The demand for single-cup coffee pods has skyrocketed in recent years. A February 2013 poll by Harris Interactive found that one in three Americans now have a single-cup brewer at home or work.*
Yet, the basics of the coffee-brewing system have changed little over the last few millennia; like our ancestors, we continue to grind coffee beans and pour hot water over them to release their flavor. The main difference is that the tools we use in the brewing process have grown increasingly automated, from the percolator to the automatic drip, Now, we have finally arrived at an individualized system that demands virtually nothing from the consumer. No preparation, no cleanup and now each family member or colleague can prepare a cup precisely to his or her own taste. Do you prefer Butter Toffee, or are you more of a Chocolate Glazed Donut drinker?
Amidst the wealth of flavors and effortless convenience, artisan coffee brands like Peet’s now must strive to convince customers that coffee quality hasn’t been sacrificed in the process, that a K-Cup really is as high quality as pour-over beans and blends that connoisseurs cherish. As Peet’s roastmaster Doug Welsh explains, “We’ve designed a specific dose (to the tenth of a gram) for each specific blend and a grind parameter that we measure to the micron.”*
While many brands market their single-cup coffee as “premium” and artisanal, most coffee aficionados remain unconvinced of the pods’ quality. After calculating the brewing ratios and extraction times of two popular pod brewers, Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman concluded that it is simply impossible for the machines to produce a truly superior cup of coffee.* K-Cups and other pods designed for long shelf life can’t compete with the impact of moist, freshly ground beans.
In the absence of superior taste, the convenience of single-cup pod packaging appears to be the primary factor driving the market. Manufacturing K-Cups and other single-use pods requires components that prevent oxygen, light and moisture from degrading the coffee contents.** Without a suitable barrier, manufacturers cannot guarantee freshness, and so end up with hybrid packaging that is virtually unrecyclable. Usually, single-cup pods consist of three elements: a plastic cup, filter and aluminum foil top. The pod plastics are derived from petroleum, while our main source of aluminum is bauxite ore, which exists only in a finite supply. Rancaño rightly points out that the building-block materials of these pods are derived from nonrenewable resources that could be better utilized for products that weren’t intended to be trash.
The long-term health effects of drinking beverages produced by forcing scalding water through a flimsy plastic cup—which, depending on the brand, may or may not contain BPA—are also difficult to gauge. K-Cups are produced from BPA-free plastics, but are composed of a blend of polyethylene, ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) and polystyrene.* Styrene, however, also has known health issues associated with it, and long-term exposure has been linked to neurotoxic symptoms like fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, low platelet counts and chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities.*
Despite these red flags, the single-cup industry continues to flourish. In fact, many single-cup manufacturers are now expanding beyond coffee into other markets. Keurig alone now boasts more than 30 brands and 250 K-Cup flavors, including raspberry chocolate truffle coffee, Snapple lemon iced tea, and acaí berry “fruit brew,”* and, most recently, has even teamed up with Campbell’s to produce a line of Campbell’s Soup K-Cups scheduled for release in 2014.***
* Rancaño, Vanessa. “Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze.” East Bay Express. 21 August 2013. < http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/waste-the-dark-side-of-the-new-coffee-craze/Content?oid=3687220&storyPage=1>.
** “As Single-Serve Coffee Use Soars, Industry Struggles with Recycling Solutions.” Environmental Leader. 5 June 2013. <http://www.environmentalleader.com/2013/06/05/as-single-serve-coffee-use-soars-industry-struggles-with-recycling-solutions/>.
*** Richmond, Holly. “Hate Your Life? Make Campbell’s Soup with Your Keurig Coffee Machine.” Grist. 10 Sept 2013. < http://grist.org/list/hate-your-life-make-campbells-soup-with-your-keurig-coffee-machine/>.