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While working for the then-coffee startup Keurig in the 1990s, a man named John Sylvan had an idea. A pod that made brewing one cup of coffee as efficient as possible. Enter: the K-Cup. The single-use plastic pods contain ground coffee and are sealed tight with nitrogen inside to prevent spoilage until they’re punctured by a Keurig at the beginning of the brewing process. Today, Keurig is the biggest player in a growing market of pod-oriented coffee makers, and K-Cups are ubiquitous in hotels, offices, and homes around the world.
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There’s no simpler way to make a cup of coffee, and while coffee enthusiasts who appreciate the complexities behind a great cup of joe won’t find much to love, even they have to be impressed with K-Cups as a delivery system. Brewing is almost comically fast and endlessly versatile. There’s a coffee K-Cup for every preference: large- and small-batch, dark and light roast, flavored or not, along with tea and cocoa options as well.
K-Cup Pricing: An Analysis
An important factor to consider when purchasing K-Cups is the price, compared to other K-Cups as well as other ways of getting coffee. Consider the Pike Place Roast from Starbucks, a ubiquitous, standard cup of coffee available for purchase in the following ways:
At a Starbucks café at 1st and Pike in Seattle, a stone’s throw from the brand’s first location, a Tall (12-ounce) Pike Place Roast is $2.95 before tax.
On the Keurig website, a single K-Cup of Pike Place costs between $0.72 (as part of a 22-pack) and $0.57 (as part of an 88-pack).
On Amazon, a 28-ounce bag of Pike Place Roast ground coffee, enough to make nearly 40 cups of coffee per the package instructions, is $18.03, or about $0.45 per 12-ounce (Tall) cup, a price that doesn’t include the cost of a filter.
Coffeeshop regulars stand to save a lot of money by switching to K-Cups, while those who use other home brewing methods will pay a bit more for the convenience of not having to mess with filters or grounds first thing in the morning.
What the Experts Say
Sources within the coffee industry and K-Cup enthusiasts say that there are a few things a Keurig novice should consider when shopping for K-Cups. For this story, SPY spoke to Lily Blackburn, a professional barista with 15 years of professional experience and coffee expert at Kitchen Ambition; Lukas Van Vyve of Emergent Brew; Katie Woodburn-Simmons of Home Coffee Expert; and Mike Conti of My Morning Espresso, a blog of how-to guides about all things coffee.
“K-Cup coffee is just pre-ground coffee that has been super-sealed into a pod,” says Blackburn. That means, she says, that personal preferences with regular coffee apply to buying K-Cups, too — considerations like roast level, coffee origin, and flavor notes.
Woodburn-Simmons agrees, elaborating that “The best place to start when selecting a K-cup is the roast level. This will hugely impact the flavor of the coffee.” Light roasts will be citrusy and floral, medium roasts more chocolatey and sweet, and dark roasts more bitter and spicy.
Beyond roast, Woodburn-Simmons also recommends looking for smaller roasters who specialize in single-origin coffees for the best results. Van Vyve adds that, when a country of origin is named, to remember the characteristics of each region: “South American coffee beans have a mild, nutty flavor, while African coffee beans often have a fruity, floral taste,” he says. Additionally, for iced coffee lovers, Conti says that “brew over ice” K-Cups are the move. These types of K-Cups tend to be stronger and can also be used for hot coffee if preferred.
Green Mountain Coffee Breakfast Blend
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The K-Cup that Keurig heads kept mentioning is the Breakfast Blend from Green Mountain, a coffee roaster that invested in Keurig in 1993 and eventually acquired a majority stake in the coffee tech startup. Lauren Winder Hoar, editor-in-chief of Coffee Hex, says “My go-to is the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Breakfast Blend for a mellow morning cup.” Nicholas Jenkins of Morning Coffee Journal agrees. “Known for its light and crisp flavor, this blend is perfect for starting your day on a refreshing note. It offers a mild taste with a hint of sweetness, making it a versatile choice for various preferences.”
James Hyslop of The Coffee Folk also says that Green Mountains’s Breakfast Blend is great because it doesn’t cut corners. “It is made with 100% arabica beans,” a coffee species with a smoother, sweeter taste than more bitter and more caffeinated robusta beans. He adds that “Green Mountain are very careful about sourcing their beans ethically,” and that “We have found that the Breakfast Blend just does it for us and is a delicious way to start each new morning.”
