Love Keurig? Not one bit. But yesterday Twitter was all a-buzz about the machine that brews single-serve coffee pods (K-cups) while they were “promoted” to the top of the trending list. So I tweeted my 140 character dissertation on the topic, simply stating that “Keurig is bad for coffee and bad for the Earth. #killthekcup.” While a few people—145 of them—agreed with me and re-shared the message, not everyone felt the same.
I was quickly contacted by Keurig with a link to their reusable K-cup as if that rectified the issue and put an end to the discussion. Then a few loyal K-cup fans were upset that I criticized their right to never have to wipe coffee off their counter tops, followed by another guy who thought that the billions of non-recyclable plastic cups are not an issue and I should invest my activist angst elsewhere.
The reality, it is a big issue—not just in the coffee industry, but in the bigger ecological picture. When the most important ”R” of conservation is to “reduce,” ignoring the rapid growth of an unnecessary and disposable product like K-cups is far from inconsequential. So, I’ve broken down my issues with this growing coffee trend into four categories: economics, quality, environment and the company behind it all.
First we’ll start with money, the topic people are generally concerned with the most. There are many ways to brew coffee, much better coffee, for the same cost (or less) than K-cups. On average, you can brew 30 cups of coffee with 1 pound of coffee beans. So let’s compare the two.
A 24-pack of Fair Trade Green Mountain Sumatran Reserve K-cups cost $15.45, which comes out to 65 cents a cup for glorified instant coffee. Meanwhile, you can buy a pound of Intelligenstia’s Direct Trade coffee for $20, which is a premium compared to what most people pay in a grocery store or even at most local roasters. Divide that by 30 and it comes out to 66 cents a cup for some of the best coffee you can buy. Cost savings per cup? Need a penny, take a penny.
What about all the expensive tools you need to brew fresh coffee? Let’s compare. The cheapest Kuerig brewing system you can buy is the Mr. Coffee KG1, which costs $79.50. Or for just $1.95 more, you can get an AeroPress, an entry level burr grinder and an electric kettle (assuming you need one). Once your water is heated, you can brew coffee with an AeroPress in the same amount of time as a K-cup—30 seconds. If time isn’t a concern, a french press, clever dripper, or pour-over cone can also brew one cup at a time and will take about 4 minutes.
Keurig’s tagline is “brewing excellence one cup at a time.” However, all basic principles of properly brewing coffee are ignored by the Keurig. For starters, the water in a Keurig only reaches 192°F (89°C), the Specialty Coffee Association of America suggests a minimum of 197.5°F and the industry standard is about 200°F. Combine the low water temperature with such a short brew time and you get a very under extracted cup.
There is also no control over the coffee to water ratio, so whether you want a small, medium or large cup, the same amount of coffee is used for the various levels of water. So a small will be extra strong, while a large will be weak and watery. When you push the corresponding size button, the amount of coffee in the cup doesn’t magically change.
The only way to truly make a cup of excellent coffee is to use fresh-roasted quality beans, ground just before brewing. No amount of freeze drying, airtight packaging or artificial flavors will produce a comparable cup. However, when your coffee options include “Chocolate Glazed Donut,” your beverage is as much coffee as Kool-Aid is fruit juice.
While taste may be subjective, quality is not.
In 2009, 1.6 billion non-recyclable plastic K-cups were sold (it was estimated that 3 billion would be sold in 2010). That’s enough plastic to circle the earth 1.25 times. Plastic that will take millions of years to degrade—if ever— and will continue to pile up in landfills and the ocean, increasing the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and killing wildlife. All in the name of low-quality convenience.
While loyalists and the company will quickly point out the “My K-cup” reusable basket as proof that Keurig isn’t all bad, that’s like saying Starbucks doesn’t have a paper cup problem, because they also sell ceramic mugs. Truth is, the reusable basket hasn’t prevented the sale and waste of billions of K-cups, so its prevention efforts are little if any. Another company argument is that the Green Mountain R&D department is laboring away to develop more environmentally friendly solutions to a problem their product created in the first place. A disposable product can never truly be sustainable.
