Single-serve coffee coup saves beans, spares sink

NEW YORK - Stephen Shapiro says he"couldn't survive" without his Keurig single-serve coffee machine.

"I wake up, before I even go to the bathroom I turn my Keurig on," said the 75-year-old retired health food store owner, who splits his time between New York and Boca Raton, Florida.

Before he bought the machine more than six years ago, he used a traditional drip brewer, and would pour between a third and a half of the coffee he brewed each morning into the sink. With the Keurig machine, that's no longer the case. "There's no waste at all," Shapiro said.

"You brew what you drink and that's it."

Sales of coffee pods for the slick single-serve machines like Keurig Green Mountain's Keurig, Nestle's Nespresso, and Starbucks' Verismo soared to US$3.8 billion (S$5.1 billion) in 2014 from US$234 million in 2009, Mintel market research data shows.

Keurig, the maker of the most popular machine, has seen its shares rise to about US$118.90 on Friday from about $9 in February 2009.

Stealing market share from traditional roasted coffee, the phenomenon is transforming the coffee industry in less obvious ways too: the single-cup pods are increasing efficiency, denting demand for beans as Americans, like Shapiro, throw less leftover java down the drain.

Traders often quip that before single serve coffee pods gained prominence, the sink was the world's largest coffee consumer.

Now, Nielsen data seen by Reuters but not publicly available shows Americans bought 967 million pounds of coffee from retail outlets in the 52 weeks ended Dec. 20, 2014, a 1.2 per cent decline from the prior year.

Nielsen spokeswoman Meg Chari confirmed the figures but declined to provide the original report or the figures from prior years, which are available only to customers.

Still, Americans are drinking more coffee, and spending hundreds of millions more dollars on it, every year.

Americans spent a total of US$11.9 billion on coffee in 2014, up 6 per cent from US$11.2 billion in 2013 and up almost 60 per cent from US$7.6 billion in 2009, Mintel data show.

The rise comes as single-serve sales have exploded, as roasters often charge a hefty premium for single-serve over the same type of coffee in a traditional ground or whole bean format.

Americans drank 2.01 cups a day in 2014, up from 1.97 cups in 2013 and the highest level since 1980, National Coffee Association data show. The group changed its methodology in 2012 to better represent African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.

The data suggest that even as Americans drink more coffee, the switch to single-serve and the reduction in coffee waste has increased the efficiency of consumption, limiting the overall amount of beans roasters will need to buy per consumer.

It's not just what coffee drinkers aren't throwing away that is eroding demand.

Each single-serving cup contains just over 6 beans per liquid ounce, compared to 10 beans in traditional coffee brewed to Specialty Coffee Association of America standards, estimated Nate Hrobak, a buyer at Caribou Coffee in Minneapolis, one of the nation's largest specialty chains.

The transformation of how Americans buy and consume coffee comes as farmers grapple with severe droughts in Brazil, the world's biggest coffee grower, and a devastating leaf rust disease in Central America.

The growing popularity of the more efficient new machines has blunted the effect of supply crises on prices, traders and roasters said.

"At the rate that Keurig is growing and selling, that has some material impact on the overall coffee world," Hrobak of Caribou said, noting that the reduction in coffee waste has significantly increased consumption efficiency, even as single-serve has expanded coffee's reach.


Using Nespresso's "portioned coffee system" can reduce the amount of leftover coffee depending on consumer behaviour, spokeswoman Diane Duperret said. Nestle has been making single-serve espresso capsules and machines since 1986.

However, Nespresso doesn't see bean demand declining, noting that the growth in the single-serve coffee segment has boosted overall coffee purchases, Duperret said.

Indeed, the Nielsen data is just one measure of coffee demand. US imports reached 24 million 60-kg bags in the first 11 months of last year, 3 per cent more than the same period of 2013, International Trade Commission data show. Full-year data has not been released yet.

The data also refer only to sales at retail outlets, for consumption at home, excluding the swathe of coffee consumed at work or coffee shops.

Data from market research firm Mintel including out-of-home coffee shows that purchases by weight rose steadily between 2010 and 2013, and is forecast to rise further.

Still, the NCA says that home remained the dominant place for consumption in 2014, with 81 per cent of coffee drinkers consuming at home and 35 per cent consuming elsewhere, both up from the prior year.

The percentages show that many people drink coffee both at home and on the go.

And while single-serve coffee is more efficient and convenient, some consumers said it's simply not as tasty as a traditionally-brewed cup.

"There definitely are things you miss - the really fresh smell, the sound, and the taste," said Cindy Glickert, an antiques dealer living in Kirkland, Washington. "But you give that up for the convenience."