What I Really Think of K-Cups

K-Cup La MinitaRecently, I reviewed every brewing format in the U.S. I freely admit I was previously strongly biased against pods in general and specifically the K-Cup, the number one pod format. My reasons weren’t simple connoisseur snobbery, but cool analysis based upon the following industry givens:

  • Coffee must be brewed within two weeks from roasting.
  • Drip coffee must be brewed over four-to-six minutes.
  • Small batch, top-end roasted coffee isn’t available in K-cups.

Oh, and don’t forget this one:

  • Anything too popular has to be bad.

With me so far? Good. Now, a few things happened since then to open my mind to at least the possibility that K-Cups might be a viable format. First, there is the Bunn My Café machine. In my tests this one machine was heads above the others in its ability to extract coffee. Keep in mind that for years Bunn has specialized in three-minute extraction through its almost-power-washing sprayhead design in traditional drip machines. The My Café gets the water up to industry-standard temperature heights and somehow (I’m not yet able to see into the brewing chamber) this results in a much better-than-average cup.

Second, the K-Cup patent expired. This means machinery entrepreneurs will be exploiting the format, perhaps even beyond what Bunn’s done (Bunn’s was developed through licensing prior to the expiration). The patent’s lapse also means a wider variety of coffee brands will be free to flood the market with K-Cups.

Third, new smaller-run K-Cup packaging machines have emerged to make it cost-effective for local roasters to make their own K-Cups. This has caused a virtual explosion. While some specialty roasters are still keeping their distance, several have announced top quality coffees in K-Cups to the general public.  This brings us the likelihood of neighborhood, fresh coffee.

Last but not least, there are new in-cup technologies. In some ways these are the hardest to understand, much less describe. Boyd Coffee introduced a new K-Cup of their own design at the 2014 SCAA Conference. Even with all the coffee samples I’d had that day, the Boyd’s design was night and day better than I’d previously tasted. Boyd’s has a new type of bottom to its pod that is closer to a traditional filter. While it seems like it would undermine the already-short contact time between hot water and ground coffee, it clearly resulted in a more thorough extraction.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

This travel photo shows why this pods are important to good coffee.

I finally tasted close to coffee nirvana later at that same event when I had a La Minita K-Cup. This design, as explained by CEO Bill McAlpin, utilizes material obtained from the surgical profession that is both slow to release but allows greater transfer of flavor oils, thus coming closest yet to what the industry calls “Gold Cup” standards.

I realize McAlpin’s coffees are already pinnacle specialty coffees that score in the 90s among coffee reviewers, but this cup truly floored me. McAlpin, more than anyone else I’ve met, convinced me he truly understands the entire process. His K-Cup’s design takes full advantage of every second of contact time inside the K-Cup (something under one minute!) and then that special material at the K-Cup’s bottom makes sure the coffee essence exits the cup in its full glory and into your cup.

McAlpin claims he’s done blind tests among the top roasters and they are unable to distinguish between their roasts brewed using a traditional drip brewer versus the same coffee prepackaged in his K-Cups! I can only underscore that I believe this might be possible using this technology and a top quality K-Cup brewer!!!

I’m sure that some jaws will drop after reading this last paragraph and my having written it. My position is I try very hard to be a coffee objectivist in what surely must be understood to be a largely subjectivist world.

I am certainly not urging anyone to discard their Chemex, Hario or French press makers for K-Cups, nor for that matter their Technivorm, Bonavita or Behmor traditional automatic drip machines. What I am suggesting is to consider what this offers in terms of consumer choices and the possibility of getting a good-to-near-great cup of coffee fully automatically and conveniently. Even I must have an option for those times in my life where the process is not the goal, but a necessity of my real goal: getting a savory cup of coffee. Such times are quick morning starts, mornings when I am heading to an airport for an early flight. Sometimes a friend drops by and we want to share the coffee, but not the time it takes to make it the manual multiple step way.

Let’s remain open minded. Let’s also retain a healthy dose of skepticism. I am simply declaring that it’s now been proven to me that it IS possible to get a very good cup of coffee with a pod machine. Once it is POSSIBLE, it’s just a question of determining how it was done, then doing it that way. Remember, The Coffee Companion’s mission is great coffee, not labor, nor for that matter technology. Stay tuned!

