A User's Survey: Single-Serve Coffee Brewing Systems
Following are detailed reviews of a selection of most of the leading single-serve coffee brewing units on the market as of December 2005. By single-serve coffee brewing units we mean devices that produce single servings of freshly brewed drip-style coffee and related beverages on demand from individual cartridges of ground coffee.
Note that these devices are intended to produce individual, freshly brewed cups of drip-style coffee. Although some of these machines also produce a loose interpretation of drinks like cappuccino and caffè latte, with one exception (the Braun/Tassimo) they do not produce anything like a true café version of espresso beverages. They produce a drip-style coffee, which is lighter-bodied and less intense than espresso, and in the case of the hybrid cappuccinos and caffè lattes they produce, the "milk" part of the drink consists of a soluble creamer that is typically pre-sweetened. The Braun/Tassimo does offer a liquid milk product in a "T-Disc" capsule that the user combines with a creditably full-bodied, concentrated espresso, produced from a separate T-Disc. Our reviews of these new drip-style, single-serve machines aim at providing a general introduction to their capabilities: their ease of use, likely durability, coffee delivery format (pod, capsule, pouch, etc.), the range of coffees and other beverages available in these formats, and related issues.
The complex issues around the quality of the coffee produced by these machines are taken up by our main article, At What Cost Convenience: Tasting the New Crop of Single-Serve Coffee Systems.
First the Pods
A note on coffee delivery format: Currently, there are two broad formatting categories for the little packets that produce the coffees in these machines.
On one hand are devices like the Bunn, Mr. Coffee, Krups, Senseo, Melitta, Juan Valdez and Black & Decker that use paper pods that look like round, plump little teabags. These pods are in an open format; in other words, third-party providers can produce and sell them, and they afford some interchangeability between machines. For example, you can use Senseo pods in Mr. Coffee machines, and visa versa.
However, compatibility issues remain. These little pods are produced in three sizes, 44mm in diameter (Melitta), 55mm in diameter (Juan Valdez), and 62mm in diameter (Senseo, Krups, Black & Decker, Mr. Coffee). The Bunn device takes all three sizes, and the Juan Valdez does as well, although with some fussing. With other machines, you can only use the size that the brewer was originally designed to take. Pod sizes used by the various machines are indicated in the reviews of each machine as well as in this Single-Cup Brewer Comparison Chart
It would appear that the 62mm size is most popular and most likely to prevail as the industry standard, and we would recommend purchasing either the pricy Bunn device, which takes all pod sizes and is a fine performer all around, or, if machine cost is important, the much cheaper but recommended Senseo, which takes only the 62mm size.
Then T-Discs, K-Cups and Filterpacks
The other category of coffee delivery format in these single-serve devices is populated by patented, proprietary systems that use special designs of capsules, pouches or discs that fit only the machine they are constructed for. In other words, if you buy a Keurig, Flavia, or Braun Tassimo single-serve brewer, you can only use coffees and other beverages that are supplied in the little special-design containers that that are specifically designed to work with it.
This limitation would seem to make all of these devices poor choices, but it doesn't, particularly in regard to the Keurig, for which one can buy over seventy coffees from five respected roasting companies, with more on the way. No current competing machine, even the versatile pod-using Bunn, gives access to that many coffee choices.
The Keurig produces a delicate, sweet, caramelly cup, however, even at a short serving size, so those who want a more robust cup may want to go to a pod machine that has a double-sized pod holder, like the Senseo, or wait while the Keurig people continue to work on a pod design that provides a stronger dose of coffee. The Braun/Tassimo machine is intriguing and produced rather good coffee in our limited testing, but right now the coffee selection for the proprietary T-Discs this device takes is extremely limited.
A Chicken and Egg Dilemma
In any case, evaluating these machines means evaluating the coffees available to use in them, and visa-versa. I attempt to negotiate through this difficult issue in my article At What Cost Convenience: Tasting the New Crop of Single-Serve Coffee Systems. Matthew Hill also touches on it in his reviews of individual machines and brewing systems.