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Single Serve Brewers: Keurigs, Tassimos, CBTL & the like

January 2, 2012

You know, with the explosion of Single Cup brewers on the market, I get asked all of the time what are my thoughts about these machines. So I wanted to give you my impression of these brewers. This isn't a bash party, but simply an evaluation of each. First off I want to say I do not own either of these machines. I've had an opportunity to try out a couple of them, but wasn't convinced that it's time to throw away my Chemex, French Press & etc. So with that being said, let's start the evaluation:

Keurig Single Serve Brewer

I wanted to first begin with the Keurigs because by far they are the most popular & most widely available Single Serve Brewer on the market. These are available in different models with different features for each. They range in price from about $80.00 for the basic Mr. Coffee edition to $250.00 for their top-of-the-line home edition model. The good thing about the Keurigs as well as the entire line of single serves are they are very convenient. Pop in a capsule, press a button, walk away & wa-la you've got a cup of fresh brewed coffee waiting for you upon your return. Also you can find the capsules everywhere you shop from department stores, grocery stores & you can even buy capsules that brew tea. Now if that isn't convenient, I don't know what is. Well, that's about where it ends. First off, those nice little K-Cups are on average between .60-.85 cents each depending on where you pick them up. Environmentally they aren't recyclable and the coffee quality just isn't up to par to me. I know I might hurt some people feelings, but it just isn't. Yes, I'll admit, it beats the heck out of Maxwell House brewed out of the Mr. Coffee. But that's not saying much. Low water temp + Bad, Stale Coffee= Recipe for disaster. The cups sizes are very limited too. Depending on which model you purchase, you can only brew 6oz, 8oz & 10oz cups. So don't expect to get your coffee fix or fill up your Travel Mug if you prefer a bigger cup of Joe. Your best tasting brewed cup is at 6oz, past that it just waters down the coffee because you can't add any additional grounds to the capsule. The Keurigs have constantly gotten ragged about their performance & reliability. Some of the common issues include: the water temp fluctuating from cup to cup, plastic-like taste to the water, noisy brewing & the machine plain shutting down with an average life span of about a year. I'm glad to hear that their customer service is great & is willing to replace the machine within in a given period for free. That's great, but that's really inconvenient don't you think? I don't know about you, but if I'm going to shell out a $150.00 on something that only brews coffee & tea, it better work for a long, long time & make an excellent cup of coffee too.

Tassimo Single Serve

The Tassimo is the 2nd most popular single server brewer on the market. They are available all over the place too. They use these proprietary T-discs akin to the K-Cup. They are pretty cool looking I must say & range in price from about $80.00-$170.00. The T-discs are available at most retailers, but not as widely available at the K-Cups & offer coffee, tea & espresso based capsules. The Tassimo is dubbed as the smartest brewer on the market. Each T-disc has a barcode on the label that's scanned every time one is placed onto the maker. This barcode tells the machine what beverage is being brewed & uses the exact amount of water for each. It also can brew espresso drinks like lattes with the use of an additional milk disc. That is pretty cool. Put in the capsule(s), press the button & there you go. The Tassimo isn't without its flaws though. One, those T-discs are harder to locate & don't offer half the variety of K-Cups. The coffee companies that are more familiar & more available are Starbucks, Gevalia & Maxwell House. Why would someone spend $180.00 to brew Maxwell House? I'm not sure & I guess the old adage "to each it's own" applies. The discs range in price from .50 to 1.20 per cup depending on what you are brewing. The cup sizes are limited to what's scanned on the barcode, so unlike the Keurig, you don't even have the option to adjust. I've haven't had a cup from this machine, but I can image what it tastes like considering the coffee options. Some common issues include: Slow brewing time, frustrating disc readings, inconsistent cups & messy clean-up. Unlike the Kuerigs, Tassimo has a bad customer service reputation. You'll get a little more practice pressing buttons on the phone with CS.

CBTL and Nespresso

These are the 2 final machines I'm going to mention in this post. Not because they are exactly alike but because of their popularity in the US & their similar design. The CBTL is one of the newest single serve brewers on the market and are starting to pop-up in outlets such as Bed Bath & Beyond. A birth of the West Coast based coffeehouse Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, they are very similar to Keurig as to how they brew, but also feature the ability to brew espresso. They are smaller than their cousins and range in price from $140-$180. They also have capsules available to make tea & hot chocolate.

The Nespressos have popping in stores like Williams Sonoma & actually is the oldest automatic single serve machines out. They began developing the machine in the 1970s and were released in Switzerland in 1986. The machines have been widely popular for sometime in Europe and are creeping into the US from the spike in popularity of single serve brewers. In my opinion it has the best design, but that design comes in at a price tag of $250-$800. The Nespresso main focus is espresso however. You can brew cups of coffee, but its strength comes from the espresso it produces. It does produce a pretty good cup of espresso I might add, making it the best tasting automatic single serve brewer in my opinion.