BEST SMALL ROASTER
Reading Coffee Co. Breakfast Blend
Why It Stands Out: According to Woodburn-Simmons, “the larger the production, the less likely the beans will be of high quality and sustainably and ethically sourced.” Pennsylvania-based Reading Coffee Co. offers a half dozen varieties of its “small-batch artisan coffee” as K-Cups, a rarity among smaller roasters.
Made For: Coffee snobs who want to try K-Cups despite themselves.
BEST VARIETY PACK
Keurig Coffee Lovers’ Variety Pack
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Made For: K-Cup beginners. “For consumers who are new to the world of K-cups or coffee altogether, I think a great option is to purchase a sampler pack,” says Ted Chan, Founder and Managing Editor from CoffeeRoast.com. “Sampler packs typically contain various K-cups, allowing you to try various roasts and flavors without committing.”
Why It Stands Out: This 40-pack because it’s a solid assortment of what’s available: it includes offerings from Krispy Kreme, Green Mountain, and Newman’s Own, among other brands, as well as light, medium, and dark roasts, both with and without flavoring.
Green Mountain Brew Over Ice
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Made For: The kind of person who orders iced coffee in the dead of winter.
Why It Stands Out: It’s designed to be brewed over ice. Conti says that this option from Green Mountain is “crafted to be stronger when initially brewed so that as the ice melts and dilutes the coffee it will still taste great, not watered down.”
My K-Cup Universal Reusable Coffee Filter
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Made For: Sustainability enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice a bit of convenience to reduce waste.
Why It Stands Out: Norbert Koput of Espresso Bear says there are two main reasons to opt for a reusable K-Cup: the freedom to choose the coffee you want and create much less waste than with disposable pods. “Regular K-Cups are designed for single use and are not biodegradable, which means they end up in landfills and contribute to the growing waste problem,” he says. While Keurig has introduced some recyclable pods, a reusable one is even better.
Atlas Coffee Club
Price: $14.50 and Up
Made For: Coffee lovers with a bit more money to spend on their K-Cups.
Why It Stands Out: Kelsey Waddell of Roasty Coffee says that “You’ll pay a premium” for these rotating international coffee pods, “but it’s worth it for the fresher, single-origin, high-quality coffee inside the pods.” They’re also available as a subscription, which lends a sort of “set it and forget it” quality to coffee ordering that aligns nicely with a Keurig coffeemaker’s centering of convenience.
Frequently Asked Questions About Keurig K-Cups
How Much Do K-Cups Cost?
Prices vary, but non-organic, non-single origin Keurig coffee pods generally cost around 30-60 cents and buying in bulk lowers the per-pod price. That’s true across the price spectrum, as the decidedly fancier Atlas pods run from $1.21/pod for a 24-pack to &0.68/pod for a 72-pack.
Are K-Cups Bad for the Environment?
When Sylvan dreamt up K-Cups, he envisioned them replacing disposable coffee shop cups for office workers, reducing the waste created by the coffee industry. He came to regret his invention because, with penetration into the home market that he never expected, they ended up supplanting less wasteful methods of coffee brewing. And whether for genuine ecological concern or corporate reputation control, Keurig has taken steps in this arena. All K-Cups are now recyclable, and the stated goal is that all of its packaging with be recyclable or compostable by 2025, with no landfill waste from manufacturing. K-Cups still produce a lot of waste, in other words, but it’s at least a slightly better kind of waste than what came before.
Do K-Cups Expire?
Not really. Keurig says that its pods are “nitrogen-flushed, sealed for freshness and impermeable to oxygen, moisture, and light.” That means that should, in theory, last indefinitely, though they do come with a Best-Used-by-Date, “a guideline for optimal freshness recommended by the Roaster.”
Are Keurig Machines the Best Way to Brew Coffee?
If you’re looking for an easy and relatively inexpensive way to brew a single cup of decent coffee, it’s hard to beat K-Cups. If you have other priorities like taste, brewing in larger quantities, or visiting your local favorite neighborhood barista, there are better ways to get your caffeine fix.
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