Keurig 2.0 Debuts!

Keurig 2

As I write this, the next generation Keurig machine is moments away from hitting American consumers. Keurig is doing everything to get the word out. I’ve had a sneak preview here and there, places such as SCAA’s recent Conference and the International Housewares Show, where prototypes were on display. I will disclose that they’ve even brought me out here to Los Angeles to witness their opening night amidst a hand-selected group. To their credit, Keurig has not attempted to influence my view of the machine, which I have not of course, had enough experience with to review. I’m to offer tasting notes on some of their blends and discuss food pairing,  Actually, it’s refreshing to see a coffee maker manufacturer start off high be discussing both their machine and coffee, but of course this is a benefit of Keurig’s and Green Mountain’s marriage, a company large and sophisticated enough to really understand both the hardware and software aspects of their product.

The Keurig 2.0 has several interesting aspects. Most amazing is its ability to accommodate both the K-Cup and Vue pods. This is fortunate because the Vue was Keurig’s attempt to put forth an improved K-Cup that might appeal to high-end Third Wave coffee holdouts. It held more coffee grounds and used a different piercing technology to introduce water to the pod, with the result of more thoroughly extracting the coffee flavor. It failed as a standalone product only because it caused market confusion.  Potential Vue customers had last minute sales resistance about getting hardware that offered fewer software choices. That killed it for many, many enough that Keurig withdrew the Vue this past year.

The Keurig 2.0 employs a complex mechanism to allow their new 2.0 to use both K-Cups and Vue pods. This also offers the public who did invest in Vue hope that their format will continue to be supported. I’m hopeful that 2.0 will retain the Vue’s improved brewing temperature range.

Even more profound for consumers will be the 2.0’s offering an even larger batch size. Keurig realizes that the brewing public wants 1 to 4 cups, and they’ve done that. I viewed their approach and new pod sizes last night and I suspect this will really be well received. Flexibility, with none of the down sides to compromise taste, nor having to figure anything out.

My hobby is brewing coffee, but I’m enough of a realist to know that this is simply not true for most people. They simply want a good cup, quickly, with knowledge equivalent with their other consumer needs. The Keurig 2.0 appears to solve several needs for them. For many coffee drinkers, this introduction is exciting news.


Should you Jump on the AeroPress Coffee Bandwagon?

Much like Coffee Kevin, our crew tests and evaluates every brewing gadget large or small and we share our feedback. Some equipment is strictly for commercial use: Does anyone need 240 cups of coffee per hour at home? Maybe, it depends on how many coffee drinkers live with you — I know that I could put a serious dent in that! Some coffee crazes easily translate from commercial cafes to your kitchen counter, yet due to sheer volume or prohibitive cost, some do not.

In conjunction with the World Barista Championship that was held during the Melbourne International Coffee Expo in May 2013, another (much quieter!) competition occurred: The World AeroPress Championship. Now here’s a coffee trend that everyone can try on for size. The initial set up for this brew method runs about $150 for an AeroPress coffee maker, pack of filters, variable temperature kettle and kitchen scale. All you need to bring to the kitchen table is a little caffeinated curiosity, your coffee and a cup.

Here’s a look at the winning “recipe” from barista Jeff Verellen of Belgium. We were interested to find out how it tasted compared with our standard AeroPress brew, so we tried it ourselves. Here are the steps we followed:

• 17 grams of coffee or espresso ground slightly coarser than drip
• Rinsed paper filter
• AeroPress in regular position (some people use an inverted technique)
• 50 grams of water at 182F for the bloom
• Bloom for 40 seconds
• Nicely wet all grounds and lightly agitate it
• Very slowly add 215 grams of water at 175F for about 30 seconds
• Press very gently for about 30 seconds

Jeff mentioned he favored bolder coffees for use in the AeroPress so we chose a flavorful espresso blend that we regularly enjoy. 17 grams corresponds to about 1 rounded AeroPress scoop, but we weighed ours to be certain of the measurement. His grind, however, is somewhat controversial: Unless something was lost in translation, he reportedly used a coarser grind than drip, while conventional wisdom has the grind somewhere between espresso and fine drip.

