Best Coffee Pods of 2021
Nespresso machines are in a class of their own when it comes to instant coffee pods. While your options for types of pods are severely more limited than with a Keurig, our testers found the limited number of choices to be well worth it. The pods we tested in the Nespresso Variety Pack were all delicious. Nespresso pods produce a rich style of coffee that the entry-level machine can make into either an espresso-sized shot or a Lungo (long) shot, which has a milder flavor and more volume. While these pods don't produce real espresso, it's about as close as you'll get without investing in an expensive machine or making a trip to your local coffee shop.
Both of these options are much smaller in volume than a standard American cup of coffee, so if you prefer a hefty cup that you can nurse all morning long, you might opt for a Keurig instead. The concentrated espresso-style coffee produced by the Nespresso pods had a smooth texture, complete with a rich crema on top of the brew. Each pod we tried had an evident and enjoyable brightness level that carried into a subtle and pleasant citrusy finish. With an inviting aroma and more nuanced flavors, the Nespresso pods were by far our favorite coffee pods.
Known for its line of health supplements and popular with the Keto crowd, Bulletproof offers high-quality single-origin coffee in pod form. To make it "bulletproof", a popular meal supplement, and the brand's namesake, you would need to add butter or other supplements. For those uninterested in that, fear not; these pods are simply unadulterated coffee. With wafting aromas of sweetened vanilla, this coffee had the most enticing smell of all the coffees we tasted, offering earthy flavors of cedar and dark chocolate.
This medium-bodied coffee boasted a smooth finish with no lingering bitterness. The moderate acidity and the grippy mouth feel created a well-balanced cup suited to any time of day. Unlike the in-bag version, the coffee does have a slightly artificial aftertaste, likely due to being stored in the plastic pods.
The Solimo Dark Roast pods are Amazon's in-house brand that rivals the mild taste and experience of The Original Donut Shop's pods but are sold at a significantly lower price point. The Solimo pods give off nutty aromas faintly reminiscent of caramelized sugar, with dark flavors (but not overly so). We found notes of baker's chocolate that ended with a slight sweetness akin to dried figs. Overall the cups we brewed had low acidity, a medium body, and tasted well balanced. This is an easy-drinking pod that will generally be a crowd-pleaser for groups with mixed tastes.
For those who like their coffee as dark as can be, this pod might miss the mark. To us, it tasted and felt more like a medium roast that was trending into dark roast territory, making it an ideal choice for savvy consumers seeking a medium to dark roast pod.
With the popularity of coffee pods ever-increasing, you aren't relegated to cheap and burnt tasting pods. The single-origin light roast pod by Laughing Man comes close to delivering a cup of coffee that even serious coffee snobs won't turn up their noses at.
Coffee drinkers often fall into two polarized camps, those who prefer light roasts and those who like it as dark as can be. If you fall into the latter group, this coffee pod may disappoint. With aromas of nougat and flavors akin to caramel and graham cracker, this coffee finishes with notes of toasted marshmallow. This is a sweet and bright cup of coffee that is enjoyable from start to finish.
By the numbers, the Donut Shop Medium Roast is one of the most popular selling pods on the market. After our initial testing, it became clear why. These pods offer broad appeal at a good price. Upon first brewing a cup of this coffee, you're greeted by pleasant but faint aromas of pipe tobacco. As a medium roast coffee, the flavor profiles trend on the darker side and offer notes of toasted rye and baker's chocolate. The acidity levels in this pod are fairly low but complement the savory flavors well. These pods have a medium body that ends with a clean aftertaste, leaving no lingering bitterness and ultimately delivering a well-balanced cup of coffee.
Flavors are not too overwhelmingly dark, nor do they stray too far in the other direction with over-the-top brightness. The middle-of-the-road flavor profile could be a detractor for those looking for a specific flavor profile on a different side of the spectrum. It achieves the perfect middle ground and is a satisfying crowd-pleaser for groups with varying tastes.
The McCafe Premium Roast coffee pod is advertised as a medium roast coffee, but we found it one of the lighter-tasting coffees in our testing lineup. As you lift your cup, you're greeted with a subtle but distinctly nutty aroma. The pleasant aroma then segues into a complimentary taste of toasted almonds as you take your first sip.
There is a mild amount of acidity that comes out in the aftertaste. As the flavors depart from your tongue, you are left with a crisp finish and lingering notes of citrus. Mild acidity and light body leave you with a well-balanced coffee that is perfect for your first cup of the day.
Billed as "Latin" style coffee, Cafe Bustelo is a dark roast blend intended to be doctored up with milk and sugar. That being said, it is delicious enough all on its own. Although it is one of the darker roasts we sampled, it was one of the few dark roasts that didn't come across as burnt. The roast was dark enough to get even the sleepiest motors running but not at the cost of losing an interesting flavor profile.
The darkness of the roast translated well into deep flavor profiles of caramelized sugar and hazelnut. Certainly not the pods for those looking for a light or mild cup, this rich and well-balanced coffee will be favored by those who prefer their coffee bold or those who want a cup that can stand up to milk and sugar without tasting diluted.
