Single cup coffee makers - Poised for growth or collapse?

Keurig and Tassimo coffee makers in store

Go back ten years and most households made their coffee with a drip brewer or a percolator. Then on the fringe, there was a small handful of gourmet coffee lovers who slaved over a French press or a filter cone.

Then along came the single cup coffee makers.

The first to make a splash in North America was the Senseo machine, which used coffee pods. The pods are like plump, round tea bags, and introduced people to the idea of making a single cup of coffee at a time, instead of making a full pot.

It may be hard the believe now, but back then the idea of making gourmet coffee with a pod was strange, to say the least. But over time the idea caught on.

Then came the Keurig single cup coffee maker. This time, instead of using pods, their machine used K-Cups, which are a little like an oversized version of those single serve creamers you get in restaurants. In some ways, this was an even stranger idea – using this fancy K-Cup once and then throwing it away.

Next came the Tassimo, which made the leap from just being a coffee maker to also being an espresso machine. With the Tassimo brewers you can make coffee, but also make a passable latte or cappuccino.

The single cup espresso drink idea was then picked up with the Nespresso line of single serve espresso machines.

There are other machines out there, but that’s pretty much the sequence of how single cup coffee makers began to push aside the traditional drip brewer and percolator.

So who buys these machines?

During the early years, mainstream coffee drinkers weren’t flocking to buy these machines. If you wanted to buy one, you had to go online, or seek out a specialty kitchen store.

Early buyers were coffee lovers with a taste for innovation and gadgets. Using one of these coffee makers was just a very cool thing to do. Also, some people genuinely appreciated the speed and convenience of making a single cup of coffee at a time, with no fuss and no cleaning up.

In other words, you could now make a cup of gourmet coffee without having to buy a coffee grinder, and go through the time-consuming process of grinding beans, setting up your brewer, and then dealing with the cleanup afterwards.

But for several years these brewers were the toys of the curious and well-heeled among the world’s coffee lovers.

Single cup coffee makers go mainstream

Evidence of the leap to mainstream adoption can be found in your local supermarket. You no longer have to go online to buy these machines, you can probably buy one of the brewers and the single serve coffees themselves within a ten minute drive from your home.

In fact, traditional drip brewers are losing space on the shelves as more and more single serve brewers are taking up that shelf space. The same goes for buying the coffee itself. There is now less space for bagged coffee beans, ground or whole, because the space is being taken up by boxes of K-Cups, capsules and discs.

In addition, Starbucks is now entering the fray. For years they have been partners with Green Mountain Coffee, who made Starbucks coffees available in K-Cups. But soon you’ll be able to buy a Starbucks single cup coffee maker.

With many of these brewers on the market, what could possibly go wrong?

Good question. On the face of it, these brewers are winning the war, and both drip brewers and percolators are losing ground. And they are winning because they do offer convenience. It’s much more convenient to use a Keurig single cup coffee maker to make a cup of gourmet coffee, and much easier to use a Nespresso machine to make a cappuccino.

But there are two big clouds over all of these machines.

First, the price of making those single servings of coffee is ridiculously high. Whether using coffee pods, K-Cups, capsules or discs, you’ll typically pay two or three times the price when compared to making coffee with a drip brewer or percolator.

If you drink a few cups of coffee a day, paying two or three times more than you need to can quickly add up. And today, with so many people having to count their pennies in both North America and Europe, I can see the one cup coffee maker bubble bursting.

Sure, it can be fun to get one of these brewers. You’ll love the ease of use. But I suspect many of these machines will end up on shelves in the basement when people figure out just how much they are spending on coffee.

Second, there is an environmental issue. This doesn’t apply to coffee pods, but does apply to the various cups and discs that are made with plastic. These mini coffee containers are not recyclable, and all end up in the landfill. Literally millions upon millions of them are being dropped into the garbage.

Most people probably don’t think about the waste, or worry about it. But some day there could be quite a backlash. After all, there is a very environmentally friendly alternative – simply use a drip brewer and then toss the wet coffee grinds and the paper filter in a compost bin.

Wrapping it up…

There is no doubt that single cup coffee makers are proving to be hugely popular. But whether their growth in popularity will continue, or whether there will be a backlash against the price and waste that comes with them remains to be seen.

Further reading...

More on single cup coffee makers...




NOTE: If you are a coffee professional, be sure to read about my coffee marketing report on What Coffee Drinkers Say about Coffee Makers and Gourmet Coffee.

About the author: Nick Usborne, aka Coffee Detective, is a writer and long-time coffee enthusiast.

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