To produce the best possible cup from your Keurig machine, you must do something antithetical to the whole instant-gratification, K-Cup pod culture: You must learn a few basic things about brewing coffee.
I'm sorry, I know this isn't why you bought a Keurig brewer. The whole point of the contraption is to provide the fastest possible path to your stimulant — without the time, labor or brain power required for even an automated drip maker, like a Mr. Coffee. The Keurig allows you to stumble from bed, plop in a pod, press a button and, in less than a minute, sip on a steaming cup of joe. You could be hung over or half-asleep and still make a cup as well as a dead-sober judge.
This is called convenience, and caffeine addicts drink it up. More than 23 million of the company's brewers sit on countertops in American homes, gobbling up millions and millions of pods annually, despite the fact that the ecological impact of all that trash prompted one of Keurig's founders to wish he had never invented the machine. Environmental considerations don't seem to have blunted the Keurig's popularity, which says something either about our love of convenience or our willingness to buy recyclable pods (which Keurig expects to manufacture for all its coffees by 2020).
Whatever our affection for pod water, the Keurig is here to stay, no matter how much elitists (like me) rail against the madness of a machine that, more or less, undercuts much of the known science behind brewed coffee. It's as if Keurig has developed its own caffeinated set of "alternative facts," in which coffee can be brewed in less than a minute with beans that were ground two years ago, their aromatic compounds maybe degraded beyond recognition. Just as worrisome, millions of drinkers may think the roasty, petrochemical-like flavors in their cups are natural, a true reflection of the beans at their peak.
Coffee die-hards know better. They know the best cups — those full-bodied brews that balance acidity, sweetness and bitterness, without the off-flavors of over- or under-extraction — can be achieved only with the proper water temperature, the proper brew period and the proper ratio of grounds to water. They know a push-button machine can never hope to produce a coffee as good as a pourover from a barista who understands that low water temperatures or fast brew times can leave vital flavor compounds still locked in your beans.
So this is the breach into which we decided to step. We tried to build a bridge between Keurig Nation convenience and the obsessive, third-wave, neo-Amish coffee society that inspires Portlandia parodies: We're here, in other words, to hack the Keurig for the benefit of all.
To help, I drafted Joel Finkelstein, the owner and roaster of Qualia Coffee in the District of Columbia, and Tito Peña, coffee director at the Wydown shops and a former chef. The first thing they did was test the Keurig's water temperature and brew time for a single pod, to determine if both fit within the ideal ranges to extract the right flavors. For a single serving of around 12 ounces, the Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends a water temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit and a brew time of at least 2 minutes and 30 seconds. (The water temperature can fluctuate plus or minus five degrees, while the brew time can extend to 3 minutes.)
The Keurig K575 machine was deficient on both, despite a feature that allows you to control water temperature. Keurig spokeswoman Amy Doyle says the K575 heats water to between 187 to 197 degrees, but when we measured the stream without a pod installed, the hottest temperature we recorded was 187 degrees. By using the "strong" brew feature and grinding beans fairly fine into a reusable K-Cup filter, we were able to extend the brew time to 1 minute 30 seconds, still a minute short of the optimal time.
But we also had to determine the amount of coffee inside those K-Cup pods, and the only way to do that was to rip them open. We weighed the contents in eight pods, and they ranged from 9 grams (Keurig Green Mountain breakfast blend) to 13.1 grams (Keurig Green Mountain organic Ethiopia Yirgacheffe). Experts argue about the perfect ratio of coffee grounds to water but generally agree that for one part coffee, you should use between 15 and 18 parts water.
Put this in context: Those 9 grams of breakfast blend should, at most, yield 5.4 ounces of coffee. The Ethiopia Yirgacheffe should yield, at most, about eight ounces of coffee. The K575 machine allows you to brew cups much larger than five or eight ounces, which will contribute to weak and under-extracted coffee with these pods.
Clearly, the machine presents challenges, and that's not even taking into account the freshness of the coffee. "The coffee for each K-Cup® pod is roasted, packaged and sealed with an aluminum lid which is resistant to moisture, oxygen and light after being nitrogen-flushed to help ensure freshness," emails Doyle. The company's packaging gives the pods a shelf life that's the envy of the caffeinated world: Keurig's "coffee products can be experienced at the highest standards of quality within a 24-month window," she notes.
Then again, what one coffee drinker deems the "highest standards of quality" can be another's brown dreck, which is why our Keurig hacking team went about these experiments systematically. We moved from simple changes to improve the K-Cup pod experience to wholesale, high-maintenance improvements that will appeal only to obsessives.