The decaf version of the Original Donut Shop coffee pod offers a very similar, although not entirely identical, taste profile. A chocolaty aroma gives way to a flavor profile that tastes like baker's chocolate and toasted grains. This decaf pod is tasty enough to serve up as a quick post-dinner brew.
With medium acidity levels, there is a spike in brightness right as the sip finishes that then transitions nicely into a lingering taste of cacao. This was our favorite decaf pod with a smooth body and an outstanding balance of flavor and aroma.
If you're tired of watching your waste bin stack up with empty pods, the Fill N Save Reusable K Cup is a great reusable option that won't immediately end up in the landfill. In all the cups we made with this, the result was comparable in taste to a conventional coffee pot. This pod offers the convenience that Keurigs are known for but with limitless options of what coffee you want to drink.
Made entirely of metal, the pod is easy to clean and appears quite durable. One downside is that the metal filter lets some sediment slip through and end up in your cup. The cup will also need to be washed thoroughly between uses since stainless steel can hold on to coffee oils that will impart flavor onto your next brew. This is an ideal option for those worried about generating more trash or using coffee not sold in pod form.
The Dunkin' Original Blend is reminiscent of the classic cup served at your local Dunkin Donuts cafe. With aromas likened to earthy greens, you transition nicely from the inviting earthy smell to flavors best described as nutmeg and dark chocolate. While not too noticeable, the coffee's subtle brightness departs quickly to an astringent aftertaste that leaves your mouth feeling dry.
With a texture not unlike skim milk, this relatively light-tasting blend wasn't our favorite. However, we think it will appeal to all those East Coast die-hard Dunkin' fans.
Death Wish Coffee is the only coffee we reviewed that wasn't 100% Arabica coffee. The blend of Arabica and Robusta beans, along with Death Wish's proprietary roasting technique, leads to claims of double the caffeine content of any other coffee pod on the market. The nutty aroma and flavors of green pepper and coriander are well-matched by the medium brightness levels and mild acidity. The body is light, bordering on watery but not unpleasantly so.
Overall the taste was in the middle of the pack; certainly drinkable, but not our favorite.
Of all the coffee pods we tasted, the SF Bay French Roast was the only compostable one. Granted, it needs to be sent to a high heat industrial composting facility, but we still think it's a step in the right direction for dealing with pod waste.
However, the actual drinkability of the coffee is lacking. With a malty aroma and a flavor that reminded us of burnt molasses, this coffee left an ashy aftertaste that was capped off with a sour finish. Although we didn't enjoy the taste, we found nothing out of place or character, and if you enjoy deeply dark French roasts, this might just be what you're looking for.
Typically when we think of a breakfast blend, we imagine a light-bodied cup of coffee with an enlivening amount of brightness. Unfortunately, we didn't find any of those profiles in the Green Mountain Breakfast Blend.
Upon brewing a cup, we immediately noticed a roasted, bordering on burnt aroma, which on our first sip, led us to a woody flavor profile that had notes of toasted barley. We found the aftertaste to be a little ashy and the body of the cup to be watery. The deep flavor profiles, combined with the watery body, made for an unbalanced brew that you might say wasn't our cup of tea — or coffee, for that matter.
One of the juggernauts of the coffee industry, Starbucks, takes on the coffee pod in an attempt to deliver what the Pikes Place Roast is known for, a medium roast blend with a rich and nutty flavor profile. We found that the pod version fell short. At first brew, we noticed an ashy aroma before we moved on to sample the flavor, where we found an almost overpowering taste of carbon. The cup had a clean finish and tasted balanced but was too burnt tasting for our liking.
The Peet's Decaf was our least favorite pod. Producing a loamy aroma that offered hints of grapefruit, we were expecting an interesting flavor profile. What we found was a bitter and ashy-tasting brew. Though the coffee did have a bit of brightness, the finish was highly astringent, leaving our tasters' mouths dry and in need of a sip of water. The body and brightness blended well with the citrusy aroma, but it felt out of balance given the deep flavor profiles. Advertising a "bright and smooth" cup, it was incredibly burnt tasting with a harsh finish. The only redeeming quality was the slight amount of pleasant brightness it offered before sharply leaving your tongue with an ashy aftertaste.
Why You Should Trust Us
Never one to turn down a cup of joe, our lead tester, Buck Yedor, has been drinking coffee since he was a kid. What started as sneaking the occasional sip from his mom turned into a lifelong obsession with finding the most delicious brew methods. What truly honed his appreciation and discernment for quality coffee was living with the Director of Training for one of the biggest specialty coffee companies in the game. For years, every morning was mainly a coffee cupping and brew lesson until his palette and brew techniques could please even the harshest of critiques.
After researching 25 of the most popular and hopefully delicious coffee pods on the market, we took a closer look at 16 of the most promising options. We independently purchased this wide variety of pods and proceeded to brew and sip our way through them. Sampling them all with a critical tongue and nose, we could discern their best and worst qualities.
Analysis and Test Results
To test the various coffee pods, we ran each pod through a formal "cupping." A coffee cupping serves as a standardized taste test. We began each cupping by brewing a fresh cup of coffee in our machines and then immediately inhaling a deep breath of the aromas being let off by the brew. The next step in a cupping is to taste the coffee with an exaggerated slurp, with the goal being to cover as much surface area of your tongue as possible.
