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Jacqueline Young-Sterling didn’t anticipate any problems with the pour-over coffee maker at her office – even if it meant her colleagues had to weigh out 15 grams of coffee and 300 grams of water on a digital scale every time they wanted to use a machine that only makes three cups at a time.

Compliantia, the Toronto retail-software company where Young-Sterling is marketing director, had started with a Nespresso pod machine. But they found the recycling effort too much and the price too high. So Young-Sterling, a former pastry chef and the office “coffee snob,” had been tasked with finding a replacement.

“I chose pour over for its cost savings (15 to 20 cents a serving, versus $1.25 for the pods), environmental benefits and ease of cleanup compared to a French press,” she said.

But the rest of the office wouldn’t touch the machine.

After the pour-over failure, they switched to a Jura XS90. The one-touch espresso machine, which retails for about $3,800, can foam milk. But the 10 employees just make Americanos because no one wants to clean the foam wand. Young-Sterling, who says that even the automatic espresso maker requires calibration every day, now keeps a hand grinder and AeroPress at her desk.

Although caffeine is often seen as an essential part of the workday, “office coffee” has long been a punchline, expected to be of poor quality. Today, once a company has at least 30 employs, they can contract out coffee service for between seven cents and $1.10 a cup. Compared with raising wages, that’s relatively little money for something seen by employees as a nice benefit.

“It’s a perk in the workplace,” said Danielle van Jaarsveld, associate professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business. “In the broader sense, it sends a signal that we value our work force.

Still, consumer tastes can be quite different, and if people don’t like the coffee, there’s little benefit in providing it, van Jaarsveld added. “With any perk, if it’s not appreciated by the employee, it’s not going to have the same motivational effect than if it was.”

It’s tricky, because everyone thinks they have good taste.

“Most people think they are connoisseurs – and very few are,” said Joel Jacobs, general manager of Canada Coffee, a company that has supplied offices since 1987.

Before the 1980s, offices that provided coffee had home percolators or just a kettle and a jar of instant. When the office coffee-supply industry (which has grown into a billion-dollar sector in North America) started in the early eighties, it generally supplied drip machines.

But by the 1990s, companies wised up to the idea that employees running outside for coffee meant lost productivity – and providing good coffee was a relatively low-cost effort.

“In the nineties, people became interested in quality coffee,” Jacobs recalled. “We had studies for how much time people spent out of the office for coffee. And at first, clients didn’t care. But I think at the same time as coffee culture was developing, HR was becoming more sophisticated. All of a sudden companies became aware of the productivity issue.”

Over time, demand went up for fancy coffees and appliances that can steam milk. Self-cleaning machines have eliminated much of the resentment over dirty office kitchens, part of the “office housework” that women disproportionately take responsibility for, according to Men and Women of the Corporation author Rosabeth Moss Kanter. But the quantum leaps have been from percolator to drip to single-serve pods, with Keurig dominating the market in North America and Nespresso elsewhere. (Jacobs says Nespresso machines make good cups of coffee that are simply too small for North Americans.)

The pods present a solution to the issue of taste. They come in an endless variety of flavours, so you never have to subject the whole office to a pot of your hazelnut decaf. But they’re more expensive. And they introduce new environmental concerns: Nespresso and Mars pods have to be taken to a separate location for recycling, and only some flavours of Keurig’s K-Cups are currently compostable.

“Its not hard to make a delicious and ethically sourced coffee on a larger scale in an office environment,” said Dean Petty, co-founder of Anchored Coffee, a single-origin, unblended coffee roaster in Dartmouth, N.S.

“It takes a bit more of an initial investment, but there are big savings down the road, not to mention creating less waste. Offices seem to want ‘easy,’ but I would wager that if some education went into informing people about the coffee that they are drinking and better brew methods, people would step up and take the two extra minutes it takes to actually grind and brew a fresh pot of coffee.”

Drip machines are seen by some as a greener solution. But it’s hard to know if a pot was brewed five minutes or an hour ago. As a result, Jacobs said, people in offices routinely throw out fresh pots, so about 25 per cent to 35 per cent of drip coffee goes down the drain.

Van Jaarsveld, who keeps a French press at her desk, said an office manager needs to take a democratic approach to coffee: “You should survey your employees to get a sense of what the majority of people prefer.”

Matthew Slutsky did just that. But he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – believe what they told him: They preferred Tim Hortons coffee to Starbucks. When the office percolator was stocked with Starbucks grounds (Slutsky’s preference), his employees went through a pound a day but complained all the same, saying they hated it. After polling the staff at BuzzBuzzHome, his real estate database company in Toronto, Slutsky switched to Tim Hortons coffee, but soon found that consumption was down, with half-finished pots being thrown out.

He tried Kirkland and McCafé. But they weren’t drinking it. So he secretly replaced the McDonald’s coffee in the office kitchen with Starbucks to see if his staff noticed.

If this scheme seems far-fetched yet familiar, that’s because it was the premise of a long-running 1980s ad campaign by Folgers. In the commercials, Reaganesque actor Brian Clark invited us into the kitchens of world-famous restaurants (Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Tavern on the Green), where floppy-hatted chefs “secretly replaced” their coffee with Folgers crystals, followed by a series of “candid” reactions from enthusiastic diners who preferred the instant coffee.

The TV spots, relics of the hidden-camera testimonial era of advertising, always seemed a bit ridiculous. But they playfully targeted a human failing common to coffee enthusiasts: our taste versus our perception of taste.

Once Slutsky secretly switched back to Starbucks, consumption immediately doubled.

“I don’t remember a time in our office that the coffee maker was used so much, throughout the entire morning and afternoon,” Slutsky said. “There was always a fresh pot. And there was never coffee left in the pot for more than 20 minutes.”

However, the experiment ended after a couple of days, when employees found the empty Starbucks bags. After discovering the subterfuge, they immediately reverted to complaining about the taste.

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