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What will Keurig do next?

With important patents set to expire, the Reading company is scrambling to lock up its top spot in the coffee firmament. It won’t reveal its plans, but here are possible advances to look for:

Supersizing

A Keurig brewer can make up to a 12-ounce cup of coffee, but if you like a strong cup, you’re wise to choose a smaller size. That creates a mismatch with the way many Americans like to drink coffee. Keurig’s largest serving is equivalent to the smallest size sold at McDonald’s and Starbucks. There’s not much the company can do about that until it redesigns its technology. There’s no way to cram any more coffee into the existing K-Cups. The company acknowledges some consumers would like to use their machines to fill a large travel mug, so a new brewer might just accommodate larger K-Cups.

More varieties

Keurig already offers more than 200 varieties of K-Cups, and the range goes well beyond coffee and tea to include hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and energy drinks. What else could they try? They’re said to be working on an espresso maker, and lattes and cappuccinos would be an easy add-on. It would just require incorporating a little powdered milk or frothing agent into the K-Cups. Keurig execs are also impressed by how well hot cider has done, and it’s a reasonable bet their secret research and development facility is stockpiled with various kinds of dried fruit that might make a tasty addition to the lineup.

K-Cup o’ Soup?

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In theory, any product you make by adding hot water could be adapted to work in a Keurig. “Soup is kind of an obvious [choice],” says Scott Van Winkle, managing director of the investment firm Canaccord Genuity, suggesting that a slightly modified brewer would be great for making, say, instant soup broth. On the surface, that may seem crazy -- why wouldn’t you just microwave the water? -- but that wisdom ignores the fact that Keurig’s success is largely based on the notion that another ridiculously simple procedure (brewing coffee) is too complicated. Van Winkle also sees a market for therapeutic products, such as perhaps a drinkable version of Airborne, the herbal and vitamin supplement whose marketer has claimed it helps ward off colds. In the meantime, Businessweek reported that Keurig competitor Nespresso recently unveiled a version of its machine that serves up warm infant formula.

Getting greener

Keurig is aware that its non-recyclable K-Cups make some of its consumers feel guilty, yet its own research suggests the percentage of customers who worry about this is very small. Regardless, the company has spent years addressing this problem. It already sells a product called My K-Cup that lets people spoon regular coffee into a reusable pod -- it eliminates the trash problem, but also the convenience that is Keurig’s biggest selling point. Keurig has also experimented with paper-based pods (they’ve performed poorly) and launched a pilot program where offices collect used K-Cups and ship them back for recycling, much the way most companies now recycle print cartridges. That’s a pricey solution for customers, however, and one that’s only appealed to a small number of companies.

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