Which Is the Best K-Cup Coffee?

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[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

Gone are the days when the office coffeepot boils and burns away the dregs of some assistant's daily pot—today, more and more workplaces (and homes!) now are stocked with single-serving coffee brewers, such as the popular Keurig machines, along with boxes and boxes of K-Cup pods to explore.

A friend recently challenged us to figure out which K-Cups were best, and Green Mountain Coffee offered to send us samples of their various brands to taste. We were skeptical at first—pods are never going to compare to our locally roasted Wrecking Ball beans, freshly ground for each cup on a Baratza Preciso. But for offices and rushed mornings at home, K-Cups and Keurig machines are a no-fuss, low-maintenance method for caffeination. So you, dear Serious Eaters, deserve to know which pods are the best of the bunch. We tried 40 different K-Cups, from dark roasted blends to eggnog-flavored coffees. The results are below.

The Winners

Barista Prima House Blend
20130108houseblendbarista.jpgOur top K-Cup is a medium-dark roast, with a mellow flavor and remarkably rich and smooth body. This struck us as pleasing to most palates—no, it's not single-origin high end coffee, but it's better than the average office pot. The Barista Prima brands in general had richer body than other K-Cups, but some of them were so overroasted that they tasted like you were drinking coffee in a hotel room where someone had been smoking. This one strikes a balance.

Green Mountain Kenyan AA Extra Bold
20130108kenyancoffeegreenmt.jpgThis second place coffee is quite fruity and earthy, with a bit less charred flavor than some of the dark roast K-cups we tried, with very smooth body and more acidity than the others. Unless you're against a bit of tartness in your coffee, consider this one of your top options in K-Cups.

Diedrich French Roast Blend
20130120diedrichfrenchroast.jpgOur third place coffee was another dark roast, with a scent the evokes smoldering cigarettes, but there's nice chocolatey body here (under a smoky veil.) It's smooth and lightly floral, with a nice cocoa-like flavor.

More Dark Roast Options

The rest of the dark roasts didn't crack our top three, but some were better than expected. Here they are in order of approval, from best to less-tasty.

Barista Prima Italian Roast
20130108baristaprimaitalian.jpgThis dark-roasted brew has nice richness and body—it's quite velvety. But flavorwise, it's only for those who really enjoy a deep roast—each sip moves almost instantly from dark chocolate flavors into char.

Green Mountain Lake and Lodge
20130108lakeandlodgecoffee.jpgLake and Lodge was my go-to back in my office-dwelling days. It's a dark-roast mix of Indonesian and East African beans with decent body and quite a bit of roasty bitterness. It stands up to milk and sugar well but doesn't have the rich body that the Barista Prima House Blend and Italian Roast have.

Barista Prima Colombia
20130108baristacolombia.jpgThis one's a medium-dark roast, and is definitely a robust, pungent cup, with a bit of an herbal, grassy, and slightly nutty side that shows out from under the roastiness. It felt a bit less sweet than the Barista Prima Italian Roast, and we liked it slightly less.

The Original Donut-Shop Coffee
20130108donutshoporig.jpgThis K-cup carries the Coffee People brand, and is labeled as "Extra Bold Medium Roast." It's not to be confused with doughnut-flavored Donut House K-cups; this isn't flavored coffee, just bold coffee with a deeper roast than you might expect given the label. The body is medium (it's not as rich as the Barista Prima options) and the flavor is mostly roast with a little chocolate underneath, and a slight cardboardy flavor that comes out on the finish.

Tully's Coffee French Roast
20130108tullysfrenchroast.jpgThis pod is marked 'tres intense'—and it is, aggressively so. But we found this roasty coffee a bit more drinkable than the Barista Prima version, with lingering charred finish but nicer chocolatey flavor up front.

Barista Prima French Roast
20130108baristaprimafrench.jpgWhile the Barista Prima Italian Roast is marked with 'dark roast' on the label, the French Roast is marked "darkest roast." The aroma is pleasant and mellow, cocoa-like, but the body of this coffee feels thinner than the Italian roast, and the flavor is like charcoal and smoke.

Medium and Lighter Roast

To be honest, none of the medium or light roast coffees really impressed us—this level or roasting is where freshness can really shine...or be noticeably absent. Here are the lighter roast coffees in order of approval, from not-bad to not-great.

Green Mountain Breakfast Blend
20130108greenmountainbreakfastblend.jpgA blend of Central American and Indonesian beans, this blend has a bit more acidity than some of the darker-roast options, though some found it a little disjointed and stale tasting. It lacks the body of the Barista Prima options.

Caribou Daybreak Morning Blend
20130108cariboudaybreak.jpgThis Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee is roasted lighter, and the result is subtle flavor, with a smooth cocoa backbone. This lacks the cigarette-like char that's all-too common in the K-Cup lineup, but it doesn't substitute super interesting coffee flavors in its place. Some commented that it tasted a bit diluted.