While there is always some subjectivity in tastings, the goal is to separate oneself from personal preferences and objectively analyze what each coffee is offering. Through our systemized cuppings, we were able to pinpoint and rate each coffee's aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and overall balance.
The aromas produced by different coffees are largely determined by the different chemical compounds found in the green beans. How these compounds react to different processing methods, and then ultimately how they are roasted, determines how a cup of coffee will smell when brewed. When the coffee was roasted, ground, and then brewed also plays a big role in what aromas will be found wafting off a cup of coffee. Another factor we considered was how well the aroma added to or detracted from the perceived taste.
Coffee pods aren't known for offering the freshest beans, and because of this, most of the pods have a somewhat muted aroma. That isn't to say all the coffees we tasted didn't have distinct aromas, but the smells weren't as vibrant as freshly ground beans. In this metric, our highest scoring coffee pods were the Nespresso pods, which consistently had the most aromatic smells. Our top K-cup in this metric was the Laughing Man Ethiopia, which produced a sweet smell reminiscent of nougat. The next best-performing pods were the Bulletproof and McCafe pods. All three of these pods had pleasant aromas that made sense for their unique flavor profiles.
Scoring the worst in this department was the Starbucks Pike Place pod. The aroma was distinctly ash-smelling, and after inhaling a deep whiff, we were less than compelled to want to sip the brew.
The flavor of coffee is based upon how it lights up your different tastebuds. These receptors on your tongue, combined with retronasal olfaction — another way to say how things smell when inside your mouth — determine how your brain perceives flavor. By slurping the coffee and evenly coating the taster's tongue, we get a much more complete picture of what flavors are found in each coffee.
The tasting notes given don't mean you will taste exactly that descriptor, but your brain will perceive a similar experience regarding the seven tastes; bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent, and umami. Our highest scoring coffees for flavor were the Nespresso pods and then the Bulletproof pods, where we found dark chocolate and cedar notes. The next highest scoring pods was the Laughing Man Ethiopia, which tasted like caramel and graham crackers. Our least favorite pods were the SF BAY pods, which can only be described as having an acrid molasses flavor. We also found the Starbucks pod to taste like carbonized wood.
The aftertaste is the lingering taste left in your mouth as you finish your sip. This is often when astringency or acidity is most noticeable. The aftertaste is scored on how well it complements or detracts from the overall experience. With notes of toasted marshmallow, we found the most enjoyable and complementary aftertaste to belong to the Laughing Man Ethiopia pod. We couldn't find much to complain about, a nice complement to the original flavor profile and carrying a pleasant level of brightness all the way through. The McCafe pod also had a crisp and citrusy aftertaste that we found quite enjoyable.
Our least favorite pods all shared one thing in common. The aftertaste was jarring and a departure from the original flavor profiles. The Peet's Decaf had one of the most disjointed flavor profiles and aftertaste.
Acidity in coffee accounts for the perceived level of sourness. An enjoyable acidity is often referred to as brightness and comes through as citrus or fruity flavors. Both high and low levels of acidity can be a positive or negative attribute. How it scores depends on how well the given acidity levels complements the flavor profile and overall experience.
The Donut Shop Medium Roast has low acidity, which greatly complements the rich flavor profile it has. In contrast, the Laughing Man Ethiopia has a much higher acidity level that adds to its sweet and citrusy flavors. The Death Wish pod had a strong uptick in brightness in the middle of the sip, followed by a bitter and drying finish that left the tasters confused.
The body of a cup of coffee refers to the mouthfeel you experience while taking a sip. This can be a light body that feels like tea or skim milk, while a heavier body can feel like cream or syrupy. Descriptors like round or grippy refer to how the coffee feels as it coats your mouth.
The Bulletproof pods scored well in this metric, with a medium body well complemented by the cup's enjoyable and slightly tannic finish. For those who prefer a heavier-bodied coffee, the Cafe Bustelo had a thick and full mouthfeel that went well with its darker flavor profile. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Starbucks pod was incredibly watery for how dark its flavors were.
A well-balanced cup of coffee relies on the aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and body, all working together to create a harmonious experience. A coffee cup might have enjoyable elements, but if they don't mesh well with the other components, the overall experience will be far less delicious and leave you wondering what the heck is going on in your mouth.
We found the Nespresso pods to brew the most balanced cup, with the Laughing Man and Bulletproof pods coming in close behind. The pods with the least amount of balance were the Green Mountain and the Peet's Decaf. Both exhibited a confusing blend of flavors and acidity that made for a cup of coffee that couldn't make up its mind.
Our review team brewed and tasted 16 different types of coffee pods, ranging from light roasted single-origin offerings to dark roasts. We compared them in a series of side-by-side tastings to determine the flavor profile of each. We were analyzing the aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance in each cup. Using a systemized tasting protocol, we put aside our preferences and offer tasting notes for each that will hopefully help you decide which pods will be the right flavor profile for your tastes.
— Buck Yedor