New one-cup coffee makers allow you to skip the mess and excess while brewing coffee to suit each drinker. But don't forgo your Starbucks fix just yet.
By JANET K. KEELER
Published October 13, 2004
[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]
It's a good start
We wanted to love the one-cup, pod-system coffee makers, and we suspect that as they evolve we will fall for them. Especially when there are more choices of coffee.
The coffee industry may see one-cup home brewing systems as a way to lure the swells back from trendy coffee salons, but it needs to build a better mousetrap to accomplish that.
A test of three widely available one-cup brewing systems resulted in lackluster coffee and some design questions. That said, the coffee makers are expected to be big sellers this holiday season.
Senseo by Philips, Black & Decker's Home Cafe and the Melitta One:One are competing for the attention of coffee drinkers who want less mess and less coffee. For these consumers, one cup is plenty.
There is no measuring or grinding for these coffee makers, which cost from $50 to $70. And there is no coffee pot. Water flows through paper pods packed with coffee grounds and empties into your cup. The pods look like chunky tea bags without strings.
If you've got two coffee drinkers in the house, one who likes regular and one who prefers decaf, both can have a cup of hot joe within minutes. Pop open the machine, push in a pod and brew a new cup.
In concept, these machines are brilliant. Coffee is made quickly, and for small-quantity drinkers there is no waste. No more burned coffee because it sat in the pot too long.
"I'm not convinced that this execution is the right execution but I am convinced it's the right concept," says Phil Lempert, a food trend analyst for the Today show and ACNielsen. "What we are seeing is the first generation of these machines. The evolution will keep going."
Chris Hillman, marketing director for Melitta coffee, agrees there may be room for improvement but the Clearwater company has received promising feedback.
"In our follow-up research, 99 percent of buyers say that they would recommend the Melitta One:One to a friend," Hillman says.
Hillman says the pod-system coffee makers are the biggest breakthrough in home brewing since Mr. Coffee introduced its automatic drip machine in 1972.
"As this takes off, we'll find a multitude of different coffee makers and coffee varieties," Hillman says. Melitta is considering changes to its product but Hillman declined to divulge them.
Philips, whose Senseo has been a success in Europe for several years, brags about the foamy crema layer on its coffee, but Lempert wants none of it. "If I want my coffee like that, I'll have espresso," he says.
Lempert's comments point to the larger issue of taste, and one that is more difficult to satisfy. Coffee, like wine, has become a complicated commodity with many purveyors and many more opinions.
Where once a cup of coffee was just a hot beverage, it is now a proclamation of status, of awareness, of cool. We debate Colombian versus African; drink free trade and organic versions; and hardly blink at $4 specialty drinks that aren't much more than coffee-flavored confections.
But still, the search for the perfectly easy cuppa continues.
Our test revealed two frustrations with one-cup brewers: the lack of choice in coffee and the cumbersome design. The Home Cafe system is inappropriate for people with limited manual dexterity because it takes two strong hands to open and close the pod holder. The water receptacles on the other two machines are narrow and not easy to fill, plus they are awkward to handle when full of water.
Each coffee maker comes with a supply of pods made for that machine. The pods can be purchased online and at some stores that sell the machines. Although they are sold in grocery stores in other parts of the country, they haven't yet made it to Tampa Bay area shelves.
By the end of the month, Publix will carry new Maxwell House coffee pods designed to fit Senseo and Home Cafe machines, says store spokeswoman Leslie Spencer.
During our test, we cheated and used the pods interchangeably, and for the most part that worked. But we wondered how the machines would brew our favorite brands, whether Starbucks, Chock full o'Nuts or Peet's by mail-order.
"I think that's very annoying. You don't want to be in prison with your coffee," says Corby Kummer, senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly and author of The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying (Houghton Mifflin, $16; 2004).
His gripe is echoed by people who have posted reviews on the Web.
"Don't believe everything you read about these machines," writes Gene McCalmont of Argyle, Texas, on Amazon.com. "They do make good coffee (if you use the right blend) and are reasonably well-built. But, the coffee is not coffeehouse quality. It really is a matter of expectations."
But even with lowered expectations, the coffee we sampled didn't taste much richer or smoother than instant.
Kummer has tried coffee from the three machines and is not impressed.
"First of all, there's not enough coffee in the pods and, second, it doesn't taste very fresh," he says. "Third, I don't think drip brewing ever works in small quantities."
In drip systems, water runs through the coffee grounds quickly and the first drops don't absorb much flavor, he says. Because of this, weak coffee is the likely result when making just one cup.
The one-cup systems have pressurization but it's just a bit more than gravity, Kummer says. "If they had a lot of pressure, they'd be claiming to be espresso machines."
Coffee pods were first introduced for espresso machines, and for those, Kummer says, they work well. The coffee is finely ground and packed so that it resists pressurized water flowing through. The result is rich, deep flavor.
Pods ease the messy chore of cleaning espresso machines, allowing multiple cups to be made quickly, Kummer says.
"At home, it doesn't make sense to me to have to make coffee so quickly," Kummer says. "Why can't people just make a pot?"
Well, because they don't want to. The one-cup coffe makers make sense to the thousands who have purchased them. They want their coffee fast and with little fuss, and they don't want an entire pot. Many Web reviewers give them high marks.
"There is no accounting for taste, pay no attention to the "bad coffee' reviews. There is a pod out there for everyone's taste," writes Paul Gooding of Phoenix on Amazon.com. "This is the coffee maker of the future."
For some, that's a good thing; for others, not so much.