How America's morning pot of joe became "coffee for one"

How did we go from Mr. Coffee to the ubiquitous single-serve pods?

Published December 31, 2017 6:30PM (EST)

 (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

Excerpted with permission from "Coffee for One: How the New Way to Make Your Morning Brew Became a Tempest in a Coffee Pod" by K.J. Fallon. Copyright 2018, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Coffee is usually the first sip of the morning. It is the beverage that opens the eyes to a new day and prepares our nervous system for whatever the forces throw our way. Brewing coffee in coffee pots from humble metal to decorative ceramic has been around for a very long time. Over the years this basic design evolved into the percolator and electric percolator, which worked fine for a family or group having their coffee at the same time. Other methods were also embraced by those who had the time and the inclination to go gourmet. The elegant but slow French press, the very leisurely drip method, the unhurried pour over. The sometimes near theatrical preparation was an integral part of the process. Whatever the choice, a special grind of coffee was needed for each different brewing technique. In any case, preparing the cof­fee was going to take time. No quick fix there. Preparing the morning brew using these low-concept methods would take a big chunk out of the morning.

What was behind the desire for a fresh-brewed single serve? When did cof­fee drinkers realize that they could hope for, and get, great-tasting coffee one cup at a time, really fast? Sure, there was instant, and the quality of that seemed to be improving, but would it ever be possible to have a quick fresh-brewed cup of coffee before heading out the door in the morning?

You’re drinking what with breakfast?

Coffee wasn’t always in the spotlight on the beverage stage. Coffee con­sumption in the Unites States peaked around 1945, with folks drinking about forty-six gallons per person.

But another beverage was starting to become a lot more popular starting at around that time. (No, not beer. Beer, along with ale, was the popular drink for breakfast or anytime in the eighteenth century.1) Soda. The real beverage love of people’s lives was soda.

While consumption of coffee had been flat for years, after 1962 there was a marked decline in coffee drinking. In 1962, about 75 percent of adults in the United States drank coffee. By 1988, just 50 percent were coffee drinkers. Not only were there fewer coffee drinkers, those cof­fee drinkers were drinking fewer cups of coffee. In 1962, coffee drinkers were quaffing around three cups a day. By 1980, the amount of coffee being imbibed per day was slightly more than two cups and by 1991, that amount fell to less than two cups per day. And the people who were drink­ing the coffee were those in an older generation. Where were the people in their twenties? An older population with little interest in coffee drinking and a younger generation that didn’t care so much for coffee didn’t bode well for the longevity of coffee as a permanent part of the food and bev­erage habits of consumers. What were the younger people drinking? Yes. Soda. As coffee consumption fell, soda consumption rose, and at a very bubbly and steady pace.

Coffee was getting seriously displaced by the cold, carbonated way to get caffeine, even in the morning. It was faster, it was more conve­nient, and it was just a lot . . . more . . . cool. At least that’s what the soda makers wanted folks to take away from their “Coke in the Morn­ing” ad campaign back in the 1980s and more recently with a variation on that theme. Having your morning caffeine via a refreshing, cold, and easy-to-carry soda was very appealing to a lot of consumers. They didn’t have to wait in line to fill a flimsy Styrofoam cup with what was likely over-brewed coffee in the convenience store, and, if they were having breakfast at home, they didn’t have to bother with measuring the cof­fee and waiting around while it brewed, and waiting some more while it cooled enough to drink. Why not just open the refrigerator and grab a soda with a decent amount of caffeine and bring along another one for the road? Or two.

Add to that Pepsi’s “Pepsi A.M.” campaign. Pepsi A.M. had 28 percent more caffeine than regular Pepsi but still about 75 percent less than the amount of caffeine in coffee. Then, sometime in the 1990s a few test mar­kets got the chance to try Pepsi Kona and Pepsi Cappuccino.

Not enough? Then, how about Coca-Cola BlāK, a coffee-flavored cola? This coffee-ish soda was available for a short time in 2006. Coca- Cola likely was trying to interest the gourmet coffee lover with this very seductive-looking beverage bottle and its advertising campaign. After about two years the product was discontinued.5 Another coffee and soda combination was Café-Cola, produced in the 1990s.

