Hack your Keurig to a bet­ter cup of cof­fee

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim Car­man

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 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, petro­chem­i­cal­like 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 overor 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 push­but­ton 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 Wy­down, a cof­fee shop with sev­eral lo­ca­tions in D.C. 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 un­der­ex­tracted 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.

Novice Level

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 un­der­ex­tracted 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.

In­ter­me­di­ate Level

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 oun­ceper-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.

Ad­vanced Level

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 lightroast 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.)

Mas­ter Level

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 Pena’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.”


With some ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, you can hack your Keurig to get the best pos­si­ble cup of cof­fee.

An at­tempt to strengthen the cof­fee by com­pact­ing a finer grind of beans into a re­us­able pod failed when the wa­ter wouldn’t pass through.


An at­tempt to brew Ethiopia Adola beans re­sulted in an ex­tract that was more rem­i­nis­cent of tea.

The first step in get­ting bet­ter cof­fee out of a pod was find­ing out what was in them.

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