Next to the design, each of the brewers shares another common drawback: availablity of capsules. The CBTL capsules can only be picked up at the retailer where it's purchased or ordered online. So it's not the most convenient when needing more & capsules cost on average about .70 each, a little more expensive than the average K-Cup prices. The selection is very mediocre and only consists of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf blends. The Nespresso is even worse when it comes to convenience. The capsules are only available through ordering online with the requirement to join their coffee club after you purchase the machine. So stopping by to pick up some coffee on the way home from work is out the door. Plus as I said earlier, it's mainly an espresso machine. Don't expect to purchase one of these and replace your coffee maker.

Aerobie AeroPress

The AeroPress is a great example of a low cost alternative to all of the machines on the market. The Aeropress is compact, easy to use, is only about $30 and makes an amazing cup of coffee. Of course, you can use any coffee of your choice & you can make a great cup of coffee in 40sec after water boil. It takes up practically no counter space & can easily be carried in a purse or backpack, making it ideal for camping trips etc. The downside is the brewer does not boil its own water & requires an outside heated water source such as a water kettle or the use of a microwave. The maker is a bit messier than removing a capsule, but there is no container waste. A "puck" of grounds is generated after each brew & can popped into your compost bin or trash can. Simply rinse off the plunger & your ready to go.

My Final Thoughts

It's not that I hate single serve brewing devices. They do serve a purpose of creating one cup at a time. The thing that really irritates me is that each maker tells the consumer what kind of coffee they must enjoy. With the exception of the AeroPress & Keurig, you have to use the machine's proprietary pods or you can't even use them. Even the Kuerig's My K-Cup isn't meant to replace the machine's pods. My experience with them includes leaking & under extracted cups of coffee. I believe it was intentionally designed that way. When Green Mountain Coffee purchased the rights to Kuerig's design in 2006, they were initially losing about $60 a machine due to the significant production cost of the hardware. Corporations traded on the stock exchange are in the business to make money. According to their current Annual Report (Click Here, Filed Nov 2011, Business Overview, 3rd paragraph), they are still using that same strategy. So the big idea is to take a hit on the hardware & make it up on the back-end with the sale of the pods. So the My K-Cup was designed to underperform compared to the capsules because GMCR makes a lot more when you purchase their proprietary capsules than when you load the machine up with another brand's coffee. With the exception of Starbucks & a few others have you also noticed that GMCR has being acquiring every roaster that offers a coffee for their machine? I don't know about you, but that makes me a little nervous. From Caribou, to Tully's even Van Houtte they are now all under the umbrella of Green Mountain. Starbucks has already released a statement that they are working on the production of their own single serve machine. If this continues, we'll look up and every large roasting company who wants to enter the single serve market will force you to buy their machine to drink their brand of coffee.

In regards to price & taste, all of these machines are very expensive in my opinion. Initial cost and per cup price they just don't add up. Forking over $150-$300 for a machine is a huge chunk of change for a chunk of plastic that can only be used to make coffee. I honestly would prefer you to purchase a $20 drip coffee maker & buy coffee from the supermarket. Both produce subpar coffee but at least you keep a hundred or so bucks in your pocket & you can pick up any type of coffee you like anywhere without the restrictions of corporate contracts. All of these of machines listed above have an average cost of $.70-$.80 per cup. In terms of traditional roasted coffee, that's about $31-$36 a pound (based on the standard coffee ratio of 10g of ground coffee per 6oz cup of coffee). At that price, you can easily purchase top quality Arabica coffee from some of the most reputable roasters in the nation and even afford to buy 100% Hawaii Kona if that's your thing.

I have to admit I'm a huge advocate of manual brewing methods. Manual brewing is the best way to achieve a high quality cup of coffee at home with very little investment. You can pick up an AeroPress or Chemex for less than $40 & with a tiny amount of skill you can brew a cup of coffee that will knock your friends' socks off. At the same time, I'm not against good technology. I will recommend a Technivorm in a heartbeat to customers because I know it consistently brews an excellent cup of coffee. It costs about $300.00, but it's handmade, built with quality parts & brews awesome coffee. Of all the 100s of automatic coffee makers on the market, it is 1 of only 2 brewers on the market actually approved by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (2nd being BonVita FYI).

At the end of the end of day however, it's your choice. That's one of the beauties of this great country. Don't let my views & opinions deter you from what satisfies you. I just totally agree with another roaster in the industry whose motto is: "Life is Just Too Short for Bad Coffee." -Be blessed.

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