How Not to Make Coffee (or, Why Keurigs Suck)

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I’ve decided to use the vaguely public platform of this blog to shine a light on a failure of modern American society.  A loss of our cultural and culinary heritage.  I’m talking about the fact that a surprising number of people use a Keurig* – a ridiculously bad approach to coffee – to prepare their morning brew.

How can this be? Making coffee is the simplest task in the entire kitchen. Heck, you don’t even need a kitchen – fantastic coffee can be made over a campfire, on a Coleman, or even over a bunsen burner.  The only inputs for delicious coffee are (1) ground coffee beans and (2) hot water, steeped together and strained through some form of filter.  That’s it.  Throw some ground coffee into a cotton / paper / metal / ceramic filter, pour boiling water over the top,  and voilà – you have coffee!

So, if that is all that is required to make coffee, why are millions of people spending $150 to buy ridiculous contraptions like this?  Because they’ve been convinced by Keurig marketing that Keurig engineering will resolve their time/life imbalance?  Because they’re intimidated by hipsters talking about terroir and single-origin and third-wave and wet-processing, and assume they lack the artistry to make a good cup of coffee?   Because they reflexively believe that price = quality, so the more expensive machine will ergo produce better coffee?   I actually can’t imagine why these pod-based systems are so popular, so will drop my speculation.  The point of this post is simply that Keurigs are not the best (or even a good) way to make coffee.

Okay.  Let’s start with the premise that a Keurig = Good Coffee.  What’s wrong with the equation?  Oh, right. The equals sign is a bit off.  It should look like this:  Keurig \neq Good Coffee. That’s better.  More accurate.  Keurig coffee pods are designed for convenience, not quality.  It is the modern-day equivalent of Nescafe. It is train / plane / hotel room coffee.  You will never go to a fine restaurant or a fancy coffee shop or a foodie’s dinner party and be served a Keurig coffee.  True baristas don’t use a Keurig.

Not only that, but Keurig coffee is wrong.  What do I mean by wrong? Well, remember the basic premise from above?  Coffee = ground coffee beans + hot water? Using a Keurig adds another ingredient.  I call it eau de plastique.  A Keurig brews by shooting scalding water into a plastic pod containing ground coffee.*  Just think about that for half a second.  Super hot water. Plastic.  How do you know that all the nasty plastic chemicals in the pod don’t just leach into your coffee and go straight into your bloodstream?  Uh, yeah. You don’t. You’re drinking coffee stewed with boiled plastic.  Some day, humanity will regret many of the uses to which we’ve put plastic. Water bottles, Nalgene bottles, baby bottles.  Oh shoot, that day has already come – remember BPA?  Well, Keurig has confirmed that there’s no BPA in their pods, but what makes you think that the other chemicals in plastic are super healthy?  Hot Water + Plastic + Ingestion = Bad Idea

Okay, you say, perhaps Keurig coffee isn’t all that tasty and perhaps brewing in plastic pods is, um, soon to to be regretted.  But brewing with a Keurig is so efficient! You only have to use the amount of coffee and water necessary for one cup. And it’s so quick!  Well, bad argument, I say, bad argument.  It may be quick, but making coffee is not a particularly slow process to begin with, so the Keurig can’t save that much time.  And it’s certainly not “efficient” – see below:

Cost:  Buying Keurig “pods” equates to $50 per pound for Folgers coffee.  Here in Berkeley, California, where the hippest hipsters in the world roast the fanciest, single-origin, organic, hand-farmed, fair-trade, heirloom/heritage beans from all over the world, a pound of fancy coffee beans ranges from $10/lb to $15/lb in Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods.  Keurig dares to charge FOUR TO FIVE TIMES the price of true artisanal coffee, for the privilege of having your subpar grounds parsed out in little tiny plastic pods.  Paying way more than the market price for coffee is not efficient to consumers (although it is profitable to Keurig – of the company’s $4.7 Billion in net sales in 2014 (including revenues from sales of brewers, pods, accessories, etc.), $3.6 Billion (or 77%) was from sales of coffee pods).*