It is evident that while soda was king, coffee was still an influence that soft drink manufacturers wanted to exploit. And for a lot of people, a cold caffeinated beverage with maybe a caffeine infusion was just what they wanted. They would rather have a cold soda than a cup of probably not-so-fresh-coffee. Plus, maybe they just didn’t like the taste of coffee. Maybe this was because the coffee they were exposed to was just bad coffee. And there was that time thing, again. Who had time to wait around for a pot of coffee to brew? Why not just have an ice-cold Coke? If you needed more caffeine, just have another, and maybe another. Plus, for a lot of workers on fluctuating work schedules, the first meal of the day often just went better with a cold soda.

In 1985, Jolt Cola promised all of the sugar and twice the caffeine.7 (There is a Facebook page dedicated to bringing it back.)8 All you had to do was open the refrigerator, grab it, drink it, and go. Or drink it on the go. This was a lot less cumbersome than making coffee in the morn­ing, especially considering that probably half the pot would be poured down the drain anyway since there was so little time to drink more than one hastily prepared cup. Soda consumption was going up, while coffee consumption was going down. You can be sure that coffee organizations took notice.

Of course, there was instant coffee, but even with that you had to wait for the water to boil and then stir it and wait some more for the coffee to cool down so you could drink it. And then if you wanted a second cup, you’d have to do it all over again.

So, enticing people to come back to or to start drinking coffee in the morning, never mind at other times, was going to take some effort, imag­ination, and forethought. Consumers would have to start being persuaded that, hey, maybe they should rethink their love affair with soda, which was ongoing for generations.

Part of the pullback to coffee was due to a gradual evolution on the one hand, but also to a few more revolutionary events. And they all seemed to have happened around the same time.

Revolution #1: Mr. Coffee (1972)

Its name is now synonymous with electric drip coffeemakers, but back in 1972 when it was first introduced for home use, Mr. Coffee was a brand-new idea in the world of making fresh coffee at home. Here was a machine that in one compartment you just had to fill with water and in another compartment place a filter laden with ground coffee, plug it in, turn it on, and wait, but with a wait that was a lot shorter than with other brewing methods. Plus, you didn’t have to watch over it to make sure it didn’t boil over or burn. It was all automatic. You could get on with whatever else you needed to do and the coffee would practically make itself.

Mr. Coffee was a resounding success, selling more than a million units in two years and was hailed as a revolutionary food preparation device. And it was.

Revolution #2: The birth of coffeehouse culture in the United States


This establishment goes back a long time before specialty coffee became a phenomenon. Since the early twentieth century, this landmark for coffee and tea lovers has been offering the best of coffees and teas in Manhattan’s West Village. True, there is only the one store (the store first opened not far from its current location)—but what a coffee (and tea) emporium, singu­lar in every respect. Here, coffee lovers have come to know the best coffee available and have come to expect nothing less. Folks outside the New York area can order online, and McNulty’s continues to get a high ranking and not just due to nostalgia. It is a favorite with tourists, as well. A step inside reveals the heady smells of so many gourmet coffees—it is hard to choose the one or ones you want to try.

McNulty’s has been around for a very long time and may be in just one small location, but they are further proof that people will seek out fine coffees once they are awakened to the pleasures this perfect beverage offers. These coffee lovers learned that settling for mediocre coffee is not an option.

There really cannot be too many gourmet coffeehouses. Even though other coffee emporiums have opened nearby it only enhances what McNulty’s has to offer. There is no such thing, it seems, as too many choices of where to find the perfect cup of coffee.

Peet’s Coffee

Peet’s Coffee is the brainchild of Holland-born Alfred Peet, who knew pretty much everything there was to know about coffee. He came to the United States after World War II and was flabbergasted at the swill that Americans referred to as coffee. Seeing it as his mission to set things right, he opened his first store in 1966 in Berkeley, California. His method was a forerunner of the gourmet preparation of coffee. He prepared his coffee in small batches using fresh beans that were dark roasted. The result was a cup of coffee that opened the eyes, taste buds, and souls of coffee drinkers. So this is what coffee was supposed to taste like!

