Soon, Our Robot Coffee Baristas Will Only Brew Certain Brands

Behold, “the java-bean equivalent of DRM."
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Used K-Cups in their natural habitat ( Randy Read / Flickr )

We American coffee-drinkers have known the Era of Starbucks and the Epoch of Sanka.  It seems, however, we currently live in the Age of the K-Cup.

And we’re about to discover everything that means.

Over the past half-decade, single-serve, instant-brew coffee pods—called K-Cups—have taken over more than a quarter of the U.S. ground coffee business. Last summer, the Wall Street Journal judged the K-Cup’s rise “unstoppable” and reported that product category was worth over $150 million. 

K-Cups and Keurig (the best-known brand used to brew them) are both manufactured by Green Mountain Coffee. That company—worth some $16 billion itself—owned the patents for its chalices of disruption, but they expired in 2012, and since then it’s had a problem.

It’s historically operated on a razor blade model: Its Keurig business makes real money not by selling machine brewers but by selling K-Cups. Now cheaper competitors have moved in. They sell inexpensive one-off cups and reusable, extensible cups—threatening the company’s business on both sides.

A lawsuit recently filed by TreeHouse Foods alleges the company has taken anti-competitive action to stop the rise of off-brand K-Cups. It claims “Keurig has been busy striking exclusionary agreements with suppliers and distributors to lock competing products out of the market,” according to Karl Bode of TechDirt.

That’s all background, though, to the technology Green Mountain Coffee is preparing to implement. Later this year, the company will release its “Keurig 2.0” product. It will use a whole new type of K-Cup that affords customers “game-changing functionality” and “excellent quality beverages.” To achieve all this quality and game-changery, the company will also stop supporting “unlicensed pods.”

That’s right. The machine barista will refuse to brew any K-Cups its corporate overlords did not sanction. 

Bode calls it the “the java-bean equivalent of DRM.” The news, first announced last fall, is confirmed by a food industry trade publication. It really looks like coffee DRM is coming.

DRM—digital rights management—originally referred to music or video files that resisted their owners’s efforts to share or play them freely. Once, most music files purchased online had DRM; now, almost none of them do. (Although streaming music services like Spotify or Beats Music present an interesting substitute for DRM. With those services, the user never downloads files at all.)

We’ve been used to DRM in the cultural world for some time, but this is an early appearance of it in the kitchen. It appears so obviously counter to the consumer’s interest as to be risible. The Keurig launched on its ease and convenience—just brew one cup, whenever you want!—and now it’s sprouting new stipulations to hold onto its business—oh, but, please, do make sure it’s our brand of coffee.

Whether or not it goes to market, the “Keurig 2.0” hints at the food technologies that will be possible in the future, on both a micro and macro scale. Between ever-shrinking microchips and ever-increasing mechanization, food companies will have more control over what gets cooked and how. They won’t have *all* the control, though. For if we add computers to coffee makers, it won’t be long until we hear about how they can be hacked—just like toilets, just like refrigerators

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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