By: Dan Gentile
Credit: all images by Dan Gentile
The Keurig K-Cup Brewing System has revolutionized the way people drink coffee, but this revolution certainly won’t be televised in coffee shops. Baristas generally loathe the thing, partly because they think it makes inferior coffee, and partly because it could very well put them out of a job.
To see how K-Cups stand up to a professional palate, we tapped Lorenzo Perkins to rank 23 of the damn things. He’s an all-around coffee guru from Cuvée in Austin, TX, who previously lent his tasting prowess to experiments with grocery store-caliber and second-wave beans. So he kinda knows what he’s talking about.
In selecting our cups, we wanted to get the full spectrum of the Keurig experience, so we picked a grab bag of different brands, roast levels, and flavors. And to make sure we didn’t miss any popular brands, we sorted through several online shops and picked the best sellers.
We brewed each cup on the middle setting using very fancy water from Cuvée’s parallel-activated, carbon-filtered OptiPure system. The tasting was done blindly in rounds of six, with Lorenzo marking his favorites from each round and then returning to compare them at the end to create a master ranking.
Read on to follow us down this massive K-hole.
23. Van Houtte Costa Rica
Lorenzo reflexively spit this coffee out.
22. Timothy’s Rainforest Espresso
"Really, really dark. The darkest. There is a little sweetness, but it’s like chewing on roasted barley."
21. Barista Prima House Blend
"Bitter, overly roasty, hints of paper. Tastes like coffee at Grandpa’s."
20. Wolfgang Puck Jamaica Me Crazy
"Just like buttered rum. Or walking into a kitschy Christmas shop."
19. Gloria Jean’s Butter Toffee
"The overwhelming flavors are chemical and alcohol, like Yukon Jack whiskey."
18. Tully’s Italian Roast
"Very dark. I’m getting mostly smoke and ash."
17. Tim Hortons Arabica
"Burnt caramels. But as it cooled it tasted just like chicken-flavored ramen noodles."
16. Donut House
15. Caribou Blend
"Astringent and extremely bitter."
14. Green Mountain Pumpkin Spice
"Cinnamon is the main flavor note. It tastes like a Hobby Lobby."
13. Starbucks Pike Place
12. Barrie House Donut Shop
"Tastes like airplane coffee. Super flat, lots of bitterness. Styrofoam peanuts."
11. Diedrich French Roast
"Low acidity, very darkly roasted. Not too bad, but unspectacular."
10. Coffee People Jet Fuel
"Cigar-smokey, but there is some arabica sweetness. Not a bad choice if you’re into darker roasts, and actually keeps some complexity as it cools."
9. Café Escapes Café Caramel
"Look at that color. It tastes nothing like coffee. But I kind of like it because it reminds me of Werther’s Originals and the type of milky, caramel drinks that I served when I first got into coffee."
8. Folgers Classic Roast
"Very weird acidity. Tastes like low-quality coffee, roasted super flat, but not totally unpleasant."
7. Starbucks Caramel
"By far the best flavored coffee. It’s saccharine, but really light and the flavor isn’t too overwhelming."
6. Dunkin’ Donuts Original
"Hotel airpot coffee, like from a Best Western. Totally drinkable with cream and sugar, but develops a medicinal quality as it cools."
5. Maxwell House House Blend
"Solid diner coffee."
4. Donut Shop Extra Bold
"A good amount of nuttiness, some sweetness."
3. Green Mountain Nantucket Blend
At first Lorenzo remarked that this was very bland, but on further sips he began to really praise it. “There’s a good level of acidity, the roast is lighter, and it tastes like it’s not a blend, there’s actually some single-origin characteristics.”
2. Eight O’Clock Colombian
"Really well-balanced, solid ‘coffee’ flavor. This would definitely crush in a consumer taste-test."
1. Green Mountain Kenyan AA
"As it’s brewing, you can smell that this is a good coffee from two feet away. It’s clearly the winner. The flavors are lively, it’s got great complexity and finish. I would actually pay for this at a coffee shop."
Throughout the entire process, Lorenzo couldn’t help remarking how damn efficient this machine was. We powered through 23 cups in a little under an hour: no clean-up time, no mess — just flawless turn-and-burn coffee-making.
As expected, the bottom of the barrel coffees were some of the darkest and most severely flavored, but there were some notable outliers in the top tier like Donut Shop Extra Bold and Starbucks Caramel.
Surprisingly, some of the old-school roasters like Folgers and Maxwell House performed better than their second-wave descendants like Starbucks and Caribou.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway was that two of the three top coffees were made by Green Mountain, which actually owns the Keurig company. It’s not shocking that their coffees would be finely tuned for the K-Cup system, but it is impressive that despite the wide field of competition, Green Mountain is still at the peak.
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