I read a blog post today on Keurig brewers and brewing, a piece self-described by the author as an “epically long post”. As I read, I found myself generally agreeing with most of the major points: bad for the environment, lousy coffee by Gold Cup standards, and certainly not less expensive than brewing a great cup from beans (I didn’t necessarily agree with views on GMCR, the Keurig company, as I’ll explain toward the end).
But as I read this admittedly feel-good rant (don’t you just love it when people say the things you already think?), I realized it was actually rather shallow and the author was missing the real point: the shift to Keurig is going to fundamentally alter the specialty coffee landscape for the worse. Allow me to explain, in my own epic rant.
When my grandparents were young, in the 1930’s and 40’s, they made coffee with a vacuum pot. I remember them in my grandfather’s restaurant (he was still old school by the time I was a kid). I still use a pot like theirs at my Mom’s house. My parents made coffee with a percolator when they were young in the 60’s. They even had a super-hip electric version in avocado green. The really cool kids back then used a Chemex in the 70’s, and the truly worldly crowd had a French press – I still remember the first time I saw a press pot around 1982, in the home of a (relatively) wealthy family. Since the mid 80’s and until recently, electric drip brewers were the way my generation rolled. But I’m pretty sure my kids’ generation, who are young teenagers now, will view single-cup brewers as the new normal. Except to them it’s not new, it’s just the way things have always been, like ubiquitous broadband internet and a thousand channels of nothing to watch on HDTV.
So what? It’s just the beginning of the latest multi-decade trend in brewing hardware. That’s the way it’s always been, isn’t it?
Yeah, except this time it’s different. The vacuum pot, the percolator, the Chemex, the French press, even the Joe DiMaggio-pimped Mr. Coffee drip had one common thread running through them: they didn’t give a shit whose coffee you used.
Keurig and their ilk, e.g., Nespresso, are a new breed entirely. Because with them, it’s not about the brewer at all. It’s about the coffee. In the MBA parlance they taught me at the Fuqua School of Business, this is the “razor-razor blade model”. There’s a new sheriff in town, and the guys who make the blades for the old straight razor are about to be gunned down in the streets. And I’m one of them.
This fight isn’t about Keurig, per se. Sure, they’re the most visible actor in the US right now, with something like 80% of the single cup market, and 6% of the home brew market, total. But this, too, shall pass. I’m no patent lawyer, but I’ve worked with enough of them to know a little about the subject. The core intellectual property around Keurig appears to me to be US patent 6,607,762 from 2001. There’s potentially a parent family that pre-dates it in the late 90’s, and a few children in the mid-2000’s. So Keurig’s built a picket fence around the space, as the IP people like to say. Their lawyers will fight like the dogs they are to protect the government-granted monopoly Keurig now enjoys. But sometime toward the end of this decade, the barbarians will be at the gates of the Green Mountain empire. Some big swinging dick like Procter & Gamble will be brazen enough to scale the wall, they will avoid the hot oil poured from above, and they will successfully breach the fortress. And when that happens, God help us, the market will be flooded with 25-cent K-Cup knock-offs, and free brewers when you sign up for supermarket rewards card.
“Wow, that’s great!”, you say. Cheap K-cups for all! That’s the American Way, after all, isn’t it? Um, yeah. Not always, but for the last 50 years or so, it actually has been, and it shows no sign of turning around anytime soon. So along with giant boxes of Twinkies and 5-gallon buckets of Gatorade, you’ll be able to buy junior skid-loads of shitty K-cups that are almost free at your favorite warehouse club. Hell, they’ll probably package a quasi-disposable brewer free with the largest box of cups, and you’ll get a new one every time Martha Stewart Living decides that the color of your last one is so last year.
Still not seeing the downside, are you? Because while you know in your heart-of-hearts it’s a substandard product in every respect, it’s just so damned easy. And cheap, at that point, too. And it’s not like you’re gonna use it every day. Because on weekends, you’re gonna make yourself some Weekend Coffee. You’re gonna pick up a few French pastries, or maybe some bagels and a shmear, and the Sunday New York Times. Not every weekend, mind you, because you’re much too busy for that noise. But maybe every other weekend. Or every third weekend. And you’re gonna buy some beans from a guy like me, and grind them with love, and brew them carefully, then savor their (and your) brilliance. ‘Cause it’s a WEEKEND.
