The Single-Serve Compromise

The well-publicized commercial success of the Keurig single-serve brewer and Starbucks’ efforts to get in on the single-serve action have created much breathless reporting and speculation in the financial press, but we don’t hear much about the quality of the coffees the various contending single-serve systems are putting out, or their advantages (or pitfalls) for the coffee-engaged consumer. For this month’s article we tested five well-established single-serve systems and their coffees. We provide detailed reviews of three coffees associated with each system: the highest rated, the lowest rated, and one with a middling rating. Within the next several days, we will publish a more detailed comparison of the brewing systems.

We tested the Keurig system and its K-cups, the Bunn My Café and its paper pods, the Senseo and its paper pods, the espresso-oriented Nespresso system, and the complex, multi-beverage Tassimo and its hi-tech T Discs.

What can a consumer who drinks brewed (i.e. non-espresso) coffee expect from these machines and their matching little capsules, pods and disks?

1. Clear convenience – All units we tried worked well right out of the box and produced coffee from their respective little thingies with minimum fuss, no mess and relatively quick warm-up at start-up.

2. Limitations in coffee choice – No matter whose machine you buy, the capsules or pods that fit it will not bring you the widest range of coffee styles and coffee origins, nor will they bring you the world’s very best coffees, which simply don’t show up in capsules and pods. On the other hand, and in different ways, both the Keurig and the Nespresso programs offer impressive coffee variety and quality.

You also can use your own coffees in the Keurig, Bunn and Senseo by buying reusable filter capsules or (in the case of the Bunn and Senseo) by making your own paper pods using a pod maker. Either way you will need a consistent grind, something only obtained with a good burr grinder, not a blade grinder. And whether it is worth the fuss (considerable) or whether you would be better off simply taking the same coffee and brewing it in a single-cup manual pour-over is something that only you, the time-pressed coffee lover, can decide.

3. Short servings – We found we had to stop the extraction at about four to six ounces with all of the tested machines to optimize flavor and mouthfeel. You may produce a satisfactory cup at eight or so ounces with some machines and some capsules, but taller than that and you probably will find yourself drinking a thin, listless beverage. The exception is the Senseo, which comes with an adaptor that allows you to brew a taller cup using two pods stacked atop one another.

4. Additional cost for coffee – The little atmosphere-protected pods or capsules associated with these devices add anywhere from a little extra (say around 25%) to a whole lot more (as much as 200%) to the cost of a comparable whole-bean coffee.

Comparing the Systems

Taking these systems one at a time, what can a consumer expect from each?

Keurig: The Category Gorilla; Choice, Quality

The Keurig produces a style of coffee arguably closer in sensory terms to classic American filter coffee than anything produced by the competing systems, which use varying intensities of pressure extraction.

Given Keurig is owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Green Mountain probably roasts and sells a greater variety of coffees than any roasting company in the world, it should be no surprise that K-cups give the single-serve consumer by far the largest selection of quality coffee choices available in any single-serve format. This is not to even mention K-cups from the smaller specialty roasting companies Green Mountain owns or licenses, plus new K-cup brands launched by Green Mountain, and coming soon, yes, trumpets, Starbucks coffees in K-cups.

And the quality of this large selection is impressive; our reviews of K-cups did not top 90 because, frankly, the Keurig, like most single-serve systems, does not appear to extract a full range of aromatics, but of the twelve K-cup offerings we tested for this month’s review, two impressed at 89, and in both cases when we experimented by eviscerating the K-cups and preparing and tasting the contents using standard cupping procedure, both topped 90.

Keurig Ratings: Twelve K-cup coffees tested: High 89, low 84, average 87.

Bunn: An Open Door with Few Takers

Bunn is unusual in the world of single-serve coffee because it does not offer a Bunn-branded coffee to match its brewers. It offers a line of well-engineered single-serve brewers using generic paper pods that do not require licensing and are branded under the names of the roasting companies that produce them. Unfortunately, not many roasting companies have stepped up to take advantage of this invitation, and having tasted our way through eleven Bunn-compatible pods it is hard not to reach the conclusion that those companies that have signed on are not trying very hard. Five of the eleven coffees we tested displayed outright taste defects that drove their ratings under 80. On the other hand, the Baronet Colombia reviewed here at 88 was classic and excellent, suggesting that there is certainly no barrier to a roasting company producing distinguished pod-format coffees for the My Café. (Pods produced by Douwe Egberts for the Senseo system also can be used on the Bunn My Café, by the way, and vice-versa, though based on our ratings the Senseo-brand pods offer no appreciable improvement in average quality over the roaster-branded pods we tested on the Bunn.)

Bunn Ratings: Eleven Bunn-compatible roaster-branded coffees tested on the Bunn platform: High 88, low 72, average 80.

