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?
By 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:
- Turn machine on
- Fill water reservoir (24 to 72 ounces)
- Place cup on drip plate or remove for tall cup
- Select a single-serve pod filled with ground coffee and a filter
- Lift machine handle, place pod inside, and close handle which pierces holes in top and bottom of pod
- Choose cup size (4 to 12 ounces)
- Press brew button
- Wait while machine brews coffee inside pod and streams it into cup
- Turn machine off (some have auto off)
- Carefully remove used pod (it will be hot) and dispose
- 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.
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.
Cost – 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.
Environmental 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.
What did I buy? I like grinding my own Fair Trade, Rainforest 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.
- ABC News – Consumer Reports: Single-serve coffee makers
- Consumer Reports – Buying a single-serve coffeemaker? Count the cost of the pods
- Euromonitor International – US Pod Coffee Market Poised For Further Expansion
- MSN – Your coffee costs $50 a pound?
- National Coffee Association – Single-Cup Brewing: Coffee’s New Black? (link not valid as of 02/02/16)
- Single Serve Coffee – Single Serve Coffee Machines
- The Wall Street Journal – The K-Cup Patent Is Dead, Long Live The K-Cup