Date: April 2013

Column/Title: The (Not Quite Arrived) New World of K-Cups

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids with Jason Sarley

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Yesterday, according to the latest data from the National Coffee Association, thirteen percent of the U.S. population drank coffee made in a single-cup brewer. A significant portion of that thirteen percent undoubtedly used a Keurig brewer and its matching K-Cups to produce their single brewed cup. Keurig and K-Cups were the first single-cup drip-style system in the market and continue to dominate the escalating growth of convenience-first single-cup brewing. When we first conceived of this article we were sure that by now there would be a flood of new coffee choices for Keurig owners, given that patents protecting the K-Cup design are expiring and the market volume for K-Cup coffees is expanding at breakneck pace.

As it turns out, however, we were premature in our expectations. Companies that provide K-Cup-compatible packaging for coffees on a toll basis (you ship us your roasted coffee, we pack it for you in Keurig-compatible packaging) have been slow to establish themselves (although they are on the way). Consequently, the Keurig-compatible action remains in the hands of: 1) Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the owners of the Keurig brewing system; 2) various companies Green Mountain has acquired in part to better capitalize on its K-Cup system (Tully’s, Diedrich and others); 3) large companies like Starbucks and Caribou Coffee that are licensed to produce K-Cups; and 4) a handful of other coffee companies, most of them large-volume supermarket-scale brands like Folgers. Currently, the only K-Cup-compatible capsules we were able to turn up from a small, independent roasting company were from the tiny Wyoming-based company Mystic Monk.

The advantages of the Keurig system always have been convenience and simplicity. You can brew your K-Cup coffee in a minute, after which you can brew a different coffee in a different K-Cup in a minute, with no transition or clean-up between.

The drawbacks (sensory preferences aside) of the Keurig system remain threefold: higher cost, more waste, and relatively limited coffee choice. First, cost: In our local market a K-Cup-compatible coffee costs around 66 to 83 cents per cup compared to around 25 to 45 cents per cup for a similar coffee conventionally brewed using roughly the same water-to-coffee ratio. Waste: the potential for producing more waste is considerably higher for K-Cupped coffee, given that the capsules and foil tops are not recyclable. Third, coffee choice: Despite recent new entries from other large companies, the overwhelming majority of choices for K-Cup brewing are still blends, often not particularly exciting blends.

Of the twenty-nine samples we tested, only five were single-origin coffees and the remaining twenty-four were blends. And only three of those five single-origin coffees were from regions known for producing distinctive cup profiles: One was a Kenya from Green Mountain, a crisply fruit-toned, delicate but intense coffee that we rated 90; another a Sumatra, also from Green Mountain, also rated 90, in this case for its buttery, earthy character, and finally a rather rough but still distinctive Sumatra from Starbucks, rated 87. All three taken together rated considerably higher than the average for the twenty-four blends we tested, a respectable though not exciting 84.6.

It would not be a stretch to say that almost all of the blends we tested appeared to be aiming at a roughly similar target: A clean, decent all-Arabica coffee with standard character that will offend no one and has a shot at pleasing everyone. These blends arranged themselves according to what has become standard supermarket roast-color typology: breakfast blends (medium-roasted); “house” or signature blends (medium-dark-roasted); and at the far end of the spectrum, French Roasts (ultra dark-roasted, bittersweet and burned). Surprisingly, perhaps, the most successful blends were a fourth style, often simply labeled “dark,” blends that are roasted darker than the “house” blends but lighter than the super-dark French Roasts. Several of these dark-but-not-ultra-dark blends, including the limited edition Starbucks Tribute Blend (88) and the Caribou Mahogany blend (87), seemed successful in their efforts to maximize chocolate-related notes and maintain some sweetness and body while still offering a pungent, dark-roast bite.

Nevertheless, with the exception of the Kenya and the Sumatra from Green Mountain, we tested no K-Cup coffees that brought the variety and excitement of true high-end single-origin specialty coffee to the Keurig owner.

It’s hard not to conclude that, as the market is developing now, the Keurig system is filling in a gap between, on one hand, lower end mass-market coffees in cans, and on the other, higher-end true specialty coffee. The blends we tested, despite their largely middle-of-the-road predictability, still were cleaner, more complex and composed of higher quality (often much higher quality) coffees than typical of canned coffee offerings.

So consumers are getting better coffee along with convenience when they fork out higher prices for their K-Cup-compatible coffees at their local supermarket. But aside from the handful of K-Cupped coffees near the top of this month’s ratings, K-Cup consumers are not getting anywhere near the quality and excitement possible to obtain with a simple coffee grinder and a conventional brewing system applied to good whole-bean specialty coffees. Soon perhaps, as we hoped when we first scheduled this article, smaller independent roasting companies will begin selling some of their coffees in K-Cup compatible capsules and more coffee variety and excitement will come available to Keurig owners.

But for now, consumers committed to their Keurig brewer who crave more distinction and variety in their coffees than currently available in manufactured K-Cups may need to venture into the world of fill-your-own K-Cups. We tested five products intended to allow consumers to use their own coffees in Keurig brewers. Three consist of little plastic cups with permanent mesh filters (Keurig My K-Cup, Ekobrew, Solofill). Another, the Melitta JavaJig, deploys tiny basket-shaped filter papers inside the reusable cups, and a fifth system (SimpleCups) permits users literally to create their own disposable, single-use K-Cup-compatible capsules.

Ekobrew. Around $10 for one reusable cup. Permanent mesh filter. Based both on our sensory assessment and on instrument measurement of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in the finished beverage, the Ekobrew seemed to produce the most balanced and complete cup among the five tested options, though narrowly.