Just one problem. I’m not going to be there for you. Neither are my other friends who do what I do. Because, unfortunately, just like a restaurant that’s busy on weekends can’t make it without at least a couple strong weeknights, we can’t make a living selling you Weekend Coffee three times a year. The guys who are left standing at that point will be the ones who sold their souls in exchange for a license to make cups for the flavor-of-the-month single-cup brewer manufacturer, because the brewer guys will have access to distribution channels, and they will have secured incredibly narrow, incredibly clever design patents on the square peg in a round hole format that’s popular in the first half of 2021. And if you try to scale their wall, they’ll carpet-bomb your ass with lawyer letters telling you to pay a royalty, or cease-and-desist, RIGHT FUCKING NOW.
So, as America accelerates its brand-conscious journey to become the United States of Mediocrity, guys like me will start to go out of business. At first, it will just be a few, and no alarms will sound. We were the weak ones, after all, we deserved it. And with fewer of us out there, great coffee will be even harder to get, and more expensive. So you’ll buy less of it, less often. Next thing you know, you’ll be making your Weekend Coffee with stale beans that you bought from the Last Guy Standing three months earlier, which is something he concocted with whatever mainstream green coffee is still being imported. And you’ll begin to think, “Wow, this formerly great coffee really isn’t any better than my K-Cups. Weekend Coffee isn’t what it used to be. Why bother? Hey, let’s go to the mall, I have a coupon for a free Trenta!”. And with that, our descent to mediocrity will be complete.
All this will happen because, as we statisticians like say, we’re experiencing a great regression toward the mean. We’re being homogenized. Standardized. Fredrick Winslow Taylor‘s Efficiency Movement is alive and well, and it’s going to bring Specialty Coffee to its knees.
Do you think that vision is crazy? Let’s see. How easy is it to buy a Walla Walla onion? Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. I grew up with them, but they’re already a thing of the past. Hundreds of vegetable varieties have already gone extinct, solely due to our desire to homogenize, to have crops that ship well, regardless of how they taste. Only 5% of US apple varieties that existed just 200 years ago still exist today. Ninety percent of vegetable varieties have gone extinct over the last 100 years in the UK. The crimson flowered broad bean, the Champion of England Pea, the Bath Cos Lettuce, and the Rowsham Park Hero Onion are just a few examples of vegetables that are lost forever. Hundreds of heirloom vegetable varieties are on the brink of extinction. And there are all kinds of other foods that are falling victim to this same phenomenon. Try to buy a really great charcuterie today – Boar’s Head is as close as you’ll get in most places. A beautiful creme fraiche? How about Yoplait? Great cheeses? We got your Kraft, RIGHT HERE. Don’t believe me? Go check out Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Oh, what’s that, you would like to have a nice meal at a cute bistro? Sorry, all that’s available now are chain stores like Panera, TGI Friday’s or Appleby’s. But you can probably score some Jack Daniels chicken wings, or some other ill-advised mess. I can sum it all up in one word: Monsanto.
No, sadly, I see Specialty coffee on the same path. Those of us closest to it wear the biggest blinders. Because we love the bean, and our customers love it, too, and the the micro-trends in specialty seem somehow favorable at this moment, so we are tempted to believe that everyone thinks like us, and that things are moving in the right direction. Make no mistake, things are not moving in the right direction.
Because while we delude ourselves, great coffee supplies are shrinking. More of the best coffees are avoiding the United States entirely. Farmers are giving up on things like organic because it just doesn’t make them whole. And while I don’t pretend there won’t always be some people at the pinnacle of the craft (as there is in every craft), my concern is that those people will become very rare, and that hardly anybody will have access to them. And the mainstream consumer will be left to their mediocre K-cups, as they so richly deserve.
Because after all, they’re cheap and easy. And good enough, right?
So is it hopeless? Well, I’m not optimistic, obviously. But what I think is a red herring is the fourth point the original blog article tried to make: that, somehow, Keurig is at fault because they are morally bankrupt, because they used to be crunchy granola and now they’re like the evil empire. A concept they they teach in medical school (and taught to me by one of my physician friends) comes to mind: true, true, irrelevant. When looking at a case, they teach developing physicians to disregard things that, while true and seemingly pertinent at first glance, are irrelevant to the case at hand. So it is with Keurig. It’s not Keurig’s fault that they answer to their shareholders – that’s the way business is structured. It’s not their fault that consumers are dying to buy huge quantities of convenient, mediocre shit. It’s our fault.
We have met the enemy, and they are us.