K-cup: A discussion / by Bryan Hibbard

Ok, first of all, I know this is dangerous territory. There are a lot of loyal K-cuppers out there. Assuredly, if you are looking for the most convenient way to get a brewed cup of coffee (short of a live-in barista), the K-cup is it. Add water, insert the K-cup, and push a button. Enjoy. And if that is all you need out of your coffee. Look no further. But if you are disappointed with the quality of the coffee, or you did the math and realized just how expensive K-cup coffee is, this post is meant to demystify the facts around K-cups. 1. Why are they so expensive? 2. Why is the coffee sub-par?

The true price of K-cups

 A 12-pack of K-cups from Community coffee will cost $7.99, currently. I chose this as a reference because it is a known brand in our area that many people like and that many people would also consider an affordable brand. This price works out to about $0.67 per K-cup. This doesn't sound too bad when you compare to a daily coffee shop habit. But, what are you really paying for? There is 4.65 ounces of coffee contained in those 12 cups (about 0.38 ounces per cup). This will make you 12 6-oz cups of coffee (the equivalent of about 2 pots of coffee). If you change your settings on your machine for a larger cup size, you will get more coffee, but you would now be outside of the parameters of the proper water-to-coffee ratio. As I have said before too much water and too little coffee leads to over extraction and bitterness in the cup.

$7.99 for 4.65 ounces of coffee works out to about $27.50 per pound. Considering that Community is charging $7.50 for a pound of coffee, this would mean that roughly 73% of the cost you are paying for K-cups is for packaging. And don't get me wrong, Community coffee is a good value compared to many other roasters it is just that K-cups are so expensive to produce. For my money, I would rather the most expensive part of my coffee brewing experience, be the coffee itself. For the price of a pound of coffee in K-cups, you could buy a bag of my coffee, a basic pour-over brewing device, and a 100-pack of filters, and still have money left over. When you buy my coffee, you are paying about $0.39 per 6-oz cup and that cost is due to the time and energy it takes me to get a freshly roasted bag of coffee to you, and the premium I pay for high quality beans. I have intentionally kept my packaging a simple brown paper bag to keep costs down. There are very few things in the world where the packaging is worth more than the product inside it. K-cups are one example of this.

The cup quality

The K-cup brewing device shares a problem with the vast majority of automatic drip coffee makers, the brewing temperature is too low for coffee. From the Keurig website, they state that the water is 192 degrees F when it pours into the K-cup. This is below the recommended 195-205 degrees. Also note that in order to reach that 192 maximum temperature Keurig suggest that you run hot water through your brewer before inserting the K-cup. 195 degrees is the minimum threshold point for the volatile aromatic and flavor compounds to be properly defused into the cup. This has been studied scientifically by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and is the result of years of studying coffee drinkers preference.

Another problem is brewing time. Many of you wonder why I can't speed up the process of my pour-over coffee. This is because coffee takes between 4-6 minutes to properly brew, depending on your grind size. The only way to properly speed up the process is to greatly increase the atmospheric pressure (which is what happens in an espresso machine), just like using a pressure cooker. A K-cup takes no more than 30 seconds to brew, which is not nearly enough time to extract a complete cup. You will get a portion of the flavor, but not all that the coffee has to offer.

Finally, the coffee that is used is often of low quality (since the packaging is so expensive) and it must be ground and completely degassed before being sealed in a K-cup. This means the coffee is even more stale than the ground coffee in bags with a one-way valve (which can be ground and bagged immediately).

Final thoughts

In the end, it comes down to your preference. Is convenience more important than quality? If so, no problem. I understand. There are many things in my life that I take convenience over quality. I sometimes eat fast food, knowing that I could produce a far superior (and cheaper) burger on my own grill. But coffee is something that matters to me. The flavor of a high quality coffee that has been freshly roasted and carefully brewed is a daily ritual that I love. So if coffee is more than just a caffeine delivery device, break the K-cup habit and for the price of a mid-range Keurig machine, buy a bag of freshly roasted beans, a basic burr-mill grinder, and a pour-over device (or French Press). You should still have some money left over for a bag of coffee next week.  Then enjoy the process. Smell the aroma that is released when the coffee is ground and when it is brewing, and just before you take the first sip.