Love Keurig? Nope.

03.30

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.

Economics
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.

Coffee Quality
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.

Environmental Impact
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.

The Company
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?

Summary
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.

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posted by on 03.30.2011, under Brew Methods, Coffee 101, Misc., Products