By February 6, 2015 |Reviews Tasting Report
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K-Cups and Other Cups: Capsule Single-Serve Coffees

When Coffee Review last visited the single-serve filter-coffee capsule scene in 2013, smaller, high-end roasting companies were eyeing the soaring popularity of Keurig K-Cups with some apprehension and, in a few cases, with interest: Hey, maybe I can get in on the action once the patents start lapsing. However, based on what we encountered during this month’s tasting, it seems that most higher-end roasting companies have decided to ignore both the potential threat and the potential opportunity posed by single-serve capsule brewing. The retail specialty market appears to have settled out into a high end of roasters producing ever more refined (and in some cases ever more expensive) single-origin coffees for a growing clientele of informed buyers who brew their own coffee their own way, while the convenience-first K-Cups and capsules have settled squarely into the middle of the market spectrum, pricier and for the most part considerably better than the cheap Robusta-heavy blends in the jars and cans, but also considerably less distinguished than the coffees produced by the elite roasters that are expanding the top end of the market.

Given the recent developments in single-serve capsules – new capsule designs, more roasters entering the single-serve arena, an entirely new capsule system designed by Nespresso – we expected to identify at least a few startlingly good and different coffees available now to tempt the more adventurous among the 13% or so United States coffee drinkers who now brew their coffee using single-serve capsules.

We tested nearly fifty coffees in capsule format, all designed to produce long, American-style coffee (not espresso). Seventeen of these coffees were offered in Keurig-licensed K-Cups (identified by the “Keurig Brewed” logo on the packaging), twenty-four were offered in alternative Keurig-compatible capsule designs, and six were proprietary-design capsules that can only be used in the new Nespresso VertuoLine system, a system apparently designed to compete with the Keurig by producing a sort of froth-topped version of American filter coffee.

The K-Cups and Compatibles

First the Keurig-compatible capsule coffees. We did turn up a couple of genuine high-end specialty coffees in Keurig-compatible format: the 90-rated Giv COFFEE Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Konga Natural plus an unusual coffee grown, roasted and packed in Taiwan, the 88-rated Sancoffee Taitung Guanshan Lot 12, a fine and intriguing coffee that ought to have scored better but was limited by an underpowered capsule format. We had a solid cup from one of the usual suspects from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the classically earthy and chocolaty Sumatra Reserve Extra Bold (88) and a crisply balanced, gently citrusy El Salvador, a value from HiLine Coffee at $6.99 per twelve capsules.

The remaining five 87-rated coffees that fill out our reviews for this month were all worthy, some quietly distinctive, with an expressive range that stretched from the surprisingly zesty and citrusy medium-roasted Aria Blend Blonde Roast from Starbucks to the nicely modulated, briskly lively dark-roast blend from Whidbey Coffee. But generally we encountered a lot of decent but drab, repetitively ordinary coffees in these Keurig-licensed and Keurig-compatible capsules.

The good news may be that only two of the forty-one licensed Keurig or Keurig-compatible samples proved to be outright tainted and only an additional three struck us as thoroughly woody and empty. Our average rating for Keurig-compatible capsules of all designs was 84.8 (high of 90, low of 77). The average rating for the seventeen official Keurig-licensed K-Cups was 85.7, high of 88, low of 80).

The New Nespresso VertuoLine

The new VertuoLine Nespresso system and its Europeanized, froth-topped versions of American drip-style coffees also disappointed, producing ratings in about the same range as Keurig-system coffees, and similarly lacking consistent specialty-level excitement and distinction. Our average rating for the Nespresso blends offered in the new VertuoLine format was 85.3 (high of 88, low of 83). I admit that we were expecting a little more from the new Nespresso system. Experienced espresso drinkers who have been able to set aside potential bad attitudes provoked by Nespresso’s slick marketing and snobby boutiques and actually taste the espresso produced by the original Nespresso capsule system know how surprisingly good that espresso can be, both in respect to brewing and to consistent differentiation among blends. Both times we tested the original Nespresso espresso system (Convenience First: Espresso Pods and Capsules, January 2009, and Three New Capsule Espresso Systems, July 2013), we concluded that it deserved its commercial success on sound gustatory and technical grounds.

However, this month’s round of testing suggests that the heretofore brilliant machine designers and blenders at Nespresso may have missed the boat to America with their latest product, however well-suited it may be to some north-central European tastes.

Why Not Better?

But rather than pick on the VertuoLine in particular, we might fold our analysis of the new Nespresso system into a larger attempt to answer a more general question: Why didn’t we find more original, exciting coffee experiences among the various American-style long coffee single-serve capsules we tested, whether the licensed Keurig K-cups, the new Keurig-compatible cups of various designs, or the VertuoLine proprietary capsules?

