of milk, netting an extremely milky beverage with almost no coffee flavor. However, with a little practice one can use the manual start/stop button to customize the volume of both espresso and milk, producing a beverage considerably superior to the powdered milk and drip-style coffee alternatives produced by competing single-serve devices. Nevertheless, the pre-sweetened milk has a regrettable flavor reminiscent of canned, evaporated milk, and the heating/frothing process generates a froth that is coarse-textured and large-bubbled rather than velvety and fine-bubbled.
The result is an odd combination of thin-bodied, under-flavored coffee combined with an addictively sweet but cloying instant creamer. If such beverages resemble cappuccino, then naugahide from the 1970's feels like leather.
Winners and Hopeful Signs
Winners, Machine Category. A leading contender here is the Keurig B60, not so much owing to its brewing performance (K-Cup coffee tends to be agreeably sweet and delicate, but also a bit thin in mouthfeel and limited in intensity) but owing to the impressive number (currently over seventy) of coffees one can buy for it, all produced by well-known companies with a reputation for quality. With its blue lights glimmering through the water reservoir, half Capri and half science fiction, the new Keurig is also a strikingly good looking appliance. But it is also expensive: $200. The earlier Keurig home models sell for $100 and $150 respectively, brew the same coffees the same way, but offer less choice of brew strength/volume, fewer features, and a far less striking appearance.
A second strong contender is the Bunn My Café, for three reasons: One, it is designed to take the full range of the three currently available paper-format pods: 44mm, 55mm, and 62mm. Second, it seems to do as well or better at producing quality coffee as the competing devices. Third, it offers maximum flexibility among all machines in determining serving size/brew strength. However, if you are a genuine coffee aficionado, and if you invest in the $200 or more for the Bunn My Café, you are still gambling on the possibility that third-party vendors will deliver genuinely fresh, high quality, distinctive coffees in one of the paper-format pod sizes. Right now, the selection remains rather drab no matter where you shop.
Runner Up, Machine Category. The Senseo HD7810, for its low price ($55 to $65 Internet), simplicity of operation, sturdy construction, and the fact that one can now move beyond the narrow Senseo selection of four decent but rather dowdy Douwe Egberts coffee blends by buying a variety of relatively expensive but decent-tasting Senseo-sized 62mm pods from other vendors.
Winners, Coffee Category. The only big winners were the Safeway whole-bean bulk coffees we bought to use in a single-serving, 16-ounce insulated French-press travel mug for comparison to the podded coffees.
As for the coffees produced by the pods, pouches and capsules, see the reviews that follow this article. No raves or 90 ratings, but some attractive choices in the mid-80's.
As you skim through the reviews, keep in mind that these ratings are the result of several converging factors: the quality of the coffee in the pod/capsule, the freshness of the coffee in the pod/capsule, the quality of the brewing provided by the machine, and possibly variations in how the paper-format pods fit the pod holder. Sometimes we suspected leakage around the edge of the pod, diluting the cup.
A Summary Table
Subject to the same caveats as the reviews, listed below are average ratings for coffees brewed in the various machines we tested. Note that the most reliable figures are for machines on which we tested six to ten coffees. The Juan Valdez machine, for example, arrived with two terminally stale sets of pods, the scores for which significantly depressed the average for that machine. On the other hand, though we only found two coffees to try on the Braun/Tassimo machine, both scored fairly well.
Who Should Buy It
Despite all the preceding misgivings and fulminations, who might benefit from buying one of these devices?
• Small offices or large families (preferably offices or families with no outspoken coffee-snob members). The possibility of switching almost instantly from a decent coffee to a flavored coffee to a tea or instant cappuccino obviously has advantages in such taste-relative situations, where instant flexibility may trump a desire for beverage quality and distinction.
• Someone who believes in the future of these devices, and is willing to settle for what the Bunn, Keurig, or perhaps the Senseo offers now in the hopes that more and better coffee choices will become available later.
• People who prefer delicate, sweet, caramelly, light-bodied coffee to fuller-bodied, more powerfully distinctive coffees. Most of these machines produce such a delicate cup; many will not produce anything else. The Keurig in particular produced a very consistent cup of this style, even at the smallest serving size.
At Coffee Review we like to reward innovation. We want to see manically busy coffee drinkers happily served. We enjoy helping talented appliance designers prosper and get promoted.
But, honestly, I simply do not see why people who want to brew really good coffee by the cup at home do not simply buy a single-serving French press, grind the coffee in an inexpensive blade grinder, dump in some hot water, and two or three minutes later push down the plunger. Right now, given the trade-offs in quality and variety, I'd say it's worth the extra couple of minutes.