Water temperature is not what you’d expect either. The familiar 200F temperature threshold is not achieved and it still creates a proper extraction. You can experiment yourself to confirm this. With a variable temperature kettle it is easy to get the right (lower) temperature for extraction. You could also use a regular kettle with a glass measuring cup and an inexpensive drink thermometer. We placed the AeroPress over a double-wall glass mug and it was beautiful to watch and listen to the resulting coffee droplets. In about five minutes, we had a single cup of coffee with the AeroPress from start to finish. The aroma was a little more subtle, but the coffee was smooth, even and full of sweet caramel notes — just as we had hoped.

Then I compared these delicious winning results to my co-worker Jess’ morning AeroPress coffee habit:

• 34 grams of coffee ground slightly finer than drip (2 rounded AeroPress scoops)
• AeroPress in regular position
• No filter rinse, no pre-infusion
• Fill to the (4) measure with water around 185F
• Nicely wet all grounds and use the included stir stick
• Wait 30 seconds
• Push down hard with even pressure, about 30 seconds

The included AeroPress instructions indicate for two scoops to fill the tube with water to the (2) measure and to make a concentrate rather than filling to (4) with this dosage. The resulting concentrate can then be diluted (as if!). Even with her predilection for up-dosing and lack of dilution, she brewed a cup that was not bitter or sludgy. You have to love a device that still operates well whether you follow the printed directions or not.

Besides price, taste and ease of use, there is also the portability factor: It is lightweight and virtually unbreakable. The AeroPress is a practical option for anyone who would like to take his or her fresh cup of Joe on the go. I have heard tales of AeroPress prepped successfully in campgrounds and college dorms — even on a commercial airliner mid-flight! The aftermath is also manageable to clean because the spent grounds are pushed out after the extraction and it is fairly solid like an espresso puck for easy disposal. A quick hot water rinse and occasional soft scrub are all that is required to clean.

While any coffee brewing method can be taken to scientific extremes, the versatility of this simple plastic device continues to amaze. Right side up, inverted, pre-infusion, paper versus metal filters –you can try all of the tricks of the trade to see what tastes best for your coffee or espresso blend. What I’ve outlined here are just two of a seemingly endless number of variations.

The AeroPress is fun to use and that should come as no surprise since it is from the same Stanford inventor behind the Aerobie Flying Disc. While it may be easy to dismiss the device based on looks (think Habitrail meets water pipe), it makes a seriously good cup of strong coffee. Recently, my local cafe started offering house roasted single origins prepped via AeroPress; I can’t think of a more glowing endorsement from the world of specialty coffee. For home or cafe, the AeroPress is here to stay. Don’t knock it till you try it!

Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee

CoffeeCON 2012 Video Highlights

During the extreme heat of summer I took the time to gather some video highlights of CoffeeCON 2012. I’m already thinking about Coffee 2013 with more classes, more speakers, more roasters, more free prizes and more music. I want to triple the size of the February 25th event and offer it to you, the coffee loving consumer for free, just like before. I have a long and hard road ahead to convince the coffee industry to financially support CoffeeCON, the world first coffee university and conference just for consumers, once again.

The bottom line is that big and small business alike want to know if you’re interested??? If I can get enough views, likes and comments I’ll be able to get the funding the event needs. I’m are looking for 10,000 people to view this video and like it. Let me know if you were there in the comments area. All of this will help the coffee industry understand you want this event again. Please watch and vote today.

The New Bodum Bistro Pourover

Bodum has always been known to produce the very best in manual drip methods especially the French Press. This year they’ve decide to take everything they’ve learned about manual drip brewing to create their own version of the automatic drip coffeemaker. While I haven’t tested this new coffeemaker yet I got a first hand demonstration at the 2012 International Housewares Show in Chicago. I can already tell you that I like the idea of the see through design that shows off the quality electronics inside.

So take a look at the video presentation I created until I can review this new coffeemaker in my own kitchen.

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