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The Demise of Single-Serve Coffee Makers?

Even Mr. Coffee has gotten into the single-serve game.

Over at Coffee Detective, Nick Usborne raises an interesting question: are single-cup coffee makers poised for growth or collapse? It's a bizarre question on its face, since it seems like every home either has, or is shopping for, a single-serve coffee maker, and as patents begin to sunset, many other companies are jumping on the single-serve bandwagon. But if you dig a bit deeper, there are some reasons that we may be reaching peak single-serve.

Usborne raises two salient points weighing against single-serve brewers. First of these is cost. While we advocate for good Third Wave coffee hereabouts, we're fully cognizant of the fact that good coffee is still, generally speaking, a niche phenomenon. Simple mathematics dictate that more people are drinking Folgers than Stumptown, 'cause more people can find Folgers at their grocery store than live near a Stumptown cafe. With those economies of scale, of course, there are price consequences. Folgers can get away with using beans that HiLine, Blue Bottle or Intelligentsia wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, and they can buy those beans in significant quantity that they can sell them at a lower price. If you watch the sale circulars, you can get a container of Folgers that'll make about 200 cups of drip coffee for about eight bucks.

Or, if you prefer convenience, you could buy a box of Folgers K-Cups for about the same price and get twelve cups of coffee instead. Pause and let that sink in. The second point -- which we've already covered here (and here) -- is the inherent waste and ultimate environmental unsustainability of many single-serve systems. To recap, Keurig's proprietary cups use a plastic that's nigh-impossible to recycle, and while a few manufacturers have rolled out recyclable versions, most people don't recycle those either. That's literally tons of plastic being added to landfills yearly. Meanwhile, had you brewed in a drip coffee maker, all you'd have to do is compost the filter and the grounds (if you're using a KONE or other method that doesn't require paper filters, you'd have even less to compost). Usborne cites the potential for environmental backlash as a possible stumbling block.

Buying better beans, like our Union Square Dark, keeps your taste buds and your wallet happy.

We'd add a third point that isn't raised in Usborne's piece. The technology is regressing. The two biggest names in single-serve coffee machines have both released new, "improved," machines that have turned heads for all the wrong reasons. In the case of the Nespresso Vertuoline, the much-touted centrifugal doodad that's supposed to make their coffee extra lovely doesn't quite do that. In fact, many users are complaining that they liked their older machines better. But they're not complaining nearly as loud as buyers of the Keurig 2.0, who've been saddled with DRM-restricted K-cups that are more expensive than the already-pricey 1.0 versions, with no discernable improvement in taste or quality (in fact, like the Vertuoline, there have been taste complaints made about the 2.0).

Ironically, if anything leads to the downfall of single-serve machines, it may not be cost or environmental concerns. As we've already seen from customers' reactions to recent Nespresso and Keurig machines, it could be the loss of convenience. Once the extra bells and whistles don't deliver as promised, once you've had to return your second defective machine in six months, or once you can't use your favorite beans in a reusable filter in your single-serve machine, that tends to be when some of the luster wears off. But we digress. Here's a fourth point, by way of conclusion: for the price of a Keurig 2.0 and a box of 2.0-compliant K-Cups, you could buy a French press, an Aeropress, a Kalita Wave pourover cone, and no small amount of quality coffee, and go positively nuts making coffee that'll knock your socks off. Pick just one of the brewing methods above and you'd have the money for a perfectly servicable burr grinder if you haven't already got one. And you'd still have plenty of money for good whole bean coffee. Call us silly, but isn't that better than paying through the nose for the cheap stuff?