If this were a life-saving medical device preventing the spread of AIDs in the developing world, I would be a bit more lenient. But that’s not the case. The K-cup was designed to save incompetent adults the trouble of wiping up coffee grounds from their counter top in the morning. I find it disturbing that such a “green company” can even justify the continued production of such an irresponsible and unnecessary product.
Back in the early 2000′s Green Mountain Coffee was the anti-Starbucks. They were a growing coffee company based in Vermont and stood on a foundation of admirable environmental ideals with a history full of environmental innovations. In many ways, they are still a leader of corporate environmental stewardship. But with the acquisition of Keurig in 2006, the company quickly became a walking contradiction.
While continuing to profess their environmental sanctity, advertising in GOOD magazine, and using the tagline “brewing a better world”—the company shifted from promoting and selling Fair Trade organic coffee, to more than 80% of sales coming from Keurig machines and K-cups. The company seems to ignore the irony in selling Fair Trade organic coffee in little plastic cups by the truckload.
But even with most sales coming from the coffee equivalent of bottled water, Green Mountain’s marketing still paints the company as a beacon of environmental morality. At what point are all the positive things they are doing completely negated by the billions of plastic cups they are contributing into the waste stream each year? Does their corporate sustainability record give them a free pass on the absurd waste of K-cups?
Are K-cups the only problem in the world? No. But it’s a relatively new problem that has been manufactured for convenience. People can point to other disposables, but coffee is everywhere. It’s the third most consumed beverage in the world and its consumption continues to grow with the rising middle-class in China and India. A person can easily go through 3 K-cups a day, while a toothbrush lasts 3 months or more.
Coffee has come so far since the introduction of post-WW1 instant coffee, yet the rise of K-cups takes a giant step backwards for consumers, the industry, the environment, and the beverage itself. As someone who loves both the drink and the industry, it seems so completely obvious—K-cups are bad for coffee and bad for the Earth. #killthekcup.
Minneapolis based design firm Sussner has created one of the best looking reusable “paper cups” I’ve seen. The cup was designed as a gift for friends, clients, and new business leads and makes me want to hire them or befriend them quick!
Along with the nice graphics printed on the cup, they also designed a beautiful package to contain it and supply each recipient with a cup of coffee via a pack of Starbucks instant VIA (which is a bit disheartening, but I can understand the logistics that most likely prompted this decision). Great job making reusable, desirable. With a mug like this, I’d gladly deal with the “inconvenience” of carrying it and washing it, just to be seen with it.
[via The Dieline]
While I was in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago for the North American Hand Built Bike Show, I made a coffee detour to visit Piper Jones at the Kohana Coffee roasting facility. Until this visit, I’d never had Kohana coffee, but was familiar with both PiperJo and Kohana on Twitter. So when Piper invited me to stop by, I was excited to meet her and learn more about the company.
Kohana is just four years old and Piper has been there for 3 of them—roasting for the last two. When I showed up, I thought I’d have a quick look around and taste some coffee, but Piper had other plans. While she let a press pot of their signature Hawaiian Prime brew, she got me started on roasting a new batch of Organic Ethiopian Sidamo. I combed through the green beans looking for any defective ones while the roaster pre-heated and Piper explained the process to a couple friends I brought with me.
Kohana got its start specializing in Hawaiian coffee and have built great relationships with farmers there, but they also offer coffee from other origins now. Piper is exceptionally passionate about what she does, she “gets it” in terms of how coffee should be treated, but like many roasters she has to balance the realities of business and principles—meaning dark roasts, blends, and other things the purist in me shudders at. There is a lot of potential in Austin and I know Piper isn’t slowing down. They recently launched a cold brew coffee that made appearances during SXSW and I’m sure it’ll be in high demand during the hot Texas summer.
