We American coffee-drinkers have known the Era of Starbucks and the Epoch of Sanka. It seems, however, we currently live in the Age of the K-Cup.
And we’re about to discover everything that means.
Over the past half-decade, single-serve, instant-brew coffee pods—called K-Cups—have taken over more than a quarter of the U.S. ground coffee business. Last summer, the Wall Street Journal judged the K-Cup’s rise “unstoppable” and reported that product category was worth over $150 million.
K-Cups and Keurig (the best-known brand used to brew them) are both manufactured by Green Mountain Coffee. That company—worth some $16 billion itself—owned the patents for its chalices of disruption, but they expired in 2012, and since then it’s had a problem.
It’s historically operated on a razor blade model: Its Keurig business makes real money not by selling machine brewers but by selling K-Cups. Now cheaper competitors have moved in. They sell inexpensive one-off cups and reusable, extensible cups—threatening the company’s business on both sides.
Today’s coffee-shop owners don’t just place orders for beans. They backpack up the sides of volcanoes in Guatemala and Panama to find previously undiscovered farmers who will grow and process beans to their specifications. And if they’ve paid to trek to Central America, you don’t think they’ll just make you a quick cup, do you?
The current fashion is to make what should be the simplest of brewing techniques—pouring hot water over ground beans to coax out their subtle, delicate flavors—an exercise in endurance. Instead of simply opening a spigot on an urn, a barista will set a filter into a carafe and place it on an electronic scale before adding the coffee, to be sure of the exact ratio of water to grounds. Relying on a timer to ensure a prolonged pour (sometimes up to four minutes), the barista will then use a swan-neck pitcher to ever so slowly drip the right amount of temperature-controlled water into the filter, all while giving you a lecture on the new crop of Borboya Yirgacheffe. The experience seems calibrated to produce maximal annoyance.
Read more. [Image: The Food Passionates/Corbis]
It was approximately 8:55 am last Friday morning when a stranger asked for my name. I was in a long line at Starbucks, and our conversation started with raised eyebrows from her—the barista—followed by my drink order: “I’ll have a Grandé mocha.” There might have been a hint of uptalk at the end of that statement, but there was nothing uncertain or wavering about my response to the next question. She asked for my name, and I shouted, without missing a beat, “Kristen.” Articulating my real first name would have been awfully inconvenient, given the noise level around us and the need for efficiency. “Svati” always warrants repeating. My middle name, Kirsten, is also unfamiliar, so I modify it slightly to Kristen, which everyone recognizes. I am one of many "uncommonly named" people who do this all the time, at Starbucks and elsewhere.
An hour later, at the Atlantic headquarters, a senior editor saw me sipping my mocha and surmised that I’d stolen someone else’s drink. This, too, happens all the time: Drinking out of disposable coffee cups scrawled with “Kristen”—or “Cristin,” “Christen,” and the like, because baristas are notorious for putting creative twists on even the most ubiquitous names—invites questions and teasing remarks. “Guess Kristen didn’t get her coffee today.” I had barely begun to explain—”Ha ha, actually, this is just the name…”—when our site’s executive editor John Gould interrupted and self-identified as a member of the fake-Starbucks-name club.
Only one nation averages more than 2 cups of coffee per day. It’s the Netherlands.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
Caffeine can improve attention and focus, we’ve known for a while. It also enhances working memory (short term, in the moment). Caffeine’s effects on long-term memory, though, if any, aren’t well established.
A study published yesterday in the journal Nature Neuroscience gets into that in a unique way, looking at caffeine’s effect on memory consolidation.
In the first episode of our eclectic new video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, James Hamblin, M.D., explains the long history of humanity’s favorite psychoactive substance.
Imagine walking into Starbucks and discovering that your grande latte cost $27. You’d probably think that the world’s coffee supply had suddenly vanished. Or that you’d traveled by time machine many decades into the future.
These inflated prices gives you a pretty good idea of the relative cost (adjusted to per capita income) of what a Chinese person pays for the drink. China’s per capita income, at about $7,200, is around five and a half times less than the American figure. Yet at a Starbucks in Beijing, a grande latte goes for about $4.80—or a dollar more than what it costs in the United States. A simple beverage of espresso and steamed milk is pretty damned expensive in China.
Read more. [Image: Jason Lee/Reuters]
"Coffee and energy drinks can give you a quick boost, but they come with a ton of issues, and can cause you to crash."
That, according to the pitch from Harvard undergrad Ben Yu and venture capitalist Deven Soni, is why we need Sprayable Energy—a caffeine product that the user absorbs through their skin. Creators Yu and Soni recommend that one spray it “in the same places you would a fragrance (like your neck).”
A lot of energy-product pitches start by telling us how bad coffee and energy drinks are. Then, by the end, they admit that the active ingredient in their product, too, is caffeine. The Sprayable Energy pitch is no exception, eventually siding with its demons: “You spray it on your skin to get the alertness and focus you would from coffee or energy drinks.”
Without, though, a ton of issues.
Read more. [Image: webfoto/Flickr]
It was November 23, 2010. We were in Surf City, North Carolina, getting ready to fortify ourselves before another grueling day. As the thin, black liquid oozed into the stained carafe, we stood bleary-eyed.
We were roommates, Marine infantry officers, perpetually sleep-deprived from the training, the planning, the preparations for war. Back then coffee was little more than a bitter, caffeine-delivery system. It was just what we needed to stay awake.
We were missing so much.
Fast-forward a few years. We’ve hung up our uniforms, we’re in the kitchen, and we’re making coffee. Great coffee. The kind that reminds you first thing in the morning of everything else you appreciate in life. It’s about the art, the ritual, and the moments shared across a table.