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Why Intelligentsia Coffee and its board decided to go K-Cup

September 16, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC
After 25 years in operation, Intelligentsia says it considers quality, consistency, and innovation when balancing the pressures to modernize and cater to an ever-increasing demand for convenience.
Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

Recently, Intelligentsia Coffee Inc., one of specialty coffee’s most pioneering and innovative brands, launched two types of K-cups for the new Keurig models. If you’ve tried Keurig coffee before, perhaps you’d agree it’s not the full-bodied cup of joe served at specialty cafés across the country. Specifically, the lightly roasted, methodically poured coffees from Intelligentsia.

So, why then would Intelligentsia pick K-cups as its next move? Demand.

America loves convenience, and coffee drinkers are no different. And while hesitant at first, curiosity led Intelligentsia’s expansion into the new format.

“[We thought], if we can get into the K-cup format with a cup of coffee that we’re proud of, it allows us to get in front of so many more customers and go back to the farmers we work with and buy a lot more coffee,” Intelligentsia’s CEO James McLaughlin tells Fortune. “For us, a lot of good comes from it.”

As leaders of what is considered the third wave of coffee, Intelligentsia prioritizes sourcing, paying a premium rather than a commodity price for its beans, and roasting with purpose. With retail products and 14 cafés across five cities, its coffee is meticulously calculated and full of flavor and nuance. Its name on a K-cup had to do the same. After seven years of thorough research, development, and collaboration with Keurig, Intelligentsia crafted a K-cup of which it and its board are proud.

From café to K-Cup

Since Intelligentsia was founded by Doug Zell and Emily Mange in 1995 in Chicago, it has empowered coffee drinkers to experience their morning coffee ritual in more reflective ways. And throughout the decades, the company has relied on innovation to pave that path. For example, its foray into the instant coffee resurgence or its Pasadena, Calif., location that recently transitioned to the Illumination Bar. There you’ll find an instant espresso component among other playful flourishes, like a machine called Wall-E that steams milk and a beaker on a magnetic stir plate that rehydrates a shot of espresso.

In 2015, Peet’s Coffee (a partner brand of Keurig Dr. Pepper) acquired a majority stake in Intelligentsia. Some loyal customers scoffed at this, but its core tenets remained the same. In fact, the board encourages and supports expansion and innovation within the limits of the Intelligentsia values, which sees quality as its North Star.

“We know who we are and what we want to be,” says McLaughlin on the pressures to evolve and modernize. “And as long as we have our values clearly defined as a brand, company, and organization, it makes conversations with the board or investors a lot easier.”

Intelligentsia Coffee’s Light Roast K-Cup Pods for Keurig brewers.
Courtesy of Intelligentsia

The K-cup discussion began after a study conducted by Peet’s revealed Intelligentsia customers—who are often discerning coffee intellects; hence the name—yearned for accessibility to a Keurig-type home brewing system. However, despite demand, consumers often offer a lot of opinions with a move like this. In the case of K-cups, apprehensions brewed over the quality of coffee made from this sort of mechanism, along with the environmental responsibility around K-cups. Intelligentsia’s board and innovators also posed those questions.

“We needed to have those answered before we felt comfortable launching this product or even partnering with Keurig,” McLaughlin admits, explaining they eventually found the sweet spot through years of work and research. “Ultimately, I think we produced a product that that is the best K-cup out on the market. Hands down.”

Innovating a commodity

Coffee is a commodity, after all. And innovating upon a common commodity takes a knack for doing what the consumer wants and/or knowing what the consumer doesn’t realize it wants. The third wave illustrated this: Rather than settling for an average drip coffee, it took drinkers through different terroirs and tastes, giving farmers fair prices, and celebrated roast.

Bailey Manson, Intelligentsia’s director of innovation, is reaching 10 years with the company. In college, he double-majored in Biblical studies and theology. And while those subjects aren’t directly applicable to his job title, they certainly inform how he approaches his work. “Specifically in Christian theology, you have to think in contradictions,” he says. “When it comes to topics like Intelligentsia and Keurig, for a lot of people that looks like a contradiction. But my background made [this partnership] exciting for me, because I could navigate it in a unique way.”

When Manson and his team first embarked into K-cup research and development, they quickly realized the types of coffee Intelligentsia uses in its cafés and retail didn’t perform well in a K-cup because Keurig has a limited brewing environment. “It’s percolation, like a V60 or a Chemex, but it’s a different bed shape, more like a Kalita Wave. It’s tiny, and the vessel for the cup becomes full of water, and that water is hotter than it would be in a manual pour-over,” Manson continues. “And the cup is under a small amount of pressure. And the whole brew happens very fast. And there’s no bloom. And you can only change the grind so much. And the grind quality is way better and more uniform than any home grinder or even commercial grinder in a coffee shop.”

Needless to say, getting there from a conception perspective wasn’t as convenient as the push of the button on the final product.

Earlier Keurig models used one needle for water flow, but the newer K-Supreme and K-Supreme Plus employs “MultiStream technology,” a system that directly stemmed from Keurig consumers seeking a stronger, fuller flavored cup of coffee. This technology was key in Intelligentsia’s K-cup journey. Rather than one needle, it uses five that “showers” hot water through the entire K-cup (instead of just the middle). “This results in a more even extraction of the coffee and a higher extraction yield overall,” Manson says. Extraction percentages are vital in coffee recipe development: Fruity and acidic notes are extracted first, followed by sweetness and balance, and finally bitterness. And while the pods fit in older models, they are best brewed in the newer versions with MultiStream tech.

Additionally, Keurig added QR codes to the K-cups, allowing the machine to reference individual brew specifications. “[Intelligentsia] prescribed a customized brew setting through brew time, temperature profile throughout the brew, and flow rate for each of their brand varieties to bring out the fullest flavor in every cup,” says Annie Oh, the vice president of Keurig Connected. The final K-cup is a consistently balanced, full-bodied brew inspired by a pour-over offered from any Intelligentsia brick-and-mortar. This, to the board, innovation team, and executive team, is the work of seven years.

“We’re still growing and we’re still getting our chance to introduce ourselves to the world and showcase what coffee can and should be,” McLaughlin says. “And whether you go into one of our coffee bars and have a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, if you take a bag of coffee home, or buy K-cups, you’re experiencing something different.”

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