Green Mountain Antioxidant Blend
20130122antioxidantcoffee.jpgWe're not sure why Green Mountain's medium-roast coffees tend to be blends of light and dark-roasted beans rather than an even medium roast on all the beans, but this coffee (which has Vitamins C and E added) is perfectly decent to drink. You can't taste the vitamins—but that doesn't mean you shouldn't wonder why you're taking vitamins in coffee form in the first place.

Wolfgang Puck Breakfast in Bed
20130108wolfgangbreakfastinbedcoffee.jpgThis medium-roast coffee had a savory earthiness that didn't immediately appeal to us—but we appreciated that it's not roasted to smithereens. Smooth texture, muddy flavor; this one would be fine with a little sugar.

Green Mountain Nantucket Blend
20130108nantucketcoffee.jpgThis blend, though it's labeled medium-roast, includes some French Roast beans (in a mix of beans sourced from multiple continents.) The result is fruity and chocolatey, with decent body, though the flavor is a little muddled (and muddy).

Vermont Country Blend
20130108vermontblend.jpgThis blend includes a mix of lighter and darker beans, and the balance comes out relatively well, tending toward bright acidity (some might find it a little much) and an undercurrent of chocolatey roast (some might find it a bit too charred.) There's a bit of a hole in the center of the flavor, though.

Green Mountain Our Blend
20130108ourblendcoffee.jpgThis lighter-roast blend "often has Guatemalan coffee in it" say the Green Mountain folks. It was mild for sure—though some would say stale and weak. Definitely not as interesting or full of coffee flavor as Green Mountain's Breakfast Blend.

Mocha Flavored Coffees

Green Mountain Mocha Nut Fudge
20130108mochanutfudgekcup.jpgThis coffee smells more nutty than chocolatey, but some mocha comes through in the flavor, mingling nicely with the lightly bitter coffee. You'll want to add milk and probably sugar; unmasked, the flavors seem a little artificial.

Cafe Escapes Cafe Mocha
20130108cafeescapesmochakcup.jpgWe wanted to like this, but it was neither coffee- or chocolate-flavored enough to get excited about. It's sweet-sweet-sweet, and not as flavorful as what you'd get by pouring a bit of coffee (even K-Cup coffee! Like the Barista Prima House Blend!) in some warm milk with cocoa mix.

Vanilla Flavored Coffees

Green Mountain Coffee French Vanilla
20130108frenchvanillagreenmountain.jpgThis coffee is meant to evoke vanilla custard, and the scent has that eggy custardy character for sure. The flavor is a bit more subtle than we'd expect—there's a dash of vanilla-scented-candle but it's not as aggressive you might think. The coffee has a bit of a sour note that breaks the vanilla calm, but you can even that out with a little milk.

Cafe Escapes Cafe Vanilla
20130108cafevanillaescapes.jpgWhen compared with Green Mountain Coffee's French Vanilla flavored coffee, the creamy Cafe Vanilla has a subtler scent but deep vanilla flavor—think warm melted vanilla ice cream, not coffee drink. This was way too sweet for most of us, but if might work well cut half and half with coffee.

Nut-Flavored Coffees

Green Mountain Hazelnut
20130108hazelnutflavoredcoffee.jpgThe scent is a perfumey fantasy of Nutella flavor mixed with butter, not the true flavor of toasted filberts, but the added creamy butter note makes for a more satisfying sipping experience. The light-roast coffee tucks into the nut flavor in a mellow way, and though the nuttiness definitely tastes artificial, it's not bad as these things go.

Green Mountain Southern Pecan
20130130southernpecankcup.jpgThe pecan flavor is praline-like, again with the buttery flavors as prominent as the nuts. Though we'd never think of stirring butter into coffee, it does dull the bitter edges of the brew. Not for purists, but we'd be willing to sip this with a cinnamon roll on the side.

Caramel Flavored Coffees

Green Mountain Coffee Caramel Vanilla Cream
20130108caramelvanilla.jpgThe Green Mountain Coffee Caramel Vanilla Cream is cream-flavored, but not creamy. It smells super-sweet, vanilla-perfumy, but retains a coffee bitterness against the impression of Werther's. We didn't find it quite satisfying.

Café Escapes Café Caramel
20130108cafecaramel.jpgThis version has creamer in it, and smells both toasty and sweet. The flavor is all the way to the sugary side—think buttered popcorn, not coffee. Though the buttery flavor was a bit overwhelming to us, we could imagine someone with a sweet tooth liking this as a hot cocoa replacement.

Coffees Flavored Like Baked Goods, Etc.

Gloria Jean's Butter Toffee
20130122gloriajeansbuttertoffeecoffee.jpgThough your mind has to adjust when the coffee's not as sweet as it smells, we appreciated the smooth body and richness of this flavored coffee. Everything feels in pretty decent balance here, and there's not too much fake-butter flavor. This was much better than we expected.

Green Mountain Pumpkin Spice
20131022pumpkinspice.jpgThe scent is mostly spice and not so much pumpkin—but isn't pumpkin pie that way, too? This coffee is light-bodied, with plenty of toasty spice—the cinnamon seems to integrate well with the coffee here, with the pumpkin flavor acting like a bridge. Of the cinnamony flavors, this was a favorite, though it's pretty bitter and definitely needs milk.