Three years later, Peet’s Coffee & Tea was renowned as a popular place for coffee lovers to gather. The area became known as the Gourmet Ghetto where coffee lovers and foodies (although the term didn’t exist at the time) could meet up and take it all in, in the form of rich, deep coffee, exciting new foods, and stimulating conversation. This was a new era for coffee entrepreneurs.

Peet’s coffee devotees were known as “Peetniks.” Today there are close to 250 Peet’s stores in seven states and Washington, DC, and Peet’s is now part of JAB Holdings (more about JAB later).


Founded on the idea that people wanted great coffee, Starbucks began as a single store in the historic district of Pike’s Place in Seattle, Washing­ton, in 1971 and has grown into many different things to many different people. They were at the forefront of getting consumers interested in, and educated about, really good coffee. The seeds for expansion from a single store to a worldwide phenomenon began in 1982 when Howard Schultz came onboard. Later, a trip to espresso bars in the Italian city of Piazza del Duomo—seeing firsthand the serious coffee culture with animated patrons relaxing and conversing—convinced Schultz that the coffeehouse ethos could be done and would do well in the United States.10 (And now Howard Schultz is taking the idea back to Italy with those Starbucks Roasteries.)

Over the years, Starbucks has offered beverages of varying sophisti­cation and uniqueness, and customers have been eager to try not only delicious, gourmet coffees, but also to explore the different variations on the coffee theme that Starbucks offered. So, with the growing popular­ity and availability of the fine coffees that Starbucks served, an increasing number of coffee drinkers and coffee converts were becoming aware that the coffee that they drank didn’t have to be predictable or dull. Coffee held many possibilities for an adventure in caffeine imbibing.

Now with more than twenty-two thousand stores worldwide and more than thirty blends and premium single-origin coffees, Starbucks is firmly entrenched as a part of the coffee culture.

Revolution #3: The coffee bag — making one cup of coffee at a time

This might be a bit of a stretch, but think about it. It was in the 1980s that coffee drinkers started to wake up to the idea that they could have a cup of fresh-brewed—not a variation of instant—coffee and get on with their day faster. Now, this is more about being able to make a single cup of coffee at home. It would not be of the same quality as the coffee served in gour­met coffeehouse, but it would be fresher tasting than instant coffee. When opening a box of single-serve coffee bags, such as Maxwell House Singles, you would be met with the agreeable scent of fresh-enough coffee.

Folgers and Maxwell House introduced coffee singles, which were like oversized tea bags filled with coffee that, when placed in a cup with hot water, would steep and brew into a cup of coffee. This method followed the principle of the tea bag, and the coffee brewed fairly quickly right in the mug, but something was missing. While you could, in theory, brew your coffee in a cup á la tea bag, some thought there remained a bit of an aftertaste. It was coffee. It was pretty fast. And it was fresh brewed. But it wasn’t . . . great.

Coffee singles are still readily available and are convenient, for sure. There is a variation on this, a paper-filter-placed-over-a-cup method known as Japanese Pour Over Coffee, which is more of a drip method not unlike the cone filter pour-over that can be used with a pot or a single cup.

Cone filters produced by companies like Melitta offered the option of making drip coffee one cup at a time, but this was not always convenient and it did not save much time. If you needed to get going and out of the house, standing around waiting for the beverage to drip through the filter into your mug or cup took too long. If you had the wrong type of coffee grinds, the cone filter paper would either get clogged or the liquid that filtered down into your cup became too weak. And unless you were using a clear mug so you could see what was going on, the coffee could overflow onto the counter.

One thing is clear: once the option for making one cup at a time started to appear, the thirst for a better cup-at-a-time grew. And the need for con­tinuously improving the results naturally followed. Coffee drinkers were starting to really like the idea of having their morning java fast and fresh brewed.

By K.J. Fallon


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