Settling on an Optimum Serving Size

Before answering that question, some clarifications about our testing procedures. Obviously one gets different results from both the Keurig and VertuoLine depending on the volume of water one instructs the machine to dispense through the coffee capsule; in other words, the size of the serving.

Keurig designs have changed over the years, but all permit a choice of serving sizes, usually three options: 6-ounce, 8-ounce and 10-ounce. We determined some time ago that the best cup obtainable from the Keurig system is at the 6-ounce setting. We arrived at the 6-ounce option initially through tasting, subsequently confirmed through quantitative testing using the methodology and criteria employed to determine “gold cup” brewing standards as promulgated by American and European coffee associations. Although many of the cups produced by various Keurig-compatible capsule designs fell woefully short of “gold cup” standards at any serving size (usually weak and under-extracted), a few, those that contained around 11 grams of ground coffee, either attained or came quite close to gold-cup standards when tested at 6 ounces.

Coming close to meeting gold cup standards in brewing, of course, does not guarantee an impressive-tasting cup; at least it didn’t for many of the capsules we tested. The 11 grams of coffee inside the cup also need to be produced from high-quality green beans brought to an appropriate and effective roast. And the resulting ground coffee inside the capsule needs to be reasonably fresh. A tendency to shadow staling constitutes another, very significant, liability with capsule coffee.

Brewing Volume and the VertuoLine

Returning to the Nespresso VertuoLine system, we reached a similar conclusion in respect to optimum serving size as we did with the Keurig system. The VertuoLine incorporates a default brewing volume for its American-sized coffees that produces an 8-ounce serving. We modified this serving size for our testing, reducing it to approximately 6+ ounces, the size at which we felt we obtained the best tasting cup, as well as a cup that on an average came closest to approaching (though remaining far distant from) “gold cup” standards as measured by quantitative analytic methods now standard long filter coffee in both North America and Europe.

At any rate, and to summarize, all of our reviews and observations associated with this article are based on the aforementioned serving sizes: 6 ounces for Keurig-compatible capsules and approximately 6+ ounces for the Nespresso VertuoLine system.

Why So Little Excitement and Originality?

To return to our earlier question: Why aren’t there more exciting, original coffee experiences available in single-serve capsules?

For starters, most capsules we tested did not come close to producing an optimally brewed cup, even at 6 ounces. The original design of licensed Keurig K-Cup capsule (not the Extra Bold) uses about 9 grams of ground coffee and tends to produce a lightly viscous but thin cup, often with weakly expressed aromatics. The Nespresso VertuoLine system, which uses a sizeable dose of ground coffee (12 grams), brews it applying a combination of pressure and some agitation, and which does not incorporate a filter (as all K-Cups and Keurig-compatible capsules do), exhibited the opposite problem: an over-extracted cup, heavy, rather lifeless, and nowhere near a gold-cup standard when subjected to quantitative analysis.

The best brewing results, closest to a gold standard cup standard for filter coffee, were produced either by licensed Keurig K-Cups packing an “Extra Bold” dose of ground coffee (around 11 grams) or by the two examples we tested of the Keurig-compatible UpShot capsules, an unusual new design making use of soft-sided filters. Most of the coffees we review here at 87 through 90 came from capsules that, at a 6-ounce serving, produced something close to a gold-standard-brewed cup, particularly in respect to extraction percentage. (As usual, we performed the quantitative testing after we determined our ratings based on blind tasting.)

Then Comes Freshness

Another problem: Many of the coffees inside the capsules we tested appeared to be a bit stale. We could not confirm this observation through quantitative testing, since these little capsules are too small to give us dependable readings of residual oxygen retained inside the package. (Very low to no residual oxygen is one simple indication of whether the packaging has maintained its integrity as a barrier against staling.). But other signs were not hopeful. We often detected a woody note (old, boardy wood, not fresh, aromatic wood) in many samples, one sign of staling, plus the “best by” dates on packaging often were alarming in their implications, suggesting that manufacturers actually expected the packaging to protect the freshness of these little packets of ground coffee for a year, perhaps longer.

Finally, the Coffee

A third problem, and closest to our hearts at Coffee Review: The coffee inside most of the almost fifty capsules we tested was generally not particularly distinctive. Most samples were decent though hardly exciting blends; only a few were distinguished, small-lot, single-origin coffees of the kind that attract high ratings on Coffee Review. Again, the best we tested was the 90-rated Giv COFFEE Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Konga Natural, presented in an UpShot capsule holding 11 grams of ground coffee that generated close to a perfect gold-cup-standard extraction at a 6-ounce setting. However, similar Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Konga Naturals from the same crop year and perhaps from the same exporter attracted average ratings of 93 on Coffee Review when cupped as freshly ground whole-bean. Given the extraction was good in the Giv COFFEE capsule and the roast seemed tactful and appropriate, most likely the culprit that held this coffee back from an even higher rating was a shadow staling of the ground coffee.

