If you're thinking about buying a pod coffee maker for yourself or as a gift for someone, please read this first. There are better ways to go--no matter what your priorities are!
Coffee pods have taken over the market. According to this article, coffee pods accounted for 35% of coffee sales in 2017. This translates to about $5 billion dollars in the US alone (where pods have the largest percentage of the market compared to the rest of the world), and about 10 billion individual coffee pods sold. This is enough, according to this article, to circle the planet more than 10 times.
People love the convenience and speed of the pod coffeemaker: you can brew a cup at a time in about a minute. And because they brew up one at a time, it's easy for everyone to get exactly the coffee they want.
As great as all of that is, there's a dark side to the pod system; actually there are a number of problems with them, and any one could be enough to change your mind about coffee pods.
There are better ways to go.
Problems with Coffee Pods
If you add up the cost of the individual pods, it can come to over $50 a pound! Coffee pods are great for manufacturers because the profit margin is way higher than any other way coffee is sold. For the same reason, it's not so good for consumers. Sure, you might save a little money because you don't throw any coffee out--no stale, burnt coffee left in the bottom of the carafe, that is.
Even so, paying upwards of $40 for a pound of coffee is highway robbery. This makes the general principle of coffee pods reprehensible.
For many people, this is the biggest issue with coffee pods. The amount of plastic waste produced by the coffee pod system is huge. Behemoth, gargantuan, leviathan, in fact. More than 10 billion coffee pods are sold annually just by Keurig. This doesn't account for the other main producer of pods, Nespresso, or the other half-dozen or so players in the coffee pod market.
Another statistic: according to this article, from April 2017, 55 million used coffee pods are thrown away daily.
So no matter how you look at it, it's a lot of plastic waste.
Technically, coffee pods are recyclable. But they are made up of several different parts, including a few different plastics and an aluminum cover. So in order to recycle them, they have to be disassembled into their respective parts. No recycling centers have equipment small enough to do this.
One solution is to send the pods back to the manufacturer. There are some systems in place for this, but it's a pain, and very few people bother to do it.
Keurig Green Mountain has committed to making fully recyclable coffee pods by 2020. And there are some re-usable pod systems in place now, but they make up a minority of coffee pods used.
All well and good. But even so, 55 million pods thrown away daily is a lot.
Even if you believe this article, which states that the pods are tiny, and the amount of waste they generate is exaggerated, it's not the point. And even if you believe that there are other measures of waste reduction from the use of coffee pods, such as reduced coffee waste and less water and electricity used compared to other coffee brewing methods, that also isn't the point.
The point is that coffee pods, like most things packaged in individual-servings, create a lot of unnecessary plastic waste, and the vast majority of that waste ends up in landfills. And, if you truly want to be a better steward of the planet, you won't contribute to excess use of plastic, or other products, for that matter, that are going to end up in a landfill.
You either commit to a more sustainable way of life, or you don't. And if you do, then you can't condone a resource-wasting system like coffee pods. (Of course, this goes for many other things as well. Here's an article on reducing plastic use with sous vide, and here's an article on reducing food waste by keeping a well-stocked kitchen.)
Here's a now-viral 2-and-a-half minute video made anonymously by people concerned about K cup waste:
Quality of Coffee
As awful as 1) being overpriced and 2) creating unnecessary plastic waste are, our biggest issue with coffee pods is this: the coffee is not good.
Much as we hate unnecessary spending and unnecessary waste, we hate mediocre coffee even more. Especially when that mediocrity is so easy and so affordable to avoid.
Ok. It's not the worst coffee out there. And if you buy really good quality beans...er, that is, pods...then the coffee is okay.
But it's never, ever going to be as good as a cup of properly brewed French press coffee. Or Aeropress coffee. Or old-fashioned percolator coffee. Or a pour over. In fact, the only coffee-making methods that pods can even compete with, flavor-wise, are drip coffee makers and instant coffee. And that's because drip makers and instant crystals also produce inferior coffee.
The main reason that pod coffee is so mediocre is that you have no control over the brew. Not a single aspect of it, from the water temperature (crucial to extracting the most flavor from the coffee grounds), to the amount of water, to the amount of coffee you use.
Coffee pods are the epitome of "assembly line" coffee. There's no way to adjust the brew to your liking, so, like a MacDonald's hamburger, it's always going to taste the same, whether it's made in Manhattan or Beijing. You either like it or you don't--or, you're willing to sacrifice flavor for convenience.
Even if you have re-usable pods that you fill yourself, the water temperature renders this largely pointless as far as flavor is concerned. According to the Keurig website, their makers heat water to 192F, which they consider the "ideal" brewing temperature. But according to the National Coffee Association, the optimal water temperature to properly extract flavor from the beans is 195-205F. Anything less than this is going to leave behind many of the complex, nuanced flavor compounds that makes a great cup of coffee.
