The All-American Keurig

A sociological experiment in a mug.

Have you ever used a Keurig coffee maker?

If not, you're probably the last person in these United States not to have had this experience, or else you're reading government warnings and don't drink coffee or tea anyway.

For the rest of us, Keurigs have become nearly ubiquitous.  They are in most hotels lobbies, many hotel rooms, and nearly every office with more than a handful of employees.  Their supplies, known as K-cups, can be found on the shelves of every major retailer.  From nothing a few years ago, the business of single-serving coffee machines has become a billion-dollar industry.

The reason for this amazing growth illustrates a key fact about the modern American mindset.

Community Coffee

Once upon a time, making coffee or tea was a time-consuming process requiring diligent attention to detail.  Beans had to be ground; water had to be brought to a boil over a fire; then the grounds had to be boiled in the water for the right amount of time; then the beverage had to be separated from the grounds without the benefit of modern disposable filters.

You can watch a Civil War reenactor making coffee the way your great-great-grandfather would have done it; the process is not for the lazy or for the time-crunched.  Most modern Americans wouldn't attempt it, at least not until after they'd had their first cup of coffee.  Making tea would have been a little easier, but in a world with no plastic, keeping tea leaves dry and useable was a whole lot harder than protecting a can of much more rugged coffee beans.

Like any other culinary endeavor, it's perfectly possible for one person to make one serving for themselves, but it's very little more bother to make enough for others to share.  By the nature of the process involved, drinking coffee or tea was a group affair.  All drank the same beverage with only minor modifications (milk or cream, one lump or two of sugar); all suffered equally if the brew was burnt or reveled alike in a perfect cup.

There was a marginally easier way, using the right equipment: a percolating coffee pot, invented in the early 1800s.  It didn't become common until the 1890s, when the "modern" stove-top design came on the market.  The coffee maker you see in 1950s movie kitchens is an electric version of the same basic device.

Obviously, perking a pot of coffee on an electric stove is a good deal easier than doing it in a tin can over an open fire, but it still takes time, attention to detail, and cleanup afterwards.

The modern drip coffee maker was invented in Germany in 1954; by the 1970s, percolating coffee makers were museum pieces.  Doing up a pot of coffee was now as simple as dumping grounds in a disposable filter, water in the tank, and pressing a button.

Still, most coffee makers were designed for multiple cups, and indulging remained communal more often than not.  The office coffee break, where employees gather around the machine and chat while the drink is prepared, is both a fixture and a stereotype.

Guzzling Alone

The invention and popularity of the Keurig has changed that forever.  People can still drink coffee together if they wish, but there's no logistical advantage in doing so, and certainly no requirement that everyone drink the same brew.  In fact, there are inconveniences if everyone wants to drink at once - a traditional Keurig can make one and only one cup at a time (the newest models can produce a small carafe, but we don't yet know how well they'll sell).

In this, a Keurig is a bit like a microwave, which made individual dinners practical.  On leftover night, the family can't really eat together because each person's choice has to queue for the microwave.  It's no surprise that whole-family dinners are becoming progressively more rare.

But think of the advantages!

Helen Parr (Elastigirl): You've hardly touched your food.

Violet: I'm not hungry for meatloaf.

Helen: Well, it is leftover night. We have steak, pasta. What are you hungry for?

- from The Incredibles

Have a picky eater?  The microwave can produce whatever they want, with a minimum of fuss and next to no preparation time.  The Keurig does the same for hot beverages - even the starter kit that comes with a new Keurig contains tea, coffee, decaf, hot chocolate, cider, and many other delectables.

Americans can now have what they want, when they want it, almost immediately, without regard for or interference in what anyone else might like.  A Keurig is a monument to individual choice and personal liberty which can be enjoyed without any concern for other people.

This seems like it ought to be good, but it might not be.  Many writers have noted that Americans are more and more distant and disconnected from each other, and polls show that Americans more divided politically than since polls began.

You might think it couldn't be the worst ever, after all, we aren't in the middle of a Civil War!  Yet Abraham Lincoln spoke at length about the commonality of Americans both North and South:

All thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it... Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Can we say that today?  Americans certainly no longer pray to the same God.  Even among those who read the Bible, there are dozens of different versions in use.  Goodness knows, all sorts of different political groups invoke the aid of different gods against their opponents, many of whom are doing the same in reverse.

Where's the common ground?  Maybe it would help if we still had common grounds?  If we can't even agree on what coffee to drink with our friends, well, we're pretty much out of practice in forging consensus.  Let the disputing begin!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
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