Kohana doesn’t have a coffee shop of their own, but they have wholesale accounts around Austin and are also stocked at the Whole Foods there. It was great to break up a weekend full of bike love with some coffee love and finally meet Piper in person. The visit was fun, the coffee was delicious and I’m looking forward to seeing how Kohana grows.
Check out Kohana Coffee
One thing I love about traveling is the opportunity to experience the tremendous variety of cafés & coffee bars around the world. It’s amazing how many different environments we’ve designed around one drink—modern, kitschy, rustic, industrial, and cozy (just to name a few). During a year spent living in the deep south, I was able to enjoy the warm Southern architecture that seems to transforms every space into someone’s living room.
Photographer Kathryn Barnard has done a fantastic job capturing this feeling at a coffee shop in Charleston, South Carolina called Hope and Union. I’ve never been to Charleston and though I wouldn’t have expected it to have any coffee shops worth writing home about, the cameo of Intelligentsia mugs in the photos may be enough evidence to prove me wrong. Next stop, Southbound & down!
See the rest of the beautiful photos on Design*Sponge
posted by bwj
on 03.24.2011, under Misc.
I’ve had a few recent conversation’s with military guys who spoke of the terrible coffee in Afghanistan and a Veteran who reminisced about the 20lb tins of dirt the Government would pass for coffee on Navy ships. Ironically, I stumbled upon this vintage ad from 1919 that proudly declares its coffee “supplied the boys in the trenches because the Government wanted them to have the best.” If only we could honor the men & women over seas with something a bit less “soluble” and bit more enjoyable.
Also, note that iced-coffee was in vogue over 90 years ago!
Before I landed in Helsinki, most people I encountered in Stockholm warned me that the coffee in Finland is pretty terrible and it may be hard to find anything good. Thankfully I came across the blog of Finnish barista, Kalle Freese, which led me in all the right directions including to the shop he works at—Kaffa Roastery.
Kaffa wasn’t the first place I visited, but it was without a doubt, the best. The shop doesn’t have tables, just bars, and it’s tucked in the back corner of a larger building that sells vintage and designer housewares. They have a pretty extensive collection of home brewing equipment displayed on the back of a miniature truck and a stack of Barista Magazine dating back longer than I knew they existed.
What made the experience even more incredible than the coffee, was Kalle’s hospitality. He invited my girlfriend and I to the shop and fixed us a syphon pot of an Ethiopian Nekisse they were test roasting for competition. It was an amazing cup of coffee that just exploded with strawberry. Definitely the best cup I had on this trip to Scandinavia. After the shop closed, we hung around for a bit while a few other baristas stopped by to train for the Finnish Barista Competition (where Kalle recently competed in the finals). There was good conversation and an endless stream of espresso shots going around.
Depending on the amount of time you have in Helsinki, Kaffa is a little bit out of the way, just west of the design district, but well worth the trip in such a small city. If you don’t have time to leave downtown (i.e. on a day cruise from Sweden/Estonia), you can visit La Torrefazione which offers press pots of Kaffa coffee as well as great salads and sandwiches for lunch.
Another shop worth a visit is a small spot in the old red-light district, called Caneli Café. It’s run by an Iranian guy who specializes in smoothies and herbal living, but also maintains a nice stock of coffee from Swedish roasters da Matteo and Johan & Nyström. I had an AeroPress and shot of espresso while we talked about his uphill battle against the terrible quality of traditional Finnish coffee. He actually seemed a bit defeated by it all, saying that Finns learned for so long that bad coffee is what coffee should taste like, it’s hard to get them to enjoy anything else. Something many of us can relate to.
Lastly, Kahvila Sävy, is a place I didn’t get to visit because they were closed for the weekend, but Kalle highly recommended it. They are northeast of the city center and they brew single origin coffees from Turku Coffee Roasters, which I have yet to try. The photos of their pastries and baked goods also look pretty stellar.
While there isn’t anywhere near the number of quality coffee bars in Helsinki as there are in Stockholm, it’s a much smaller town with a lot of room to grow. The few who are doing it right are making great coffee and won’t leave you disappointed on a visit to Helsinki. If they do however, the city’s amazing architecture will make up the difference.