Waste: Using Keurig pods means that your two cups of morning coffee causes the production and disposal of two little plastic pods.  Which are not recyclable.*  And which end up in landfills.  But they’re little bitty, you say!  Little bitty, my ass.  Using a Keurig means that your 2-a-day coffee habit results in the addition of 730 plastic pods to the earth’s waste each year.  Or, on a macro level, the Atlantic reports that there were 9.8 Billion Keurig pods sold in 2014 – to visualize this, just imagine a bazillion teeny Keurig pods circling the equator, and again, and again, and again.  Until the chain of plastic has wrapped itself twelve times around our Earth. That’s about how many K-pods were buried in landfills in 2014. Not to state the obvious, but since it is very easy to make coffee without any plastic pods or other non-biodegradable waste whatsoever, clearly the disposal in landfills of 10 billion or more pods per year is not an efficient use of our environmental resources.

Time: Yes, traditional methods of brewing coffee require a few minutes to heat the water. But you don’t have to sit and stare at the pot for the whole 5 or 10 minutes it takes to boil the water. You can take a shower. Feed the dog. Wake the kids. Take a peek at the sunrise. Then drink your coffee.

So, what’s my point?  Aaaargh!  Only this: Keurigs are a waste of money.  They don’t make good coffee and are an expensive, polluting solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.  It is and always has been exceptionally easy to make your own delicious coffee without using any machine at all, but since no one makes any money on the machine-free solution, it has somehow magically escaped coverage by copywriters and publicists.  If you want to see how my wife and I make our own pretty good, very cheap, very easy, zero-waste coffee, see my post creatively titled “How to Make Pretty Darn Decent Coffee.”  Go ahead, it’s a short one.  Because making coffee is easy.

 

Notes:

Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. is the market leading manufacturer of pod-based coffee systems in North America.

A recent poll by the National Coffee Association found that 1 in 5 adults surveyed had drunk coffee made in a single-cup brewer the day before, up from 1 in 14 in 2010.

According to Wikipedia, Keurig plastic coffee pods are made of a polystyrene/ EVOH/polyethylene polymer blend. Polystyrene is the outer layer, while EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol) is used as a gas barrier and to prevent chemical flow-off from the other plastics under heating. Polyethylene is used as a heat seal layer and a moisture barrier. Yummy!

Keurig is currently fighting lawsuits claiming that it has violated antitrust laws in its efforts to protect profits by limiting competition in the coffee pod market.   One of the chief points of contention is its use of digital rights management (“DRM”) technology in its new-generation brewers which prevent the machines from accepting non-Keurig pods (including “green” pods produced by more environmentally sensitive companies).  The DRM restrictions have also pissed off many Keurig customers, as they discovered that with the new (and expensive) brewer they could no longer make their favorite non-Keurig brands of coffee or use any of the several types of refillable cups that previously allowed them to bypass the pod altogether.  Facing declining sales and furious customers, Keurig reversed course and announced last month that it would re-introduce a refillable/non-disposable cup that can be used with its new-generation brewers (although other companies’ pods would still be off-limits).

Keurig single-serve pods are made from #7 plastic and are not recyclable; however, their new multi-serve pods made for their 4-cup carafe are made from #5 propylene and are, according to Keurig, recyclable in 60% of U.S. communities (provided that you take the time to separate the foil top and embedded paper filter from the plastic shell).  According to Mother Jones, the recyclable multi-serve pods constitute only about 5% of Keurig’s pods (reported in 2014).  Keurig has stated that they would like to make all pods recyclable by 2020 (i.e., in five years, after the production of an additional many billions of non-recyclable pods).

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Guilty as charged. I bought one for Mama (seriously, she needed it easy), and got hooked myself. I have a pretty Melitta pot Aunt R. painted back when she was painting such things…maybe I should use that instead.

  2. Totally agree Ramey! Happy to have found your blog!

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