(We suspect that 192F is as hot as the Keurig can get in the short amount of time it takes to brew a cup of coffee--thus, it's their "ideal" brewing temp.)
So you see, pod-brewed coffee is always going to be under-flavored, even if you throw down for exorbitantly overpriced, "top quality" coffee pods.
Nespresso pod makers are even worse, it seems. According to the user reviews on Amazon (because this information doesn't seem to be available on their website), Nespresso makers heat the water to about 170F. Add a little cream to it, and it won't even be hot anymore. (This is a common user review complaint on Amazon.)
But more importantly, 170F water is going to result in an absolutely abysmal cup of coffee.
On the other hand, maybe water temperature is a moot point, because another major issue with pod coffee is that there's no telling how long it's been sitting around--and coffee begins to lose flavor the instant it's ground.
According to some sources, coffee pods can be more than a year old by the time you get them. Even the freshest pods on the market are going to be several weeks old.
So, not fresh.
Pod makers try to counteract the flavor loss by blanketing the grounds in the pods with a layer of nitrogen. This helps, but only a little. Because by the time the pods are packaged and sealed, it's too late: the coffee has already lost a significant amount of flavor. There's really no way around this.
So overall, the quality of the coffee in those pods is simply not going to be good; nowhere near the flavor of freshly ground beans brewed in optimal-temperature water.
For more details on why pod coffee tastes so bad, check out this article.
(Aside: Pod coffee makers are an excellent example of a mediocre appliance which makes a mediocre product getting a huge number of rave reviews on Amazon. We discuss this phenomenon in our article Can You Trust Amazon Reviews? In this case, the answer is yes, you can trust the reviews, because people do love their coffee pods--but not because they brew a good cup of coffee. These people either 1) like weak, flavorless coffee, 2) have never had a superior cup of coffee, or 3) base their positive opinions on the convenience rather than the quality of the brew.
This is a bit harsh, we know, but: it's kind of amazing how people can trick themselves into liking a product that honestly just isn't very good.)
Another Appliance Sitting on Your Counter
Last and probably least, do you really need another appliance sitting on your counter? Do you have so much extra space that you can afford another gizmo out on display?
Because pod coffee makers are as bulky as those now out-of-fashion drip coffeemakers we all grew up with (and good riddance to them, too, we say). And once you have one, it's going to sit out, along with your food processor, toaster oven, mixer, slow cooker, instant pot, vacuum sealer, PIC, and all the other gadgets that are too heavy to move easily or used just often enough that you want them out. Taking up space. For most of us, much needed space.
Maybe this doesn't bother you. And as long as you have designated work space for your food prep that is clutter-free, then more power to you. But ideally, the less clutter on your kitchen counters, the better--because clutter, even when it's attractive clutter like a modern toaster oven or shiny, espresso maker-looking pod coffee maker, doesn't look good in any kitchen.
What to Do Instead: the French Press
We at Rational Kitchen think there's a better solution for coffee lovers. We are huge fans of the French press.
Top Quality Coffee
When done right, French press is one of the easiest and best ways to brew coffee. If you've ever splurged on a high-end, seasonal coffee bean (like Jamaica Blue Mountain) at an upscale coffee shop or restaurant (i.e., not Starbucks), it almost certainly came in a French press. This is because the French press provides one of the best ways to extract optimal flavor out of those expensive beans.
Coffee snobs the world over are committed to their French presses. But the thing is, as great as the coffee is that's made in one, it's easy to use. Sure, there's a few more steps involved than sticking a pod in a machine, but it's so worth it.
Furthermore, the press itself is inexpensive. While you can spend more than $100 for a gimmicky press, you don't need to. In fact, in the case of French presses, some of the least expensive ones are the best. This press from Secura is completely fabulous. It has no plastic parts to degrade, it's double-walled to keep your brew warm, and best of all, it's under $30.
You may prefer the looks of the glass ones, but after you've broken a couple, you'll appreciate the utilitarian stainless steel. Seriously, it's one of the best kitchen tools out there.
Total Control Over the Brew
With a French press (and other methods recommended below), you have complete control over the brew. You decide which coffee to use. You decide how much coffee to use. You decide on the grind. You control the water temperature. You control the brewing time. And you control how much you make--anywhere from a cup at a time to however large your press is.
In other words, it's the exact opposite of assembly-line coffee. It's artisan coffee.
So if you decide you like the results with slightly coarser grounds, or you prefer one roast over another, or you like the water just a hair below boiling, it all works. It's completely up to you.
Very Little Waste
One of the reasons we love the French press so much is that there's very little infrastructure involved. You need the press, something to boil water, and something to grind the beans (although you can do that at the store, as well, so you don't need to have a coffee grinder at home).
There are no filters to toss after every brew. The filter is a stainless steel mesh that's part of the French press itself.
