Single-Serve Coffee and Coffee Makers

Keurig Single-Serve BrewerConsidering purchasing a single-serve coffee maker for your home, office, or as a gift? Consider the 5 factors below and then decide.

Recently our old coffee maker bit the dust so I went shopping for a replacement. The store had an entire aisle for coffee machines, drip coffee makers on one side and espresso and single-serve machines on the other.

During last year’s holiday season, I had seen displays and ads for single-serve coffee machines but ignored them. Now I needed a coffee maker so I decided to look into single-serve coffee brewers.

When did the Single-Serve Coffee Fad Begin?

The First Nespresso MachineBy the time Keurig’s single-serve coffee brewer hit stores in 2005, Nespresso and Flavia machines had already been for sale in the U.S. since the 1990s. Single-serve coffee popularity grew faster in Europe than the U.S., until 2010 when competition heated up and sales increased. In 2012, the National Coffee Association reported 10% of U.S. households owned a single-serve brewer, up from 3% in 2007.

How do Single-Serve Coffee Brewers Work?

Single-serve coffee brewers use pressurized water to brew one cup of coffee at a time in about 30 seconds. The steps in the brewing process are:

  1. Turn machine on
  2. Fill water reservoir (24 to 72 ounces)
  3. Place cup on drip plate or remove for tall cup
  4. Select a single-serve pod filled with ground coffee and a filter
  5. Lift machine handle, place pod inside, and close handle which pierces holes in top and bottom of pod
  6. Choose cup size (4 to 12 ounces)
  7. Press brew button
  8. Wait while machine brews coffee inside pod and streams it into cup
  9. Turn machine off (some have auto off)
  10. Carefully remove used pod (it will be hot) and dispose
  11. Drink coffee

I was intrigued by the coffee pods so bought a box of twelve Green Mountain Coffee Colombian Fair Trade Select K-Cup packs to take apart and photograph.

5 Factors to Consider before Buying a Single-Serve Coffee Maker

Manufacturer product pages and customer reviews offer insight into why people choose to replace automatic drip coffee makers with single-serve brewers, or even buy a second machine. Consider the following five factors before you buy one.

Convenience – brewing a cup of coffee in less than a minute seems to be the major selling point.

Selection – there are hundreds of coffee flavors to choose from, as well as tea, cocoa, and other beverages. Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and USDA Organic options are available.

Taste – some claim single-serve machines brew better tasting coffee than drip machines. The pod format ensures a uniform amount of coffee is used for each cup. For people who like their coffee weaker, stronger, or hotter, newer machines allow more customization.

Box of 12 Single-serve Coffee PodsCost – the cost of a single-serve coffee machine is minor when compared with the cost of coffee pods. The New York Times reported ground coffee in a coffee pod could cost upwards of $51 a pound. To address the issue of coffee pod cost, manufacturers have introduced several options:

  • Disposable brewing cups (cup, filter, and lid) that users fill with any kind of ground coffee.
  • Reusable brewing cups (cup and lid) that use biodegradable combined coffee / filters (that come individually wrapped in a box) or completely reusable cups users fill with their own coffee.
  • Single-serve brewers rely on pressurized water so if the disposable or reusable cup is not properly prepared, the coffee taste will be compromised.

Disassembled Single-Serve Coffee PodEnvironmental Impact – each cup of single-serve coffee uses a coffee pod that is discarded after one use. Kudos if you compost coffee grounds. Many pods are not recyclable and those that are made of aluminum or a recyclable plastic often contain a composite foil lid and perhaps a filter that are not. Whether the pod is recyclable or not, imagine the carbon footprint of manufacturing and distributing them.

The Bottom Line

A single-serve brewer that uses reusable brewing cups you fill with your own coffee is probably the most cost effective and environmentally responsible unit. However, by the time you fill, empty, and clean the brewing cup for each cup of coffee, the convenience factor has been seriously impacted.

Mr. Coffee MakerWhat did I buy? I like grinding my own Fair TradeRainforest Alliance, USDA Organic coffee beans, brewing 3 cups of coffee in an automatic drip machine, keeping it warm in a thermos, and composting the coffee grounds. I just bought a replacement Mr. Coffee machine and a reusable mesh filter.

In my opinion the negative environmental impact of single-serve machines far outweighs any convenience, selection, or taste benefit.

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Eco-Friendly and Ethical Coffee

While sipping your first cup of coffee in the morning, do you ever think about its environmental and social impact? I didn’t, but I do now.

While researching and writing about eco-friendly and ethical chocolate a few months ago, I learned that cacao and coffee growers often face similar issues like poverty and land degradation.

Everything we grow, make, and use has an environmental impact. This video provides a short overview of coffee’s environmental impact.

For those of us who are coffee drinkers, like my spouse and I, we can and should buy coffee from environmentally and socially responsible companies and look for ways to green our coffee drinking practices.

7 Ways to Green your Coffee Drinking

Purchase Eco-friendly Grown and Ethically Sourced Coffee

Some coffee brands focus more on environmental aspects of coffee growing and others on social responsibility. Fortunately, what is good for the land is usually good for the people who farm it. For instance, eliminating pesticides promotes healthy ecosystems and people. Intercropping coffee trees with other crops such as peppers, bananas, and avocados increases biodiversity and provides additional income for coffee farmers.

Bird-Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, and USDA Organic are a few certifications available for coffee that meets specific environmental and sometimes social requirements. Fairtrade and Fair Trade USA promote trade equity for coffee growers.

Brew your Own Coffee

Author's Reusable Mesh Coffee Filter and Coffee Bean GrinderBrew coffee at home and skip the waste generated by take-out coffee—plastic lined, non-recyclable, non-compostable single-use cups, cardboard cup sleeves, plastic lids and stirrers, creamer and sugar packets, and paper napkins.

Give yourself extra credit if you brew with a reusable mesh filter basket instead of a paper filter.

Don’t use Bottled Water

Water is an important component of coffee taste. Don’t like the taste of your tap water? There are many easy and often inexpensive ways to filter water so just say no bottled water (forever).

Black is Best

Drinking coffee black is the most eco-friendly option. Stirring 1 tablespoon of cream into a cup of coffee increases its carbon footprint by 250% and adds 20 calories (sugar adds 49 calories). Although non-dairy creamers and artificial sweeteners may contain fewer calories, they are highly processed food-like substances so are not low carbon options. I am a non-dairy creamer user so need to work on this one.

Author's Coffee Thermos and Porcelain Reusable Coffee CupThermoses are not just for Construction Workers

After the coffee is brewed instead of leaving the coffee maker warming plate on, pour the coffee in a thermos to keep it warm for future refills. Or brew with a coffee machine that uses a thermal carafe. A thermos is an easy and inexpensive way to take coffee to work.

Reusable Cups and Travel Mugs

Author's Reusable Travel MugsWhether at home, on the move, or at the office, use a reusable cup or travel mug. If you go to a coffeehouse and plan to hang out to drink your coffee, ask for a washable cup. Want your coffee to go? Patronize a coffeehouse that gives away or sells reusable travel mugs for customers to bring back for refills, or better yet, one that allows customers to bring their own reusable mugs and gives discounts to those who do.

Compost Coffee Grounds

Collect and compost coffee grounds, and coffee filters if you use them. Don’t have a composter? Sprinkle coffee grounds around your garden—the plants will appreciate the nitrogen and their granular texture deters slimy insects.

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