The Best Coffee Pods of 2020
The Nespresso variety pack and associated Nespresso machines are in a league of their own when it comes to the world of coffee pods. While your choice in what brand of coffee you can use with a Nespresso machine is much more limited than with a Keurig, the quality of the coffee is much higher. 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 more mild flavor and larger volume.
Both options are much smaller in volume than a normal American cup of coffee, so if you prefer a hefty cup that you can nurse all morning long, you might opt for a Keurig. We found all of the concentrated espresso-style coffee produced by the Nespresso pods had a smooth texture complete with a rich crema on top of the brew. The espresso consistently had an obvious and enjoyable level of brightness that carried into a subtle and pleasant citrusy finish. With an inviting aroma and deeper flavors, the Nespresso pods were far and away our favorite coffee pods.
Known for its line of health supplements and popular with the Keto crowd, Bulletproof's coffee is actually just unadulterated single-origin coffee. To make it "bulletproof", you would have to add butter or supplements. Only stating that each pod is sourced from a single-origin, it is unclear of the exact origin. With wafting aromas of sweetened vanilla, this coffee had the most enticing smell of all the coffees we tasted. With flavors of cedar and dark chocolate, this medium-bodied coffee had a smooth finish with no lingering bitterness.
The moderate amount of acidity and the grippy mouth feel created a well-balanced cup of coffee that is perfectly suited to any time of day.
While seekers of specialty coffee (who are also in the market for coffee pods) are a small and perhaps confused bunch, the single-origin light roast pod being offered by Laughing Man comes close to delivering a cup of coffee that even coffee snobs won't turn their noses at.
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.
The Donut Shop Medium Roast is popular, and for good reason. Upon first brewing a cup of this coffee, you're greeted by pleasant but faint aromas of pipe tobacco. Being a medium roast, the flavor profiles do trend on the darker side and offer notes of toasted rye and bakers chocolate. The acidity levels in this pod are fairly low but complement the savory flavors well. With a clean aftertaste that leaves no lingering bitterness and a medium body, you are left with a well-balanced cup of coffee.
With flavors not too overwhelmingly dark nor straying too far the other direction with over the top brightness, this blend is the perfect middle ground. It's a satisfying crowd-pleaser for groups with varying tastes.
While the McCafe Premium Roast coffee pod is billed as a medium roast coffee, it's on the lighter side of all the coffees we tasted. Starting you off with a nutty aroma, your first sips give you tastes of toasted almonds and citrus.
This coffee has a mild amount of acidity that really comes out in the aftertaste. As the flavors depart from your tongue, you are left with a crisp finish and lingering notes of citrus. The mild acidity and light body leave you with a well-balanced cup of coffee that is perfect for your first cup of the day.
Billed as "Latin" style coffee, Cafe Bustelo offers a dark roast blend that is intended to be doctored up with milk and sugar. That isn't to say it's not just totally fine on its own. While 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 darkness of the roast translated well into deep flavor profiles of caramelized sugar and hazelnut. A rich and well-balanced cup, this will be a favorite for those who prefer their coffee bold.
The decaf version of the Original Donut Shop coffee pod, this pod unsurprisingly, has a very similar flavor profile. With a chocolaty aroma, it gives way to a flavor profile that tastes like bakers chocolate and toasted grains.
With medium levels of acidity, there is a spike in brightness right as the sip finishes that then transitions nicely into a lingering taste of cacao. With a smooth body and a great balance of flavor and aroma, this was our favorite decaf pod.
While much of the quality derived from reusable coffee pods will come from using quality beans and the correct grind size, the Fill N Save Reusable K Cup is a great option that won't immediately end up in the landfill. In all the cups we made with this reusable pod, the resulting coffee was comparable in taste to a conventional coffee pot. This pod gives you 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 of the only downsides we noticed is that the metal filter lets some sediment slip through and end up in your cup.
The Dunkin' Original Blend is truly reminiscent of the classic cup of joe being served up at your local Dunkin's. With aromas likening to earthy greens, you transition nicely from the inviting smell to flavors best described as nutmeg and dark chocolate. While not too noticeable, there is a subtle brightness to the coffee that segues a little strangely to an astringent aftertaste that leaves your mouth feeling dry.
With a texture like skim-milk, this fairly light tasting blend wasn't our favorite but is certainly drinkable and 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 leaves you with a coffee pod that claims to have 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 brightness offered by the medium levels of acidity in the coffee. The body is light, bordering on watery but not unpleasantly so.
Overall the taste was in the middle of the pack for us, but if you're in need of an extreme caffeine boost, this coffee pod is the right pick for you.
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, it's a step in the right direction for dealing with pod waste. 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 punctuated with a slightly 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, you'll enjoy this pod.
Typically when we think of a breakfast blend, we imagine a light-bodied cup of coffee with an enlivening amount of brightness. We didn't find any of those profiles in the Green Mountain Breakfast Blend.
Upon brewing a cup, we immediately noticed a roasted, boarding on burnt aroma that 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, Starbuck's take on the coffee pod attempts to deliver what the Pikes Place Roast is known for, a medium roast blend that offers 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 felt and tasted balanced, but was too burnt tasting for our liking.
The Peets Decaf was our least favorite pod. With 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. The coffee did have a bit of interesting brightness, but the finish was highly astringent. The body and brightness blended well with the citrusy aroma, but given the deep flavor profiles, it felt out of balance. 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 has turned into a life long obsession to find 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 essentially 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 14 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 were able to 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 amount of 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 methods of processing, and then ultimately how they are roasted, determines how a cup of coffee is going to smell when brewed. The time between when the coffee was roasted, ground, and then brewed also plays a big roll in what aromas will be found wafting off a cup of coffee. Another factor we took into account 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. Our highest scoring coffee pods in this metric 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 that was 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 are going to taste exactly that descriptor, but your brain will perceive a similar experience in regards to 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 notes of dark chocolate and cedar. The next highest scoring pods were 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. A nice complement to the original flavor profile and carrying a pleasant level of brightness all the way through, we couldn't find much to complain about. The McCafe pod had a crisp and citrusy aftertaste that we found to be quite enjoyable as well.
Our least favorite pods all shared one thing in common. The aftertaste was jarring and a departure from the original flavor profiles. The Peets Decaf had one of the most disjointed flavor profiles and aftertaste.
Acidity in coffee accounts for the perceived level of sourness. An enjoyable amount of 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, all depends on how well the given levels of acidity compliments the flavor profile and overall experience.
The Donut Shop Medium Roast has low acidity, which was a great compliment to the rich flavor profile it has. In contrast, the Laughing Man Ethiopia has a much higher level of acidity that adds to its sweet and citrusy flavors. The Death Wish pods had a strong uptick in brightness in the middle of the sip that was 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 that was well complemented by the enjoyable and slightly tannic finish of the cup. For those who prefer a heavier bodied coffee, the Cafe Bustelo had 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.
The overall balance of a cup of coffee refers to how well all the other components mesh together to paint a complete picture. Some coffees can have a delicious element, but another out of place factor can ruin the balance of the entire experience.
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 Peets Decaf. Both exhibited a confusing blend of flavors and acidity that made for a cup of coffee that couldn't make up its mind.
After sampling fourteen different coffee pods that ranged from dark roast blends to light roasted single-origin beans, we were able to discern which pods are right for different palettes. With some being recyclable or compostable, and even a few that are reusable, we taste-tested all of them in a side by cupping that let us score each coffee's overall taste. The components we looked at were aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance. By breaking the taste down into those six metrics, we better able to put aside our preferences to help you determine which coffee is right for you.
— Buck Yedor