The only by-product of the French press method is the grounds, and if you're clever, you can use them rather than toss them out. They're great for fertilizing plants, keeping critters away from your garden, even homemade body and facial scrubs. And if you do have to throw them out, they're excellent food for a compost pile.
What there isn't is any leftover paper or plastic products. We love that about the French press method.
Easy to Clean and Maintain
After you make your French press coffee, you just dump the grounds and give it a good rinse out. That's it! Occasionally you may want to disassemble the screen and make sure you get all the grounds out from the nooks and crannies, but for the most part, a French press is maintenance free.
If you have your own grinder, that will require some maintenance, as they tend to clog up occasionally and need to be washed regularly to keep the coffee bean oils from building up. But this, too, is easy: depending on your grinder, most parts can just get tossed in the dishwasher. But it's certainly no more difficult than maintaining any other coffee infrastructure--and in most cases, a lot easier.
No Countertop Clutter
Another really great thing about French press coffee is the lack of countertop clutter it requires. No more coffee maker sitting on the counter! The press itself can easily be put out of sight when you're done with it. If you use a tea kettle, that can be left on the stove (the right one can look really nice). Tea kettles come in a huge price range, but spending a little more will ensure rust resistance, great design, and a pretty-sounding whistle. Here's one we really like, from Chantal:
It comes in several colors, including stainless and copper, and has a two-tone whistle that sounds like a harmonica. If you don't like this one (or don't want to spend this much), there are hundreds of other designs to choose from.
You could also go with an electric kettle. They're cheap and convenient, and like tea kettles they come in a huge range of price and design. However, they do produce some countertop clutter. Some electric kettles have a variable temperature setting, which is nice not only for coffee (no waiting for the boiling water to cool down to the right temp), but also for herbal tea, which requires a much lower-than-boiling temp (180F--if you've ever wondered why your tea is bitter, it's because your water is too hot).
If you go with the tea kettle rather than the electric kettle, the only countertop clutter you might have is a coffee grinder. If you're a serious coffee drinker, you may want to grind your own beans (remember, the fresher the grind, the tastier the coffee). And if you do want to grind your own beans, you'll probably want to invest in a burr grinder, because they produce a more uniform grind over blade grinders (which are not uniform at all). This is especially important for French press coffee because it requires a coarse grind so it won't get through the mesh filter.
Our favorite burr grinder is the Baratza Encore Conical Burr Grinder:
It's heavy duty enough to be worth the fancy price tag (but not too fancy), yet small enough that you can tuck it away in a cupboard when you need to.
How to Make the Perfect Cup of French Press Coffee
Making a cup of French press is simple:
- Boil the water.
- Grind the beans or, if pre-ground, measure grind into the French press. Start with about 2 heaping tablespoons of grounds per 6-ounce cup and adjust until you find your perfect ratio. (For a 1-liter press, you would need about 10 tablespoons of grounds, or about two-thirds of a cup.)
- Cool the boiling water to 195-205F. This shouldn't take more than a minute or two. Once cool, pour into the press.
- After 30 seconds, stir the grounds, making sure to wet them all.
- Set a timer for 4 minutes. Give the grounds another quick stir (this helps to eliminate grounds in your cup), press the coffee, pour, and enjoy.
Does it take longer than a coffee pod? Absolutely. But you will use that time to do many other things, from getting dressed to making your morning smoothie to feeding the kids or the pets, to whatever else your morning routine requires.
Your taste buds will thank you every. single. morning. that you don't make them drink pod coffee.
Other Options: AeroPress, Pour Over, Percolator
If for some reason you're anti-French press (the aforementioned grounds in the coffee, for example), you have a lot of other options that make coffee just as good.
An Aeropress is a tool much loved by many (just check out those reviews on Amazon!) It's quick, easy, and makes fabulous coffee. It can also make espresso:
Another option is the pour over method, similar to French press coffee and very simple (but requiring filters). We like the Chemex pour over design:
Finally, good old-fashioned percolator coffee is also delicious, as it extracts a great amount of flavor from the beans. The Bialetti stovetop coffee maker is a hugely popular, much loved brand that comes in several sizes:
It's as easy as the French press, maybe even a little bit easier--and no filters required. Everything you need to make a delicious cup (or pot) of coffee is included. You don't even need a kettle to boil water--it's done right in the pot.
Coffee pods may have their place. They're convenient for offices, waiting rooms, hotel lobbies...but they're not good for home use. The cost and waste make them a poor choice environmentally, and the brewing method makes them a poor flavor choice.
If you're thinking of buying a pod coffee maker for yourself or as a gift for someone, we hope we've given you some appealing alternatives. Every method we suggest here is inexpensive, easy, and will result in a cup of coffee far superior to the pod coffee.
So join with the rest of us who love the earth and hate bad coffee: Kill the Pod!
(And thanks for reading!)