The case for Keurigs

There's a perverse beauty in a cup of instant Keurig coffee.
Beauty and the Beast? Hardly. There's a perverse beauty in a cup of instant Keurig coffee.

By Emily Clemons
Medill Reports

I am a proud drinker of sh—y coffee. I am a longtime user of the ubiquitous and much-reviled Keurig coffee maker. Above only instant brews, K-Cup coffee occupies the lowest rung on the java ladder, eternally damned there by knowledgeable and high-brow coffee-drinkers who value their French presses and pour-over Cemex hardware. On top of my affinity for K-Cups, I also pollute my coffee with huge scoops of sugar and long pours of artificially flavored creamer.

In a millennial-driven, coffee snob culture, I am the epitome of a coffee slob. Critics of my caffeinated constituency (read: many of my friends and colleagues) say that not only do Keurigs produce bad coffee, but also that the K-Cups are killing the planet. Smug though they may be, they are not wrong – the plastic #7 mix used to make K-Cups is not conducive to the proper balance of bitterness, sweetness and acidity that coffee is supposed to have. And that plastic is not biodegradable, leaving Keurig K-Cup creator John Sylvan filled with regret that his inventions have created enough waste to circle the equator more than 10 times.

Tired of getting s—t for my s—-y coffee, I set out to see if I could be convinced that high-brow coffee was worth the hype.

The baristas at Dark Matter Coffee’s Osmium Coffee Bar in Lakeview were kind enough to provide some answers. I ordered something sure to garner a coffee snob’s approval: an “Agave Latte,” described on the menu as having “agave, cinnamon, chocolate.” The delicate foam leaf sank to the bottom of the clear, eight-ounce glass as I drank my annoyingly delicious coffee. Every sip filled my nose with cinnamon-y sweetness, and the drink was remarkably smooth.

“People are starting to care about what their coffee tastes like and where it comes from” — Zeke Spira

This was obviously special coffee, and I’d be willing to fork over $4 for it again, but was it remarkably better than K-cup coffee? Dark Matter’s baristas seem to think so.

“Nothing special about it, really,” barista Carlos Azuara, 20, said of his one encounter with a Keurig brew. Zeke Spira, 23, another barista who has worked in coffee since he was 15 years old, was even harsher in his assessment, going so far as to call it merely “coffee-water.”

“Think of it like McDonald’s versus a local restaurant,” Azuara explained. With the mass production necessary to yield the ingredients on the scale required by a McDonald’s or Keurig, Azuara said you get questionable trade processes and low-quality coffee. What’s great about Dark Matter and other quality coffees, he contends, is that they visit their farms and know exactly where the beans come from. And, as a plus for consumers, there will not be any artificial flavors or chemicals in coffee that is properly produced.

“People are starting to care about what their coffee tastes like and where it comes from,” Spira said.

Maybe Spira is right and the public’s tastes are shifting. Keurig coffee makers and their accompanying K-Cups are on the decline. Keurigs and other pod coffee machines have often been a popular holiday gift item, with global sales growing from $4.78 million in 2010 to $11.2 million in 2015. But in a recent survey by the National Coffee Association, only 5 percent of consumers age 18 and older “definitely would buy” a single-cup brewing system as a gift. Growth of single-cup brewing system ownership is slowing as well. Another National Coffee Association survey found that while ownership grew by 80 percent from 2014 to 2015, it only has grown by 14 percent between 2016 and 2017.

When I told the two baristas about my own s—-y coffee habits, they chuckled kindly. “We’re very pretentious and have a huge ego, but it’s just coffee in the end,” Azuara said. Dark Matter, he says, tries not to convey coffee elitism as a part of its business culture.

“Coffee is just an ingredient,” Spira said. “Drink it however you want to drink it.”

Spira and Azuara did sell me on a bag of Dark Matter Coffee to try at home, using a reusable, Keurig-compatible K-Cup one could find at a local supermarket or drugstore. I used my NutriBullet blender to “grind” the coffee beans – I know, ultra-fancy – and packed them into the little purple plastic container. After popping it in my Keurig 2.0 coffee maker and making my usual cup (10 ounces, “strong”), I enjoyed a locally-purchased, ethically-sourced and, dare I say, high-brow cup of coffee from the comfort of my couch.

And guess what? It did taste better. Almost annoyingly so. I did not need to add as much creamer and sugar as usual, and the coffee itself was smoother. But I know two things for sure. First, that what put my excellent cup of coffee over the top was the s—-y, artificial caramel-flavored creamer I poured in it. And second, that by the time my alarm shocks me awake on Monday morning, I will be too damn groggy to grind the coffee beans and pack them into a little cup. Can I grind them in advance? Probably, but coffee snobs will tell you that comes at the expense of freshness and flavor. So I’ll proudly still reach for a s—-y little K-Cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and that s—-y little cup of coffee will be the best part of my morning.