Tuesday, November 11, 2014

ROUGH DRAFT: Cold War Coffee

Oh Keurig, how do I hate thee.

I remember when coffee machines didn't need "back" buttons. Mr Coffee only had 3 buttons. One to turn your coffee machine on, the other two for programming the clock that blinked.

IIn a recent earnings call Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) announced their plans to add a protective technology to their popular Keurig brewing machines that would render non GMCR coffee pods incompatible with the machines. This is a response to the expiration of the K-cup patent in 2012 and the resulting proliferation of "generic" K-cups. Some are calling this action a sort of java DRM, a reference to the Digital Rights Management code that makes it impossible to copy or burn iTunes songs more than 7 times or so, for instance. Ostensibly, DRM makes it so that you don't fully own the music you buy, by limiting what you can do with it. GMCR is attempting to do this sort of thing to a non-digital commodity - coffee. While to some this seems anti-competitive and even sinister, tantamount to only allowing George Forman brand burgers to be grilled in a George Forman Grill, it is also the natural extension of the marriage of coffee and technology. A cursory look at American food history and it is obvious that this is not rare occurrence but rather just one of many instances in which we have traded quality and common sense for novelty and convenience.

My parents were each raised as Baby Boomers in post-war patriarchal households who valued all the things that people were told to value in the 50s:  household cleaning products, canned vegetables, TV dinners, cellophane, suburban living, pensions and electric sweepers.  The household I grew up in was a product of this thinking with a few minor wrinkles.

There was one week where my mother tried to convert us all to a macrobiotic diet, but for the most part we ate meals that followed the meat / starch / frozen vegetable formula. Sometimes this meat was home cooked, and sometimes it was Swanson frozen fried chicken or Van deKamp fish sticks. Sometimes we had fresh vegetables but more often we had frozen vegetables with a healthy coating of butter or cheese. Our best meals were always Italian food, more spaghetti and meatballs style than Mario Batali, but with an authenticity that was missing from the more American fare. To drink we had Nestle Quik (I like Strawberry) and always powdered Iced Tea, for when the cupboards were barren. My dad kept some canned beer in the fridge and my mom had the occasional Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler. I remember this because at seven years old I mistakenly drank one and then missed the rest of the party.

As Americans it was our patriotic duty to explore new-fangled food technologies like microwavable french fries and -even worse- microwavable milkshakes. We had Crystal Pepsi and then later Pepsi Kona - a delightfully weird coffee-flavored Pepsi that seems to been unique to the Philadelphia area. We tried all the new things. Paul Newman makes salad dressing - let's try it! Marie Callendars makes "healthy" frozen dinners, but wait so does Healthy Choice. Jiffy Pop gave way to air pop which then gave way to microwave popcorn. We had a VCR and ET on tape. As for coffee, we had a Mr. Coffee drip coffee maker that my Dad would dump large scoops of Folgers into. We had instant coffee crystals on hand, Coffee-mate in the cupboard, and some Sanka for the decafs. America!

Like most people, I didn't develop a taste for coffee until I was a teenager living in the suburbs who needed the caffeine to stay up late nights writing papers for high school or a cheap excuse to overstay our welcome at the Big L diner on Saturday nights. I knew coffee. It came from Wawa in a paper cup or from Denny's and diners in the form of bottomless ceramic mugs. When it was good it came from coffeehouses where folk singers would glare at me for talking during music sets and not tipping them. I didn't realize at the time that these were human beings trying to earn a living any more than I realized that coffee was something that was grown by people in far off places and sold as berries and roasted and ground and brewed and served. It was just coffee and I would take it where I could get it.

Years later, in the post-Starbucks, post-FoodTV, designer cupcake, craft beer and food-truck era, regular people talk about coffee in terms of roasts and origins and order it in vague Italian sizes with faux-Italian syrups. There's even coffee for people who hate coffee. Everything from chocolate to bread to bacon is artisinal now and worth talking about and standing in line for. Quietly a revolution has taken place and despite the deluge of technological innovations, it seems most people want technology everywhere but in their food. Gone are the microwave milkshakes, the instant breakfast, the astronaut ice cream. They've been replaced with artisin cheese boards and honeycrisp apples.  They want to see factory farms and agrichemical companies like Monsanto destroyed and replaced with free range, grass-fed, antibiotic free, organic everything and Whole Foods and farmers markets. They want their pizza dough hand tossed and kneaded to order. They want to know if the ketchup is house-made and whether the tomatoes are local heirlooms or at worst San Marzano. And yet it is against this backdrop that we have seen the emergence of a truly peculiar technology that has disrupted the way Americans consume their favorite beverage. While everything else is going low tech and local, it seems our coffee is going high tech and self-serving, literally.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), a coffee producer more famous for its Keurig gadgetry than for the quality of its product has risen from obscurity to quietly become America's #1 ground coffee provider - accounting for over 25% of the market in 2013. On June 16, 2006, the day Green Mountain purchased Keurig, GMCR had a market cap of $22 million. Now, nearly 8 years later, after year-over-year geometric growth, GMCR has a market cap of nearly $16 Billion - with a capital B. And it's all thanks to those now ubiquitous little K-cups.

I remember the first time I saw one of those K-cup machines. I was without a doubt intrigued, and even wowed at the concept. Instant, single serve coffee, that's freshly brewed. You pop the cup into the machine, you hit a button and you set in motion some magic process. The machine hums and groans and then finally begins to gurgle. A thin stream of coffee drips into your cup and presto - hot coffee ready to drink. The only problem was that the coffee wasn't that hot and not very good.

At my last corporate job we had Keurig machines at every break station. Hundreds of employees could enjoy their own single serve coffee whenever they wanted. I soon learned that three of the dark roast pods set to the espresso setting would generate something like a cup of coffee. In the main kitchen on the top floor where the executive team was stationed, there was still one of those big pots of coffee that was brewed by a human being every morning, and again in the afternoon. Sometimes I would take the stairs up there just to get a good cup of coffee brewed in a large batch, like Dad used to make.

Most people seem to like these machines. According to GMCR, nearly 15 million US households have a Keurig machine. And I admit there is some appeal to the instant gratification of popping in a K-cup and getting a cup of joe in less than a minute. But is that really the appeal? Is it the convenience or is it something else? A part of me thinks it's the magic of the process - press a button and a wait for the grumble and the gurgle and then -Voila!- coffee appears before your eyes. But if you have any idea how coffee is brewed, which it seems more and more people do not, you realize that there's not much magic to it. All coffee is brewed by combining ground coffee with hot water and then filtering away the beans in one way or another. The Keurig machine - and I'm no scientist - electrically heats water to near boiling (not near enough) and runs it through a punctured cup. What you are drinking is a small amount of coffee produced by running a small amount of hot water through a small amount of stale coffee grounds. Not really magic.

Another consideration is that the Keurig machine's appeal lies in the selfishness it delivers.  It produces a product inferior to nearly any other coffee brewing method - including instant coffee - but it is solitary product that belongs solely to ME! I can choose from a myriad of different coffee pods and brew myself a selfish little cup of bad coffee that I don't have to share with anyone. No effort on my part at all. Just select the pod, press the button, and wait in front of the machine like an idiot until the coffee comes out.

No comments: