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Are pod-based coffee machines worth splurging on?

A model of Starbucks’ new Verismo coffee and espresso maker.

Mike Sun likes his coffee bold and strong. His wife prefers milder roasts. So brewing their morning pot used to mean having to compromise. Often, they would wind up making more than they could drink and the leftover would be wasted.

But then they bought a single-cup coffee maker, which uses pods or capsules that make a pressurized brew within seconds instead of using filters and grounds. The couple now keep about six types of pods on hand, and each can make an instant cup to his or her liking. "This way, we have harmony in our house in terms of coffee," says Sun, a food blogger in Kamloops, B.C.

Attracted by the promise of convenience and freshness, java lovers are increasingly turning to single-cup machines. This market is now the fastest-growing segment in the coffee industry, with Canadian sales of pods growing more than 100 per cent year over year, according to Anthony Carroll, Starbucks's manager of coffee quality. Data from the market research firm Euromonitor International shows that pods made up only $400,000, or 0.1 per cent, of Canadian retail coffee sales in 2006. That portion is forecast to expand to $122.4-million, or 9 per cent, in 2012.

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With growth like that, it is easy to see why Starbucks has not only jumped aboard the single-cup bandwagon, but is also trying to grab the reins by producing its own premium single-cup machine, called Verismo. The SuperValu grocery chain is launching its own private brand of coffee pods, and even non-coffee retailers, such as the office-supply store Staples, are getting in on the action by stocking Nescafé single-cup machines and coffee capsules.

But for consumers, these early days of the coffee-pod frenzy can stir memories of the old Betamax-versus-VHS war or the Mac-versus-PC battle. Since coffee brands offer pods that are compatible with only certain machines, consumers have to choose wisely, lest their single-cup brewers are left to gather dust.

For instance, Tassimo machines, made by Bosch, use T Disc pods that come in brands such as Nabob and Maxwell House. The Bunn My Café machines use Wolfgang Puck, Reunion Island and Donut Shop pods. Meanwhile, the Verismo operates in a closed system, using Starbucks pods exclusively.

This means that consumers are largely limited to the kinds of coffee they can make with their single-cup brewers. Even Sun, who swears by his Keurig machine, admits he was dismayed when one of his favourite coffee brands stopped offering his preferred blend in Keurig-compatible pods.

The pods are also an environmentalist's overpackaging nightmare. Sun says he feels a twinge of eco-concern whenever he discards the used capsules.

Keurig, owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., is the market leader in single-cup machines, says Joe Pawlak, vice-president of the Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic. Its K-Cup pods are available in a wide variety of brands, including Van Houtte, Timothy's, Folgers and Dunkin' Donuts. But in September, certain patents Green Mountain held on Keurig's K-Cup technology expired, opening the door to non-licensed competitors and giving consumers more choice, Pawlak says.

To Pawlak, it is clear that consumer demand for single-cup coffee is here to stay. "It's changing the way people are making coffee at home," he says.

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But it is unlikely that single-cup machines will replace drip machines altogether. In an e-mail, Euromonitor noted that market research by Green Mountain found that 60 per cent of single-cup coffee users also keep another type of coffee in their pantry, indicating that users are not making a complete switch to the new technology.

Euromonitor added that the expense of pods will also dissuade consumers from putting their drip machines into storage. Coffee pods generally cost 60 cents or more per cup, compared with about 15 to 40 cents per cup using traditional grounds.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More


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