Keurig My K-Cup. Around $10 for one reusable cup and replacement cup-holder. Permanent mesh filter. Also a good performer in both sensory performance and TDS measurement.

Solofill. Around $15 for one reusable cup. Permanent mesh filter. Decent performer in sensory and TDS measurement.

Melitta JavaJig. Around $10 for two reusable cups and 30 paper filters. (Additional filters around $5 for 60 filters.) More convenient and easier-to-clean than cups with built-in mesh filters, but the filter paper seemed to slightly mute and dilute the coffee, resulting in less sensory intensity and slightly lower TDS readings than obtained with cups embodying built-in mesh filters.

SimpleCups. Around $15 for 50 disposable cups, filters and lids. The lids were quite difficult to press into place and our Keurig continued to display the “Brewing” message long after the brewing was concluded, suggesting that these pods were not completely compatible with our particular model Keurig. Finally, we were not able to use more than eight grams of ground coffee in these cups; competing designs allowed us to use up to twelve grams. Other consumers with other Keurig units may obtain different results with this product, and there may be work-arounds for the problems we experienced. The basic product concept is a good one, but the current execution appears flawed.

None of these devices, of course, offers nearly the same degree of convenience as pop-em-in, press-a-button and pop-em-out regular K-Cups. Not only do you need to fill your little personal K-Cup with ground coffee, but you also need to knock the spent wet grounds out of the cup and rinse thoroughly before reusing, except in the case of the disposable SimpleCups, which present their own set of problems.

On the other hand, the best of these little devices, the Ekobrew and the Keurig My K-Cup in particular, produced an attractive cup. To get optimum results we found that we needed to use a filter-drip grind and lightly pack the ground coffee into the little cup. We got best results with 12 grams of coffee (requires some packing and pressing), though at 9+ grams (the typical dose of coffee in one of today’s K-Cups) the brewed cup remained attractive. Keep in mind that we did all of our tests with our Keurig machine set to produce a 5- to 6-ounce serving, which based on our specialty-coffee-tuned palates and our tests produces the best and most complete interpretation of a K-Cup coffee.

Finally, we might ask whether loading coffee in a little plastic mesh filter and washing the filter out afterwards is easier and more convenient than simply brewing a single cup of coffee using a completely manual method: a one-cup filter cone, for example, or a one-to-two-cup French press, or my personal favorite, the Aerobie Aeropress.

To explore this question, we attempted to determine “fuss time” for producing six ounces of coffee with the Aerobie Aeropress (a manual device that presses hot water down through a bed of ground coffee into the cup) as opposed to producing the same volume of coffee using the Ekobrew reusable filter basket with our Keurig. By “fuss time” we mean time spent fussing over the brewing procedure, as opposed to walking away and doing something else while an automated procedure is taking place for you. (Waiting while the Keurig heats up from a cold start, for example, would not be included in “fuss time” since you could be doing something else like buttering your toast or staring into space while it’s happening. Whereas cleaning out the brewing device after brewing definitely would count as fuss time.).

We found (well, my conscientious stop-watch employing colleague Jason Sarley found) that the actual time required to do the manipulations necessary to load the ground coffee, brew the coffee, and clean up afterwards was about the same for both the reusable K-Cup and the Aerobie Aeropress. However, if you don’t have a water kettle with automatic temperature control you need to add in the time required to watch for the kettle to boil and then to allow the water to cool down a couple of minutes before pouring it into the brewer, all of which adds considerable kitchen fuss time to the total brewing act for the Aeropress.

What did surprise us was the quality of the beverage produced by the Ekobrew and the My K-Cup when used on the Keurig as outlined above, a quality very close, almost identical, to the cup produced by careful use of the manual Aeropress. Which doesn’t mean that those who brew manually should run out and buy a Keurig and an Ekobrew K-Cup, but what it does suggest is that those committed Keurig owners who use the best reusuable K-Cups carefully can produce a rather nicely-brewed cup of coffee.

But the advantage with the Aeropress, or with any manual method, is that you can use more ground coffee per cup and brew stronger if you prefer to, whereas twelve grams per serving is pretty much tops with the little do-it-yourself K-Cups. And of course you also can vary both brew water temperature and extraction time with a device like the Aeropress. But by varying them carelessly you also can, of course, screw up your coffee, which gets us back full circle to the reason people buy Keurigs and pre-manufactured K-Cups: No thought, no fuss, no mess, just coffee, and decent to good coffee if you buy the right K-Cup.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Five samples, average rating 87.25; lowest 83, highest 90.

Other Green-Mountain-Associated Brands (Newman’s Own, Tully’s, Barista Prima, Diedrich, Coffee People). Six samples from five different brands/companies, average rating 87.1; lowest 85, highest 89.

Starbucks. Six samples, average 83.8; lowest 78, highest 88.

Mystic Monk Coffee. Two samples, average 86.0; lowest 85, highest 87.

Caribou Coffee. Five samples, average 85.2; lowest 83, highest 87.

Folgers. Three samples, average 81.7; lowest 79, highest 86.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and little Mystic Monk Coffee both are sponsors/advertisers on Coffee Review. But recall that we do our best to test coffees blind, identified only by number, and even given the complications involved in doing a blind setup of K-Cup-brewed coffees, I think we succeeded in maintaining anonymity.

When we tested five or more samples from a single roasting company, we chose to run reviews of the highest rated coffee(s) from that company plus one from around the average rating for that same company. When we tested three or fewer coffees from the same company, we reviewed only the highest-rated.

This review article deliberately focuses only on the market-leading Keurig system and K-Cups or compatibles; other single-serve systems, including Keurig’s own upgraded Vue system and its Vue packs (more control, more coffee volume, better recyclability), were not considered for this article, though we may take them up in later articles.

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