Turning back to the Nespresso VertuoLine capsules, it may be that nuance-dulling over-extraction was the major contributor to the overall disappointing performance of the VertuoLine samples, rather than the quality of the blends themselves or their constituent green coffees. An overly efficient extraction with all of the VertuoLine capsules seemed to dull aromatic grace notes while emphasizing woody, salty or bitter base notes. Readers who have traveled in north-central Europe may be familiar with what one usually gets there when one asks for a black coffee as opposed to an espresso: a three-to-five ounce serving of coffee produced by an espresso machine, a sort of super-long espresso shot. Perhaps it is a taste for coffee production of this kind that influenced the Nespresso decision to offer a long cup that, measured against all relevant coffee association standards for filter coffee, whether American, European or Scandinavian, was clearly over-extracted.

Why the Third Wave is Sitting Out Single-Serve

A final question, which returns us to the beginning of this article: Why haven’t more of the innovating, paradigm-changing roasters of the kind typically reviewed well at Coffee Review (sometimes labeled “third wave” roasters) waded into the single-serve market? For several reasons, I think.

  • Most are doing fine where they are, selling mostly whole-bean coffees to local and Internet customers. To do single-serve capsules even close to right requires either considerable investment in and commitment to new packing procedures, or turning over part of the production process to a toll-packer. Why risk that when you’re doing well with whole-bean?
  • Meanwhile single-serve capsules increasingly have been transformed into a value-added money-maker for larger coffee companies ranging from the original Green Mountain brand through Starbucks and Peet’s to old-time Robusta-heavy brands like Folgers. All of which makes single-serve less attractive to the third-wave crowd, who as a consequence have increasingly adopted an anti-K-Cup ideology.
  • Finally, there is the troublesome waste issue: Pre-grinding coffee and sealing it into many little foil-topped plastic cups rather than selling it whole bean in larger bags offends the environmentally progressive positions of many smaller roasting companies, as well as the environmentally progressive sensibilities of their customers. True, some progress has been made in this regard; Intelligent Blends (a Coffee Review advertiser) packs private-labeled coffees in proprietary #5 recyclable capsules; the soft-sided UpShot capsules are #5 recyclable as well. Of course, consumers still need to knock or dig the spent grounds out of either of these styles of capsule for composting before they can recycle the capsules, plus to my knowledge the capsule lids are not recyclable. Furthermore, the soft-sided UpShot capsules are porous and do not protect the coffee, meaning they require secondary packaging to protect them against oxygen and moisture, secondary packaging that at present is not recyclable. I expect that in the long run the waste issue may be satisfactorily resolved, probably through compostable capsules, but in the meantime it represents one more disincentive for high-end roasters to enter the single-serve capsule arena.

At any rate, and for whatever reasons, the high-end, micro-lot loving, light-to-medium roasting coffee companies appear to have driven on past the single-serve opportunity, leaving it to their larger volume colleagues. And even among those companies there may be desertions. Will the new management at Keurig/Green Mountain continue to produce the reliably good Green Mountain Kenyan AA and Sumatra Reserve capsules, for many years one of the few dependably distinctive pleasures in the K-Cup world? And will we ever experience again from Keurig/Green Mountain a K-Cupped coffee of the rare and celebrated Geisha variety, as we did in 2012?

Close Perhaps, but No Ninety-Four

It is true, however, that as we tasted our way through this month’s rather repetitive, middling lineup of K-cups and compatibles, performed our tests of strength and extraction and tore open and examined various capsule designs, it did become clear that from a purely technical perspective a K-Cup or Keurig-compatible capsule probably can be produced that at least can come close to showcasing an exceptional coffee, with a ratings loss in Coffee Review terms of, say, only a couple of points. At 11 grams per capsule with a good capsule design (and a 6-ounce cup volume), one can get a gold-cup extraction or close to it. But what is required additionally is great green coffee, sensitive roasting, and, hardest and most expensive of all, packing the coffee fresh after roasting/grinding in impeccable packaging that allows degassing of the fresh coffee. I believe that even this last challenge can be met today with existing technology if someone is willing to expend the money to do it – and if consumers can be found willing to pay a premium to cover the extra costs involved.

But, I can hear my leading-edge roaster acquaintances telling me, why should we bother with all of that? Why not just produce great whole-bean coffee freshly roasted for people with enough commitment to brew it themselves?

Afterword: Doing Your Own K-Cups

Which leads to the inevitable question of packing one’s own K-cups using one’s own coffee. We discussed this option in some detail in our April 2013 article The (Not Quite Arrived) New World of K-Cups. See that article for detailed evaluations of some currently available Keurig-compatible refillable capsules and suggestions for using them.

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Posted in: Tasting Reports

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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