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Why coffee pods are killing America’s love for coffee

Coffee pods are killing coffee consumption. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

A few months ago, the leading nutritional panel in the United States shared an encouraging bit of news. Not only did its members arrive at the conclusion that drinking coffee was a perfectly fine thing to do—they suggested that drinking more might even be ideal.

Well, that seems to be falling on deaf ears—at least here in the biggest coffee consuming nation in the world.

The amount of joe Americans consume is slated to drop this year by more than one percent, or almost 300,000 60-kilogram bags (in coffee beans, not liquid, of course), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which released its latest report on the global coffee market this past Friday.

If that sounds unusual, it should. There are other countries that are expected to drink less coffee this year than they did last year—South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland, Colombia, to name a few—but none are experiencing a drop-off like the one happening in the United States. This country is the only one in the top eight that will consume less coffee this year compared to last.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly why a country falling head over heels for fancier coffee (see Blue Bottle's ascendance for evidence) is at the same time losing its taste for coffee overall. But there is at least one trend that is changing how much coffee Americans drink.

Coffee pods, the single most influential invention in the coffee world over the past few decades have caught on like wildfire in this country. And when people drink coffee pods, they drink less coffee.

Coffee pod sales have grown by 133,710 percent since 2000 (yes, 133,710 percent), and now account for more than a third of all the coffee sold in the United States, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor.

Another way to measure that ascent is to look at the sales of coffee pod machines (virtually all of which are made by Keurig) compared to the sales of all other coffee machines over time. The gap, as you can see, is what it used to be.

But the overwhelming popularity of K-cups has actually caused a bit of a headache for coffee bean roasters and growers, who help supply the largest market in the world with its fix.

Americans have traditionally brewed their coffee using drip machines, which are terribly inefficient ("How much coffee should I put in this filter? Never mind, I'll just eyeball it"). As a result, people have historically bought more coffee beans than they might need. Waste was in fact such a well known contributor to coffee sales that industry folk used to joke that "the sink was the world's largest coffee consumer."

But extra coffee doesn't just end up down the drain—some of it finds its way into your stomach. The consequence of brewing coffee by the pot is that there's often more just sitting there, tempting you to have another cup.

Coffee pods, however, are incredibly efficient by comparison. People tend not to make more than they will actually drink—or, at least, first intended to drink.

"People used to make a pot of coffee. Now they make a cup," Pedro Gavina, the owner of Vernon, California-based roaster Gavina & Sons, told Reuters. "Right there we're losing the sink as a consumer."

They are also cutting down on the number of beans used per cup, because they tend to be less caffeinated.

Coffee consumption has ebbed and flowed in the United States over the decades. It was lower in the mid 1990s, and then higher just thereafter; it rose to its peak in 1946, when it was roughly two cups per person per day, and then fell to below its current level in the late 1970s, when it dipped below a single cup.

But there's good reason to believe that future peaks won't be as caffeinated as they were in the past, because coffee pods are likely here to stay at least a little while longer.

Currently, an estimated 25 percent of U.S. households have a coffee pod machine. One can only imagine what happens when that number creeps upwards, nearer to the 80-plus percent of this country that, according to the National Coffee Association, still drinks coffee at home.