Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Problem with K-Cups...

Why old-school coffee makers STILL outperform the likes of Keurig...

The first time I saw a Keurig coffee maker, I thought it was among the stupidest products I had ever seen.

"You mean you want me to spend $199 USD on some kind of contraption that uses Papa John garlic sauce packets instead of a filter like we've been doing since the 1950s?" I thought aloud. When I realized the thing didn't even have a coffee pot component, I was completely dumbfounded -- who in their right mind would even want some sort of device that only spat out a Lilliputian, single-cup load anyway?

Flash forward to 2015, and what do you know, Keurig Green Mountain's annual revenue has surpassed $1 billion. Every post-post-modern office space and neo-neo-yuppie kitchen in the nation has at least one of the units installed, leading other traditional coffee maker manufacturers to abandon their time-tested brewers in favor of similar, single-serve, pod-based apparatuses.

Ever the Luddite, I was opposed to making the leap from my tried-and-true Folgers-in-a-napkin breakfast for quite some time. Then, I got one of the units for my birthday, and figured I might as well see what all the hullabaloo was about.

Now, admittedly, I'm the sort who clings to his nostalgic biases. In our high-definition, liquid crystal display materialist utopia, I have a natural tendency to gravitate towards the outmoded, the archaic and the antediluvian. Today's high-tech, all-in-wonder devices may be spectacular consumer goods, but I still prefer a simplistic, uni-functional approach to product design. I want a toaster that makes toast and a microwave that makes things hot through radioactive technologies that I'm still not 100 percent sure I grasp -- put a clock or a radio or some Internet functionality in that sumbitch and it frustrates me to no end.

With that in mind, the coffee maker is sort of like the cockroach of kitchen grade appliances. Evolution-wise, it really hasn't changed at all over the last half century, while ovens and refrigerators hardly resemble the products from the 1970s whatsoever. I've had my little Mr. Coffee mini-maker for close to 10 years now, and it's outlived every car, computer or video game unit I've ever owned -- and it STILL works just as well as it did the weekend I first purchased it.

Simply put? It's the perfect consumer grade appliance. It's small, discrete, light-weight, easily portable, energy-efficient and it does what it needs to do fast and reliably. The Keurig brewer and its imitators, however, seem to be striving to be the exact opposite, and somehow, the consumers of America have all been duped into "upgrading" to what is -- mechanically and functionally -- an inferior device.

Let's use an automobile analogy, why don't we? My Mr. Coffee is a Honda Accord. It's tiny, gets good gas mileage, is soundly engineered and built to last way longer than it probably should. The Keurig, then, is pretty much a Hummer -- a big, loud, unnecessary competitor that does half as many things as the smaller product, only using three times as much power and at four times the cost.

Outside of style, I really can't think of anything that you're really getting out of the bigger unit. Alas, that's how capitalism works, I suppose -- if you want something big and loud and audacious and you've got the money for it, there's probably going to be somebody out there willing to sell it to you.

But just in terms of sheer function-orientation, I don't know anybody in their right mind can pick the Keurig over my mini-coffee brewer. To begin, let's discuss the size of the products. My mini-maker takes up less than six inches, front, back, and side-to-side, of countertop space. It can be easily stowed away when not in use, and pretty much be placed anywhere as desired for when it is. And it's super-portable, too, with few moving parts.

The Keurig, on the other hand, is an absolute monstrosity. It weighs, without hyperbole, ten times as much as the Mr. Coffee unit and takes up nearly a total square foot of table top space. Instead of a a coffee pot, it comes with a ginormous plastic water container that's built into the unit, which is literally big enough to qualify as a miniature aquarium. While you can detach the tank from the unit, you can forget about filling it up to the top like you would a normal coffee pot -- unless you're some juiced-up body builder or something, there's no way anyone can lift a fully-equipped container using just one arm.

That brings up another structural shortcoming with the product. Since the maker only brews one cup at a time, that means you're going to be leaving water inside the unit for long periods of time. So, if you're a one cup a day man, that means it would probably take you weeks before you wipe out a fully filled water container. The alternative to drinking possibly stagnant H20 is having to manually pour the water container out every day, or learning through trial and error just how much water you have to pour into the unit each morning to brew a decent cup. That's a pain in the ass in and of itself, since if you don't pour enough water into the container, the goddamn unit won't even start brewing. It's the kind of ordeal you never even had to think about with the smaller machines, and that's just the start of it.

Since the Keurig doesn't have a built-in hot plate like a normal coffee maker (it relies on internally-heated water alone to keep your Joe warm), your cup of K-coffee never comes out as warm as it does in a traditional maker. Really, you have a good five minute window with ANY Keurig brewed cup before it becomes frigid, and since it's single-serve-only, it's not like you can just add warmer coffee from the pot to balance out the equation. Unless you enjoy lukewarm Folgers or don't mind running to the microwave every two minutes, I really can't see what the consumer benefit there is.

As you would expect from a bulkier product, the Keurig is also MUCH, MUCH slower and louder than a regular brewer. I actually timed it from fill-up to final brew, and the Keurig device took three times longer to make one cup of coffee. That alone is pretty damning, but that doesn't include all of the additional inconveniences of the product. With my reliable Mr. Coffee unit, I just had to hit one button and two minutes later, I was good to go. With the Keurig though, I had to hit three different buttons for the process to take place. That sounds like I am nitpicking, but when time is a factor, it's absolutely inexcusable. I can walk away and take a shower with my Mr. Coffee running and come back with a pot of java waiting for me, but if I walk away from the K-Cup brewer for just a minute, the entire thing stops dead in its track, waiting for me to hit the "brew" button or select which size cup of coffee I'd like. It's not just inconvenient for a morning-use product, it's downright impractical.

