Love them or hate them, K-Cups have revolutionized the wake we make coffee.
They’re super-practical, always produce a great brew and are now available in a whole range of different varieties.
The problem for some people is they end up stockpiling a whole pile of pods – and then you inevitably find yourself asking the question, do K-Cups expire?
If you’re one of the millions of K-Cup drinkers and you’ve ever wondered about this, we have all the answers for you here – and a whole lot more.
What is a K Cup?
By 2013, it is estimated that one in five American households owned a Keurig machine. Nowadays, it’s probably closer to one in three. However, for the benefit of those who still don’t know what we’re talking about, what is a K-Cup (1)?
K-Cups are the pods from the original single-dose coffee maker, the Keurig. These were originally conceived of as a solution to the awful coffee people were used to drinking in offices that would sit in a pot all morning, stewing and becoming bitter.
The idea was that whenever you wanted a cup of coffee, you popped a pod into the machine and it served you a fresh, steaming brew every time. Although they were originally made for office use, their popularity meant a home version was soon produced.
If you own a Keurig, check out this video of tips on how to use it.
Keurig machines and K-Cups have not been without controversy. Such has been their success that they are now a serious ecological concern since the single-use pods are non-recyclable. The majority of the literally billions of K-Cup pods used every year end up in landfills (2).
Check out this amusing video protesting about Keurig’s contribution to global plastic pollution.
What is a Best Before Date?
Before we talk about K-Cups in particular, we need to explain and clarify a few terms. When you buy food, you may have seen labels like “sell by date”, “use by date” and “best before date”. What exactly do they all mean?
Here is a brief summary:
It is worth noting that in the US, these dates are not required by law and stores are not legally obliged to remove items from their shelves once the date has passed. Specific laws also vary from state to state (3).
In the case of K-Cups, the important one here is the “best before date” as that is what you will find on the pod.
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Can you drink K-Cup after the Best Before Date?
Since the best before date is simply a recommendation, the short answer to this question is that it perfectly safe to use a K-Cup pod after this date.
The date on a K-Cup pod means that the roaster guarantees the quality and flavor of the coffee up to that date. After that, you can still drink the coffee – and it may still taste exactly the same for some time afterwards – but after that point, the roaster is no longer responsible for the quality.
In fact, when one food safety blogger contacted Keurig about this question, this is more or less what the company replied. Keurig stated that it was simply a guideline for maximum freshness – suggested by the roaster – and not an expiration date (4).
This means if you have a stock of old K-Cup pods, you should have no problems if you continue to use them after the best before date.
Furthermore, due to the way the coffee is sealed in the pods, coffee in K-Cups will remain fresh and tasty for much longer after passing the best before date than regular coffee beans or pre-ground coffee.
The next question is, how long after the best before date do they last before going stale and producing bad coffee? Before we answer that, we need to have a look at the basics of what happens to coffee beans during and after roasting and after grinding.
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What happens to coffee after roasting?
If you take unroasted coffee beans and try to make a drink with them, you will end up with nothing much more than a cup of hot, tasteless water. The magic happens when beans are roasted as that’s when all the aromas and flavors are created.
We don’t need to go too deep into the science here, but it is important to understand the basics of what is going on when coffee beans are roasted to understand how long they can be kept (5).
When coffee beans are roasted, a lot of carbon dioxide is formed. After roasting, the beans begin to release this CO2, rapidly for the first few days and then more slowly.
The process by which coffee goes stale is oxidization, and the carbon dioxide present after roasting protects the beans from this process. However, once most of the CO2 has dissipated, even in an airtight container, oxidization begins, and the beans start to go stale.
For the first three or four days after roasting, coffee beans contain too much CO2 to be suitable for making coffee; then oxidization begins after around two weeks, giving an upper limit on the beans’ life.
This means roasted beans are only in their optimal condition for a period of around a week to 10 days.
Grinding beans increases the surface area of the coffee exponentially, allowing oxidization to occur at a much faster rate. Ground coffee begins to deteriorate from around only a minute after grinding.
Crucially, once beans have been roasted, there is very little you can do to increase their lifespan since the release of CO2 and the onset of oxidization is inevitable in normal circumstances. And this is where K-Cup pods have a big advantage.
Coffee is packed into K-Cup pods using a special process where the pod is flushed with nitrogen, eliminating all oxygen in the pod. Without oxygen, oxidization cannot occur and so the coffee, even in its ground state, will stay fresh for much longer than would otherwise be the case.
This is the reason coffee in K-Cup pods stays fresh for far longer than roast coffee beans or ground coffee in traditional packaging.
So how long after the Best Before Date can you still drink a K-Cup?
Ok, so we’ve done the science bit so now onto the big question is: exactly how long do they keep? Remember, we’re not talking about safety – there should be no danger, however old a pod is – we’re talking about the flavor. How long after the best by date are they still good to drink?
The answer to this question depends on several factors, including how you store the pods (see below) and your personal taste and sensitivity. Assuming your pods are stored correctly, K-Cups can retain their flavor for anything from six months to over a year after the best before date.
There is no hard-and-fast rule for this, but if your coffee is passed the date, just brew it and see. There is no danger and the worst that can happen is your coffee will taste bad and you might end up tipping it away. Perhaps just avoid serving expired coffee to guests!
Also note that we have implicitly been focusing on coffee pods. K-Cups are now available for tea, hot chocolate and other drinks and these beverages tend to last even longer than coffee.
When NOT to drink a K-Cup
There is one very important exception to the rule that K-Cups remain safe to drink pretty much indefinitely: if the seal has been broken, you should NOT use the pod.
The pods are sealed to prevent light, air and moisture from entering and this is why they remain fresh for so long. If the seal is broken, moisture can enter, which may cause the coffee to go moldy. Moldy coffee can make you sick; if the seal is broken, discard the pod and use another one.
How to extend the life of K-Cups
K-Cup pods will eventually go stale but storing them correctly can help maximize their lifespans. Oxidization is caused by the presence of oxygen and is accelerated by moisture, light and heat.
By storing your pods away from direct sunlight and in a place that is not subject to fluctuations in temperature, you can ensure that they will retain their optimal flavor for the longest possible amount of time.
Do K-Cups expire? Yes and no – and we hope you now have a fuller understanding of the answer to this question. Perhaps the best thing would be to drink them well before they reach the best before date. Why would you leave good coffee sitting in a cupboard for two years anyway?
Do you have a Keurig machine? What are your favorite K-Cup coffees? Or do you think they’re an environmental disaster? Have you ever used a really old pod? How did it taste? Please leave us a comment as we love hearing from you – and if you liked our article, please don’t forget to share!