View DCILY's Best Coffee in Helsinki in a larger map
There’s been a lot of recent talk about the rising cost of green coffee and the impact it will have on consumer prices. Much of that talk, like most things related to global markets and trade, can be difficult for the average person to understand. Thankfully Peter Giuliano, President of Counter Culture Coffee & the SCAA, and designer Katy Meehan have turned an overwhelming topic into something a bit more manageable. “What’s the deal with the coffee market?” is a colorful 12-page comic that sums up the various factors responsible for rising coffee prices.
I got to spend a lot of time talking with Peter G. while we were at Coffee Common and he’s one of the most sincere coffee enthusiasts I’ve met. Peter’s passion for sharing the miracle of great coffee with anyone willing to listen is inspiring and encouraging. The effort to create this comic is just one example of how he continues to help elevate the industry. This is the kind of work that will help inform consumers and invite them into the conversation instead of alienating them.
Check out the full comic on Flickr
It’s been one week since the debut of Coffee Common at TED came to an end. Since then, I’ve been collecting my thoughts while enjoying those shared by others who took part. First, I’d like to thank all the baristas and my fellow committee members who passionately volunteered their time to make this such an incredible experience, one that has set an ambitious stage that’s now being gazed upon by a rapturous audience.
While, our goal was to begin a much needed conversation about coffee with consumers, I don’t think any of us involved knew just how quickly we would gain such vast attention. The support, inquiries, and critiques have been equally overwhelming and humbling.
Though the idea of a collaborative coffee service at TED had been in development for a couple months, Coffee Common—and the idea of it being something more than a single event—is just a few weeks old. There is a lot to be figured out moving forward, but our purpose from the beginning is still very clear—we believe that great coffee is, at its best, a collaboration of an empowered coffee farmer, an artisan coffee roaster, a dedicated barista, and an enlightened consumer. Through a diverse collection of voices and future collaborative events we will work together to continue educating consumers about the process and pleasures of truly great coffee. With greater consumer understanding, comes better appreciation, quality and value that will benefit everyone involved.
When I first joined Alex Bogusky on a call with Stephen Morrissey from Intelligentsia, I thought I would just help design a logo and some t-shirts for the baristas serving coffee at TED. But I quickly realized this was an opportunity for much more. I had finally been introduced to a group of industry insiders trying to do the same thing I attempt to do here at DCILY—to enlighten and inspire consumers to expect more from their coffee.
Over the next few days, a brand, a voice and a forum were developed to carry the message of this newly formed collaborative to those who would listen. Over a weekend, a book had been written, designed and sent to press; a website had been launched, and a conversation had begun. Shortly after, I left for California to join the rest of the team and watch all the pieces we’d been working on virtually from around the world, come together before our eyes. Collaboration at its finest.
Being able to spend a week with great people whom I admire, who’s blogs I read regularly, who I rooted for at their Regional Barista Comps, and who make me want to drop everything to be a part of the coffee industry full time—was an experience I won’t soon forget. It was a pleasure helping support the baristas in various capacities at TED and documenting the experience for everyone back home to enjoy.
When lines got long, I helped field extended conversations with attendees, and discussed the simple truths and nuanced joys of great coffee with them. There’s a great satisfaction that comes with a person’s first positive reaction to black coffee or their excitement upon first learning about the complexities of the coffee process. I witnessed many moments during the week when attendees at TED “got it.” The same spark many of us have experienced—that initiated our uncompromising love for great coffee and the genuine concern and support for the farmers, roasters and baristas who make it possible. Those moments are why we are doing this.
First-Hand Coffee Common Reports
Sean Bonner – GOOD
George Giannakos – CleanHotDry
Erin Meister – Serious Eats
Anthony Benda – Cafe Myriade
Also check out the great barista interviews being posted at Coffee Common
posted by bwj
on 03.11.2011, under Misc.