Even if your idea of brewing coffee involves nothing more than pressing a button, you can improve your Keurig output with a few extra steps. First thing is to use filtered water. Tap water may be drinkable by municipal standards, but it's often not ideal for brewing coffee. The pH may be too high, which will result in flat-tasting coffee, or it may be too high in sodium, which can affect the way sweetness or sourness is perceived, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Next, avoid the larger cup sizes when brewing. K-Cup pods typically don't contain enough grounds to handle higher water volumes, so ignore the 10- or 12-ounce cup options. If you have a brewer with water temperature settings, such as the K575, keep it on high. Likewise, if your machine has a "strong" brew option, always select it. The "strong" setting will add another 30 seconds or so to your brew time, which can help balance out the acidic flavors of under-extracted coffee.
The best pod coffee we made was a single-origin Ethiopia Sidama from Laughing Man. We brewed it as a 4-ounce cup, on the "strong" setting, with filtered water. "I think this is the best of the straight-up" pod coffees, said Peña. "It's got that silky body."
Added Finkelstein, "But if you want to have an actual cup of coffee, you have to (brew) three pods," one after another, all into the same cup. Which eliminates the convenience of speed.
You'll get your hands dirty on this level: Cut open a pod and determine how much coffee it contains. You'll need a kitchen scale to weigh the grounds. You'll also need to apply a little math: If your pod contains, say, 11.5 grams of coffee, multiply that number by 16. The resulting number, 184, is the grams of water needed for a classic 1:16 ratio of coffee to water. Divide the 184 by 29.5, which is the number of grams in a fluid ounce. The final number, 6.2, tells you how large of cup you should brew with that pod. In this example, you would select the 6-ounce option or the smallest cup on brewers without ounce-per-cup settings.
Now, you could either dump those grounds in the trash or compost and consider it the price you pay for brewing precision. Or, you could purchase a reusable K-Cup filter (around $14.99) and dump in the grounds to brew your coffee. In fact, you could break open a second pod (or use another pre-ground coffee of your choice) and add more grounds to the filter, until you reach the "max" line. This will give you more coffee to play with. (Remember to weigh the total grams and follow the math above for cup size.) You could either brew a larger cup of coffee or a potentially richer one with a lower ratio of coffee to water.
As with the Novice Level, use filtered water and select the "high" water temperature and "strong" brew setting, if possible.
Ditch the pods altogether and grind your own beans. It's the only way to guarantee fresh coffee. We brewed numerous K-Cup pods that contained off flavors. One pod, a Colombia Huila from Laughing Man, tasted particularly foul to Finkelstein, who thought it went down like rancid oil. It could have been a sign the coffee's oils had become oxidized, despite the high-tech packaging.
You'll need a burr grinder to ensure an even grind, as well as a scale to know how much coffee you ultimately dump into the reusable filter. (Follow the math above for the cup size.) You'll also need fresh beans, nothing older than three weeks past the roast date. Yet all beans are not created equal with a Keurig brewer. A natural, light-roast Ethiopia Adola from Sump Coffee in St. Louis produced a cup so underextracted that it reminded us of tea, not coffee. "It's like Earl Grey," Peña said. Our light-roast fail underscored a truism about Keurig brewers: They handle darker roasts better because the flavor of the roast itself dominates the other aromatics left in the bean.
But grinding your own beans allows you to adjust the ratios and, to a certain degree, lengthen the brew time. One of our best cups was brewed with natural Ethiopia Guji beans from Qualia. We stuffed 14.5 grams of finely ground coffee into the reusable basket, despite warnings from Keurig that finer grinds can clog the filter. We brewed it strong on the 8-ounce setting.
"This is the best coffee of the day," said Peña. "It tastes like an Ethiopian should."
Finkelstein thought the coffee would show better if it were brewed with hotter water, but that's one variable we couldn't change. (And I tried: I poured 160-degree water into the machine's well, thinking the Keurig might always use the same amount of time to heat the water, thereby increasing the final temperature into the ideal 195-to-205-degree range. Nope: The brewing water measured in the same mid-180s range.)
In our search for the longest brew time, we discovered the limits of the K575. It came when we ground Colombia Huila beans from Qualia super-fine and stuffed them into the reusable filter. The machine quickly flashed a "Sorry, brew interrupted" sign. The water wouldn't pass through the compacted grounds. Fortunately, the brewer shut down before turning my kitchen table into a swamp that I'd have to drain myself.
The final modification we made was another water upgrade. Peña brought a gallon of distilled water, which he dosed with Global Customized Water's AB Formula, a mix of minerals that extract a more balanced cup of coffee. We used the water on the same Ethiopia Guji beans from Qualia, relying on the same ratio and settings as before. As advertised, the water extracted more sweetness from the beans, which helped balance out its fruity acidity.
"This is approaching what you might get at a coffee shop," Peña said.
Finkelstein, serving as the grumpy realist in our session, didn't disagree with Peña's assessment, but he also wondered if this wasn't the tipping point.
"The amount of work to get there," Finkelstein said, pausing for emphasis. "It seems like you might as well do a pourover."