Nespresso: Quality in European Short Black Coffee

The Nespresso system, apparently as impressive a success in parts of Europe as Keurig is in the States, was designed originally for Swiss taste in coffee, where servings are small, from the ristretto, a tiny pool of espresso at the bottom of a demitasse, to the “lungo” or long black coffee, about four ounces of black coffee brewed using the espresso system. (Given the taste for mammoth beverages in the U.S., “shorto” might be a more appropriate term.) I have endured many a bad lungo during my work and travels in the Europe: rough, silty and bitter, basically badly overextracted espresso. But the Nespresso system, with its careful blend design and capsules that appear to filter the coffee through a barely punctured rubbery membrane, produces a quite pleasant 4-ounce lungo that should please American brewed coffee drinkers who can get over the idea that they are being asked to satisfy themselves with a mere four ounces of coffee at a pop. An override permits you to brew a cup longer than four ounces with the same capsule, but having tried it, well, me, I wouldn’t do it; I’d brew another four ounces.

One could say that the Nespresso approach to providing coffee variety and quality is the opposite of the Keurig/Green Mountain approach. Rather than offering as large a range of coffee choice as possible along the lines of the Keurig program, Nespresso uses a less-is-more approach by narrowing the possibility to sixteen impressively well-designed blends or “Grands Crus” that attempt to represent a sort of wide-ranging but tightly edited rendition of the world of coffee sensory possibility. Only four are specifically designed for “lungo” production, including one decaf. But the three caffeinated lungos are pleasing and distinctive, from the richly bright, fruit- and floral-toned 89-rated Finezzo to the heavier, lower-toned Fortissio (85), with its chocolaty, mildly fermented fruit notes. Those interested in sampling an unusual all-India blend that appears to make skillful use of wet-processed India Robusta may find the Indriya (87) of interest.

Nespresso Ratings: Six Nespresso capsules tested: High 89, low 85, average 87.

Senseo: Inexpensive, Straightforward, Odor-Compromised

Senseo offers the least expensive line of single-serve brewers available, and the Senseo pods on an average constitute the least-expensive line of single-serve coffees. The brewer produces what appears to be a decent extraction from compatible paper pods, but the unit we tested produced dramatically off-tasting brewing water (chemical tasting and astringent) that consistently depressed the quality of the finished beverages.

Senseo-brand pods offer a limited though thoughtfully distributed range of blends. Quality of these blends was decent but not impressive, situated in quality and character well above canned supermarket coffees but no better than most supermarket whole-bean bin offerings. Bunn-compatible pods can also be used in Senseo brewers.

Senseo Ratings: Seven Senseo-brand coffee pods tested: High 85, low 76, average 81.

Tassimo: Versatile, Technologically Sophisticated, Coffee-Compromised

The Tassimo system, with its Bosch-manufactured brewing device and matching proprietary T Discs, aims at providing a convenience-first single-serving solution for a variety of beverages, including filter-style coffee, tea, espresso-based beverages and hot chocolate. The Tassimo T Discs incorporate a bar code that instructs the brewing device how to prepare the particular beverage incorporated in the Disc, though the instructions can be overridden manually. Used singly or in combination these Discs can produce an impressive range of beverages. Unfortunately, the coffee beverages we sampled were compromised in various ways. The espresso was not nearly as impressive in quality as the espresso produced by the Nespresso system, and (with the exception of the Starbucks co-branded T Discs) the European- and American-style black coffees struck us as inferior to their Nespresso and Keurig counterparts.

The only bright spot was the Starbucks T Disc blends (rated 85 to 87) which pack nearly 15 grams of ground coffee in a mammoth Disc, and if brewed at six to eight ounces per serving produce a convincing rendition of a good, freshly brewed Starbucks café coffee. Given Starbucks has parted ways with Kraft, Kraft has announced plans to replace the current three Starbucks T Discs with three Gevalia “X-tra bold” coffees presumably designed to provide consumers with a similar coffee experience.

Tassimo Ratings: Ten Tassimo coffee T Discs tested: High 87, low 79, average 84.

The Single-Serve Future

I suppose that this entire exercise was rendered a bit obsolete the moment Starbucks decided to join forces with Green Mountain behind the K-cup format. It would be nice to imagine some consortium of high-end roasters getting behind the Bunn paper pod solution and doing the coffee part of that program right, but that seems unlikely, as does Peet’s managing to promote some alternative to K-cups. Unless Nestlé foments an unlikely success with its so far rather undercoffee-ed and poorly distributed Dolce Gusto system, it looks like a coffee future in which consumers with enough time for quality continue to brew their coffees in traditional ways while the no-time-now set brews their drip-style coffee from K-cups and their espresso from Nespresso or competing capsules. Not a bad outcome, I suppose, given the quality of these two programs. At least quality prevailed in single-serve, unlike Starbucks’ apparent triumph with VIA instant coffee, a success that only can be attributable to a combination of shrewd marketing and mass sensory hallucination.

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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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