And I'm not joking about the volume of the maker, either. With my mini-maker's timer-mechanism (a feature the newer model of coffee makers lack, it is worth noting), the brewer is set up to start pumping hot water through the unit at the same time every morning. The maker itself is so quiet that I never hear the thing kicking on while I'm still sleeping. The Keurig, however, literally sounds like a dub-step song being played at full-volume, with the whirring heating mechanism making the same kind of sounds you'd expect to come out of a malfunctioning Robocop. Even if the unit did have a built-in timer (and a one-button-does-everything button, I must remind you) I highly doubt anyone would be able to sleep through the racket it produces.

So, it's big, it's loud, it doesn't keep your coffee warm and you have to hoover over it at all times or else it won't do shit for you. All these are rather negative symptoms by themselves, but the HUGE problem with the unit is its price.

The units, depending on which brand you get, are usually four to five times more expensive than the standard old-school brewers. In addition to paying more for less up front, the long-term maintenance costs are WAY higher. I recently did a price comparison of two coffee variations -- a Starbucks dark roast Italian-African-Sri Lankan free-trade organic blend or some bullshit. One package was your standard ground coffee bag, and the other was a box of K-Cups ... I believe 16 per package, of the exact same product.

The bag of coffee cost $7.50. Pretty expensive, to be sure, but the K-Cup box was $11.99. That doesn't really sound like that big of a problem, until you actually look at the net weight of the products: the bag of traditional coffee weighed 340 grams while the K-Cup mix weighed in at just 192 grams. For whatever reason, the barons of Wall Street have decided to charge you, Joe Q. Consumer, 1.3 times as much moolah for barely two-thirds of the exact same product, and nobody seems to give much of a hoot. The disproportionality for consumers, I am sure, is actually much higher, since the K-Cup boxes have to have an inflated overall weight due to the plastic canisters. The actual dollar-to-dollar, product-to-product ratio is probably closer to being half as much overall coffee than the standard bag -- eventually, somebody's going to do the high school science fair study, but we'll probably be just as uninterested about the official results as we are right now concerning the speculative inequality.

Maybe this isn't a problem for the Rockefellers, but for the real American populace, I consider it nothing less than consumer fraud. Under what sort of pricing model can you justify charging people such wildly differential amounts for what is literally the same product? It would be like EA charging $59.99 for Xbox One games, and $89.99 for their PS4 kin. It would raise red flags, and people would be pissed a plenty. However, the coffee sipping masses really don't seem to give one iota about the overcharging going on during the K-Cup revolution, and that bodes poorly not only for the future of commerce, but the democratic state. If we're stocked full of people who are more than willing to plop down an extra four dollars for something they could EASILY pick up for less just because of the packaging, we are mighty fucked when it comes to actual public policy decisions.

The exorbitant price increase CAN'T be because of the plastic thimbles. You can pick up a 300 count coffee filter pack at the Dollar Tree for less than it costs to pick up a Del Taco burrito, so it's not like the alternative is even remotely costly. Is it simply an example of the software trying to make up for the costs of the hardware here? Does the K-Cup maker somehow activate flavor molecules inside the plastic tubs that could never be replicated by normal coffee brewers? Or is it simply the fact that most people are so unconcerned with their finances that they're more than happy to piss away an extra Lincoln a week, just for the sake of being "with it?"

Even the inventor of the damn pods said he regrets doing so, citing the containers as both environmentally-unsound and overly-expensive. Of course, the PR folks at Green Mountain directly addressed the ecological concerns, but as expected, didn't say a darn thing about the toll on consumer wallets.

In a free market, we are free to spend our money on whatever stupid bullshit we want, even the illegal stuff, as long as we don't get caught. Needless to say, ours is a culture that encourages wasteful spending, which -- more so than perhaps even the housing market implosion of 2006 -- is probably the primary reason we had the Great Recession pummel the ever-loving dogshit out of us for so long. With consumer confidence (i.e, Americans' willingness to purchase stuff they don't need) rising, perhaps the popularity of the Keurig-type product isn't surprising. Alas, it's a very grim harbinger of the fiscal fortunes of the average purchaser, who foregoes both thrift and inarguable functionality in favor of marketing hype.

I can see why the product would have appeal to some consumers, namely, the folks who don't drink coffee daily (then again, why you would spend so much money on something you use sparingly is something I just can't wrap my head around it.) But for the average consumer, the things are just needless, and no amount of public relations clap trap can overcome the basic math behind why the products are inferior goods.

The Keurig, I believe, is simply technology for technology's sake, with a price-tag that can't be justified in any way, shape or form. Recently, a lot of Cain was raised about the newer models not reading certain K-Cup containers, itself a sort of weird DSM problem that would have been utterly unfathomable just a decade ago.

As a form of symbolic protest, I have an idea for you. How about taking those K-Cups that don't work in your Keurig, poking them with an ink pen, and feeding them into your old, lonely napkin-and-spoon brewer? Nothing says revolutionary quite like using the past to the co-opt the future ... and in the process, demonstrating that the ways of yore were indeed much better, all around, than the ways of the current.


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