THE BLOG
11/02/2012 04:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2013

Table Talk: Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

If you're a coffee drinker, you've probably noticed a new trend in the industry -- single-serve coffee systems. What began in the late-night infomercial universe and the home-shopping networks has made its way into the mainstream coffee-drinking world, and everyone in the game is trying to capitalize on the innovation.

I recently discussed the state of the coffee industry with Jay Isais, Director of Coffee at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (CBTL), the oldest and largest privately-held specialty coffee and tea retailer in the U.S., which opened its doors in 1963 in Southern California, and currently operates more than 850 stores in 23 countries. Isais has spent 30 years in the business, and points out that single-serve coffee has actually been around for about two decades in the form of soft-pod packets, which never made much of a mark on the industry. But then came Keurig, which converted plastic salad dressing containers into coffee capsules.

Initially, Isais says, the new model was met with skepticism. But the single-serve system quickly became a hit, discovering or possibly creating a new demographic of coffee drinker. Since then, coffee purveyors have sought to get in on the emerging market. One of the early players in the game was Nespresso, whose machines specialized in espresso, but not brewed coffee. Soon after, CBTL launched a dual-pressure system capable of the high pressure necessary to make an authentic espresso, as well as the low pressure used in making a traditional cup of Joe -- as well as tea and hot chocolate. It's the same model that Isais says rival Starbucks has followed with its Verismo machine.

Gae Thornton is a brand ambassador for the company, and shared some facts with me about the Kaldi, CBTL's flagship single-serve system, which retails for $179 and looks like the offspring of a coffeemaker and an iMac. (By contrast, the Nespresso machines range in price from $129 to $699; the Starbucks Verismo 580 retails for $199, and the professional model Verismo V 585 sells for $399.)

The Kaldi, Thornton says, is like similar machines, designed to recreate the in-store experience by correctly controlling the measurements so as to produce the same cup of coffee made by a barista, and with just one touch of a button.

But will recreating the barista experience in one's own home make the coffee store obsolete? "We're not threatened," says Isais. People have their daily rituals, he points out, adding that the market is composed mostly of dual-consumers -- people who drink coffee at home who also drink it outside the home.

Isais says the popularity of the single-serve systems are the result of a new generation of consumers who enjoy convenience and technology. He also says that the technology is continuing to evolve, and that it is impossible to envision where it might go from here.

The single-serve system has drawn fire from environmentally concerned critics for the disposable nature of the one-use capsules made of plastic packaging. Isais acknowledges the carbon footprint surrounding the single-serve system, but also explains that traditionally brewed coffee also produces waste -- and might be even worse from a sustainability standpoint. He points to half-empty coffee pots that end up being thrown out, which seems harmless enough on an individual level, but on a global scale, the energy required to grow and ship all that coffee that is literally poured down the drain.

The single-serve system appears to be more than just a fad. Given that machines attempt to recreate the in-store experience by controlling measurements, reduce wasted half-empty pots of coffee and provide the ease and simplicity of a one-touch system, this is a bold new era for coffee lovers.