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January 16, 2014

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How the single-cup revolution went global...and green

For decades, coffee drinkers basically had three choices for their cup of Joe: brew a pot at home (and throw half of it out unused), grab a cup from the local diner or convenience store, or brave the who-knows-how-old breakroom coffee at the office. 

But with the advent of coffee culture came an explosion of coffeehouses that began brewing excellent coffee, far superior to what you could make at home or at work. Even the corner convenience store upped their brewing game, making the “pot sitting on the warmer for six hours” a thing of the past.

However, for those that didn't want to venture out and didn't feel like trying to come up with the exact blend of grounds and water to make a single cup using the old drip-brewer at home, the advent of the single-serve brewer popularized by companies such as Keurig, Bunn, and Hamilton Beach has been like a gift from the coffee gods. You grab a little package, plop it in the machine, hit a button and wait a minute or so for a fresh cup of tasty java. 

Single-serve coffee is the fastest growing category in the home coffee market. Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, the parent company of the market-leading Keurig brand of single-serve machines, took in over $3.85 million in sales in 2012 (their 2013 report is still being worked on), which was 46 percent more than they had made in 2011. People love the convenience of the process and the variety of choices available. So what could be better?

What could be better indeed? The answer for the single-serve providers has been to follow along with the trends in the coffeehouses: better beans, better sources, and better use of green thinking. For example, Green Mountain Coffee has been at the forefront of bringing Fair Trade beans and organic coffees to the single-use market, along with familiar names such as Newman's Own and Van Houtte.

Even better, the Rainforest Alliance, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior, has worked with Timothy's, Emeril's, and Caribou Coffee to market a variety of coffee packs that meet their rigid certification standards. 

In fact, pretty much the only knock against single-serve brewers has been their cost. Even a basic machine can cost more than $100, and the individual packs can be a bit pricey. The average price of a box of 18 K-Cups is right at $12, which works out to 67 cents per cup. Doing the math, with the average coffee drinker consuming three cups a day, that works out to about $733 a year. 

However, there is very simple solution that can not only dramatically cut that annual cost but also lead to an ever-better cup of coffee: the reusuable cup. Most stores offer them (they average around $10 apiece) and can be filled with your choice of ground coffee, washed, rinsed and repeated for as long as you like. If you, like myself, enjoy buying fresh-ground beans from one of the local stores, this solution is truly the best of all worlds: buy local, drink global, save money.

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