What's in Your K-Cup?


I work in a corporate office. Like many offices, mine has phased out fresh-brewed pots of coffee and brought in Keurig machines. I was curious about Keurigs when they first arrived on the scene a few years ago, as they were not only convenient but they catered to individual coffee tastes within a large group. I was also curious about their tea-making abilities, but coffee was the main attraction in the beginning.

If you are not familiar with Keurigs, they are pretty ingenious. They are pressure-based brewing systems that produce individual cups of coffee/tea. They are used in conjunction with K-cup Portion Packs (K-cups), which are, according to Keurig, "the magic behind the perfect cup of coffee or tea." K-cups are little nitrogen-flushed plastic cups that contain premeasured amounts of coffee/tea and a "sophisticated filter", and are sealed with an airtight foil lid. After you load a K-cup into a Keurig, a hole is punch through both the K-cup's lid and bottom. Hot water enters the K-cup through the top, and coffee/tea runs out of the bottom and into your mug. Brewing is accomplished in less than a minute. Nice!

Keurigs and K-cups were a great idea when it came to convenience and accommodating personal preferences. Everyone got exactly what they wanted—the bold coffee drinkers could have bold coffee, the frou-frou coffee drinkers could have their light hazelnut-and-toffee-crème parfait. Gone were the days of wasting a whole pot of coffee when one employee needed a 3pm lift. Gone were the days of stale coffee left cooking in a hot pot for hours. Keurig is owned by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a purveyor of what I always considered good coffee (this explains the abundance of Green Mountain Coffee flavor options, huh? There are 38, to be exact. There are more than 175 flavors of coffee, total), so here were the days of variety and great coffee! Yes, the appeal of Keurigs was unsurprising, and like many people, I was anxious to try all the fun-sounding flavors.

In my excitement about the novelty of Keurigs, however, I failed to realize something important: K-cups are basically cute receptacles of instant coffee. Instant coffee isn't exactly known for its quality, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the K-cup coffees I tried were pretty mediocre (although I admit I loved Island Coconut). The teas, however...


Have you tried Keurig tea? While I consider the coffee at least tolerable in times of desperation—I have certainly been that employee needing a 3pm lift—the tea is…how do I say this politely?...undrinkable. But, I am a tea snob. I suppose that Keurig tea is not much worse than commercial tea bag tea, which makes sense considering that a K-cup is really just a glorified tea bag. The K-cup takes the tea bag to the next level, however—the level of instant tea (now there is a scary thought!). The brews leave much to be desired.

Yet, every day I watch coworkers make cup after cup of Keurig tea. I always wonder, "How can you drink that?" Maybe it's the selection. We have a lot of choices, all of which are by brands I associate with tea bags: Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, and Twinings. We also have Chai tea, and even an iced tea (which you brew hot with the Keurig like any other tea, but over ice). According to the Keurig Web site, they have 47 flavors of tea. I've tried a couple over the years out of curiosity, and then again for the sake of this article. Honestly, I couldn't even get past the smell of some. While Keurigs are progressive regarding office-related convenience and utilizing impressive technology, I can't help but worry that they will set tea drinking back to the days when tea was chosen based on handiness, not quality (ahem, tea bags).

Now, I'm not out to Keurig bash. I don't subject Keurig tea drinkers to passive aggressive commentary about their choice of tea as I brew my snobby little personal teapot of organic, first-flush, loose-leaf Darjeeling. I just don't get how they can settle for it (no-one I know drinks Keurig tea because it's great, they drink it because it's available). I distinctly recall thinking, "What kind of tea is this, anyway?!" after my first taste of several different flavors, and I became very curious about what is in a K-cup exactly. I began a quest for knowledge. I wish I could tell you that I found a wealth of information, but I can't. As difficult as it was to find even general info about the preparation of the Keurig coffee, it was impossible to find info on the tea. Even a phone call to Keurig proved unproductive (the customer service representative was nice and very sorry she didn't have information for me. It was clear that no-one had called her before about the teas).

After some taste testing, Internet research, and tearing open a few K-cups, I have some theories about why the tea fails to please:

  • The tea leaves are "finely ground". This is the most specific information I could find about the tea leaves in the K-cups. It's clear though, if you open one, they do not contain whole leaves, so automatically one can assume that the flavor of the tea will be compromised.
  • The tea leaves aren't really brewed, just act as kind of a filter for the water that passes through the K-cup. Tea typically requires 3-7 minutes of steeping, so while the 60-seconds-or-less brew time (or really, straining time) of a Keurig might be great when you're rushing to a meeting, it isn't going to make you a great cup of tea. PS–According to my idol, Alton Brown, coffee brew time should be about 4 minutes.
  • The water isn't the right temperature for tea. Keurig FAQs indicate that the water that passes through a typical machine is 192°F. This is temperature is too low for black tea, but too high for green tea (the two types of tea commonly offered).
So, if you're a casual tea drinker who wants a hot caffeinated beverage from time to time, Keurig tea may be perfect for you. The rest of us tea lovers will just have to wait until Keurig devises a way to match the quality of their teas with the sophistication of their technology.

Of course, if you know of a decent type of Keurig tea, do tell!