It might surprise you to learn that many specialty coffee roasters remain reluctant to jump on the Keurig bandwagon even though the expiration of K-Cup patents has made it easier than ever before. At first glance, choosing not to use K-Cups seems a missed opportunity. It’s not an overstatement to say that single-serve has transformed modern coffee consumption. There are now an estimated 15 million K-Cup brewing machines in the United States—most of which are in consumer kitchens. These consumers have proven that they’re willing to pay a significant premium for the agency, convenience and consistency offered by single serve.
So, K-Cup should be an obvious choice for roasters? No! Upon closer inspection, trying to join the K-Cup train as an independent roaster might lead to an ugly wreck. Here’s why:
First, K-Cups are becoming victims of their own success. The system was designed more than 20 years ago—a time when coffee drinks were smaller than those consumed today. The K-Cup was designed to brew up to 10 oz. per serving. Compare that to the average 16 oz. cup sold at Starbucks, or the popular 20 oz. venti. Enjoying that much coffee with the K-Cup system requires two pods and brewing cycles, which increases cost, time and waste.
Second, the K-Cup is not recyclable. Although Keurig and knock-off brands are working to develop sustainable solutions, so far the best efforts to adapt have yielded little success. Most of the recyclable products available today, unfortunately, require additional packaging to ensure that the coffee stays fresh—more or less defeating the goal of reducing waste. Why does this matter? Well, with a daily consumption rate of more than 25 million K-Cups—or 10 BILLION, annually—the amount of K-Cups headed to our landfills is staggering.
Third, the K-Cup’s design does not maximize the potential enjoyment of the subtle flavors inherent to lightly roasted specialty coffees. Because the gravity system channels water through the middle of the coffee grounds, it does not allow for complete extraction of flavor. As general taste preferences continue to shift to more differentiated and refined coffees, single-serve systems need to capture the nuances of the flavors that consumers are seeking.
Fourth, the battle of the K-Cups—between those that are licensed and those that are unauthorized—is rapidly devolving into a price war. With more and more options available, consumers are increasingly choosing big, well-known companies that can afford to advertise heavily and to promote themselves. Smaller roasters can no longer compete against the national brands in this competitive market. Many will fail and lose their investments regardless of whether their product is superior to those of the national brands.
Fifth and finally, as Keurig continues to innovate its models of brewers, the brand will seek to employ technology that prevents the use of unauthorized products in its machines. Keurig is already promoting the new Vue—a patent-protected capsule that unlicensed roasters will not have access to—for its new brewers. The goal here is clear: block independent roasters from competing in the Vue market.
Given all of the above, it’s no wonder why specialty roasters are becoming increasingly wary of the K-Cup. They understand that shifting consumer preferences are presenting a new challenge—one that Keurig may be ill equipped to answer. There is a lot of buzz surrounding single-serve coffee right now and many roasters want to join in. The time is right for them to embrace a new choice: SolaBev.