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Is Single-Serve Killing Coffee?

Credit: George Hodan - Public Domain

You might think that the headline of a recent Eater piece - Americans Are Drinking Less Coffee Thanks to K-Cups - would strike fear in the heart of the industry that's sprung up around single-serve coffee. After all, coffee business is booming (even if it's slacked off from our coffee-drinking peak in 1946), so anything that portends a drop in consumption would be bad news, right? The answer -- and the reasons behind it -- are a bit more complex than that.

The Washington Post cites a recent survey by the United States Department of Agriculture (PDF below), which predicted that coffee consumption in the US will drop this year by roughly one percent, even as coffee output and consumption is expected to rise globally. As sales of single-serve coffee machines grow (and they will; WaPo notes that Keurig sales alone have grown more than 133 thousand percent since their introduction), that trend will continue, and may accelerate. The reason is simple: each cup of coffee made with a single-serve machine, especially where pods or capsules are involved, means the same amount of coffee in your cup, but less going down the drain or in the trash.

So what's the takeaway here? For starters, the advent of single-serve machines means that how we make coffee is different. Yes, that's blindingly obvious, but take a minute to think about what that means. Where making coffee used to mean firing up the kettle or the coffee maker and brewing a pot's or percolator's worth of coffee -- some of which would probably sit in the pot 'til the next morning -- many people are now brewing a cup at a time. We're wasting less coffee.

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Look at something else, as well. The single-serve market is on a steady climb, and accounts for how an ever-growing portion of the population gets its daily (or twice or thrice daily) coffee fix. With a little digging, you'll see that profits aren't really falling even though we're drinking less coffee. That's because unless you're using machines that utilize reusable filters, you're paying more for less coffee. On the surface, the implicit question raised by the Washington Post article -- might single-serve coffee ultimately be a victim of its own success? -- makes perfect sense, since anything that drives down consumption would seem to work against the industry as a whole. On the other hand, what's at work here isn't necessarily a decline in the number of cups we're drinking; it's a function of the ratio of beans used to coffee consumed. On the one hand, that would seem to be good news (after all, we're not drinking less coffee, we're wasting less). On the other hand, as consumers wise up to waste at different points in the chain, they may soon realize that they're trading one kind of waste for another. And that's where things will get interesting. The USDA 2015/16 report on world coffee markets (PDF)