Green Mountain Wild Mountain Blueberry
20130130blueberrycoffeeuse.jpgEver dunk a cakey blueberry muffin in your diner coffee? That's the idea here, and the result is a coffee perfumed with dried blueberries and spices, full of the flavor of juicy berries and buttery pastry. With sugar and milk in it, it's totally bizarre, a little artificial, and strangely addictive.

Donut House Cinnamon Roll
20130108cinnamonroll.jpgThe scent is all there: cinnamon, brown sugar, maybe a blend of other spices, but this calorie-free flavored coffee isn't sweetened, so it's a little like dissolving a bag of cinnamon tea in your dark-roast brew. Definitely one to enjoy with milk, and if you like the spices in chai, you'll probably like this too, as long as you don't mind your coffee a little bitter. 3.5/10

Green Mountain Gingerbread
20130130gingerbreadgreenmtn.jpgIf you've got a weakness for a Starbucks gingerbread latte, you may be tempted to save up a stash of these limited-edition pods. On its own, the gingery spice feels awkward and seems to accentuate the coffee's bitterness, so you may want to add both milk and sugar to turn this into a holiday treat.

Donut House Chocolate Glazed Donut
20130108chocolateglazedcoffee.jpgIt's hard to get the flavor of rich, cakey doughnuts into a calorie-free coffee. This one smells about right: that mix of cocoa powder and just-fried dough comes through. But the first sip disappoints: the coffee is sour-tasting, dominating over the warm, sweet cocoa flavor which is mixed with a delicate char. A splash of milk evens it all out a bit, but you're better off mixing a regular coffee with hot cocoa.

Green Mountain Spicy Eggnog
20130120eggnogcoffee.jpgEggnog-flavored things tend to be a little disappointing, but this one is pretty terrible; managing the odd eggy flavor more than any cream or spice. Pour eggnog in regular coffee if you're feeling seasonally inclined.

Green Mountain Island Coconut
20130130coconut.jpgIt's not immediately apparently why anyone thought coconut-flavored coffee was a great idea, but this one confirms the mistake. It smells exactly like toasted coconut on an ice cream sundae, and the flavor is quite disjointed. Adding cream helps, but it's hard to brush off the suntan-lotion association.

Iced Coffee

Nantucket Blend Iced Coffee
20130130icednantucketblend.jpgI don't know many offices that have an endless supply of ice, but if you have ice on hand, you can use the brew-over-ice K-cups to make decent iced coffee. The Nantucket Blend version is nothing amazing (still tastes a little stale) but it's not overly diluted when brewed to the package instructions.

Sweet and Creamy Regular Iced Coffee
20130130icedsweetcreamy.jpgIf you order your coffee 'light and sweet' this is the stuff for you; it's not full of robust coffee flavor, but it's pleasantly creamy and as sweet as vanilla ice cream. We like a little more control, but this sure is an easy fix if you don't have creamer and sugar on hand. We found this much easier to drink than we'd expected.

Green Mountain French Vanilla Iced Coffee
20130130frenchvanillaiced.jpgThe ice and cool temp seems to bring out the odd side of this coffee: the vanilla flavor is just too perfumey when cold.

Sweet and Creamy Hazelnut Iced Coffee
20130130nuttyhazelnut.jpgThough we have to admit a soft spot for the Sweet and Creamy iced coffee K-Cup, the hazelnut variation is terrible, unless you want your coffee to taste like you left a handful of toasty, buttery popcorn in the bottom of your cup.

Beyond Coffee

Green Mountain Naturals Hot Apple Cider
20130130appleciderkcup.jpgThe concept of cider-in-a-pod feels, well, not natural to us, but this cider smells good, with a little cinnamon and rich brown sugar aroma. The flavor is nicely tart, though definitely not as fresh-tasting as what you'd get in a refrigerated, unpasteurized jug. Some tasters noted some off-flavors, but others said it would definitely do in a pinch.

Cafe Escapes Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa
20130130darkchocolatekcup.jpgThis one's the better of the two hot cocoas, more chocolatey in flavor, though still not super robust. Do we need a Barista Prima Hot Cocoa? We'd love to try one. Otherwise, we'll be sticking with more traditional cocoa-making methods.

Cafe Escapes Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa
20130130milkchockcup.jpgSuper-sweet, lightly creamy, and did we mention super-sweet? Unless you're diluting the Cafe Escapes Milk Chocolaet Hot Cocoa with coffee, it's going to be too much to take.

Cafe Escapes Chai Latte
20130130chailattekcup.jpgThis smells delicious, spicy and sweet. But the first sip makes it clear that you're getting more sugar than spice; it's almost too much to take. Unless you have a serious sweet tooth, this one will overwhelm you before you're very far down in the cup.

Which Is Your Favorite?

Do you use a single-serving coffee machine? Are you loyal to a certain K-Cup coffee? Tell us which one in the comments below.

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