Convenience First: Espresso Pods and Capsules
It is no surprise that over the last decade the more moneyed elements of the coffee industry have been trying to figure out how to simplify espresso brewing to the point that a consumer can produce a properly rich, smooth-tasting espresso shot without struggling through a complicated process that can be as daunting as upgrading to Vista or assembling a glass-fronted display case from Ikea. Given that the challenge of espresso brewing has produced an entire profession (barista), not to mention a quantity of detailed books (including one of mine), people who simply want to turn out a palatable cappuccino with minimum research and hassle understandably search for short-cuts.
There are the automatic espresso machines of course, noisy little robots that grind the beans, measure (in espresso-speak, "dose") the ground coffee, compress (tamp) it, and drive hot water at hopefully the optimum temperature and pressure through the compacted bed of coffee, netting a more or less decent serving (shot) of espresso. However, these automatons need to be adjusted, calibrated, cleaned regularly, and generally fussed over or they will tend to produce the same watery junk that typically greets novices when they first attempt to use an ordinary espresso machine and grinder.
Hence the subject of this review article: espresso pods, capsules and discs. The idea here is supply the consumer with little objects containing coffee already perfectly measured, ground and tamped so that nothing more is demanded than to slip one of these little objects into the right machine, push a button, and out comes that perfect, crema-seething, richly aromatic espresso shot. And then, well, toss that little spent object in the trash (compost in some cases) and carry on. No need to repeatedly bash the coffee-holding thing with the handle (portafilter) on the edge of the compost pail to extract the spent wad of ground coffee before admitting failure and digging it out with a spoon.
Note that we are reviewing single-serve, pod- and capsule-based espresso brewing systems here. By espresso we mean a basic serving of about one ounce of full-bodied, crema-rich concentrated coffee, often combined with hot frothed milk, produced by forcing hot water under pressure through a compacted bed of ground coffee. The excellent Keurig capsule system and other pod-based systems designed exclusively to produce taller cups of American- or European-style black coffee were not considered for this article. The Tassimo system was included in our reviews only because it claims to produce espresso as well as other hot beverages.
What about the Espresso?
Altogether, we brewed and tasted the production of thirty different espresso blends offered in four different pod, capsule and disc formats:
The standard ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) paper pod. A standardized 7 grams of ground espresso is compressed inside a two-sided, disk-shaped paper pod. Think of a puffy teabag on steroids. This is an open system; any roasting company with access to one of the special machines that grinds and packs ESE pods can produce them.
The Nespresso metal capsule. In this case the 7 grams of ground espresso is enclosed inside a gleaming aluminum capsule shaped like a tiny bucket. Only Nespresso produces these capsules, and they can be used only with a dedicated Nespresso machine (we used the D290).
The new IllyCaffe proprietary plastic capsule, also bucket-shaped but more complicated in design, which we tested in a special, dedicated version of the Illy FrancisFrancis! espresso machine called iperEspresso X7.
Tassimo T Discs brewed on a matching Tassimo brewing device manufactured by Bosch. The Tassimo is a total beverage system with discs dedicated to the production of a wide variety of beverages: Europeanized drip-style coffee; espresso; espresso-and-milk drinks; tea; hot chocolate. Perhaps owing to engineering compromises occasioned by an aim for total beverage versatility, the pure espresso shots we produced from the Tassimo system were not particularly impressive.
Regrettably perhaps, the Lavazza Espresso Point capsule system and its blends were not included in our reviews.
A Few Conclusions
Here, in no particular order, are some conclusions we reached from our tasting.
Anyone interested in the very best and freshest espresso with the greatest variety of choice at the most reasonable cost should forget about pods, capsules and discs and learn how to use a good conventional home espresso machine and grinder.
On the other hand, all of these systems except the Tassimo produced decent to good, occasionally outstanding, espresso and were very, very easy to use.
Freshness of the coffee could be one of the most important issue determining differences in quality among the various blends we tested. Two of the three 90-or-over-rated blends showed evidence of having been packaged less than a month before we tasted them, whereas many of the Italian ESE pods in their little nitrogen-flushed envelopes may have been months old. My experience is that sophisticated packaging can only go so far in protecting coffee once the beans have been broken into a virtual powder and temporarily exposed to the atmosphere before packaging. None of the blends we tasted revealed the woody or cardboardy taste that is the sure sign of oxidation or staling, but I suspect most were at least partially faded in flavor and aromatics.
Those who feel that massive, seething crema or brewing froth is a crucial mark of fine espresso will not be pleased by the output from most of these systems. ESE pods on the FrancisFrancis! brewer and the Nespresso capsules both produced a dense and lasting, though rather thin layer of crema. The Tassimo produced almost no crema whatsoever. Only the new Illy iperEspresso system and its complexly designed plastic capsule produced classic crema, with the coffee materializing out of a cloud of churning golden froth. This spectacle may be mainly a feat of engineering, since the new Illy capsule consists of seven different components, including at least one clearly designed to promote crema formation through aeration.
Buyers of pod and capsule systems are stuck with the Italian definition of espresso: In other words, a 20- to 30-second extraction produced from 7 grams of ground coffee. Those interested in the escalating game among American aficionados and high-end caffes of ever larger doses of coffee and longer extractions to produce dense, tiny servings cannot play that game with pods or capsules. We were surprised, however, by the sometimes substantial control over length of extraction we were able to achieve by varying the pressure applied to the pod during loading into the FrancisFrancis! ESE pod machine. With most pods, the more pressure you exert when you tighten the portafilter (again, the thing with the handle that has the pod stuck inside) the more compressed the pod and the slower the extraction. If the volume of the shot is the same, about one ounce, slower extraction in general produces better espresso, though some blends seem to respond to somewhat shorter extractions by displaying less bitterness or roughness in texture and more distinct aroma and flavor notes.
Pod and capsule brewing is relatively expensive. Those reviewed here range in cost from between 41 cents per pod for the 91-rated Island Joe's ESE pod to a high of about 86 cents per pod for the Aguas Claras Brazilian pod. Building in some accomodation for coffee spilled on the counter, out-of-calibration grinders and what-not, conventional espresso brewing using a very good specialty blend probably costs the average user around 35 cents per equivalent serving.
Pod and capsule brewing is not particularly environmentally friendly. Although ESE pods are easily composted or recycled as green waste, paper and all, they are protected by individual foil envelopes that are not recyclable. Nespresso capsules are made of aluminum, but do not appear to be consumer recyclable. Nespresso claims to have set up collection points for pod recycling in Switzerland, but to my knowledge none exist in North America. Neither the complicated new IllyCaffe iperEspresso capsule nor the T Disc appears to be consumer recyclable.
The ESE Pods
The paper-clad ESE pods are marginally the least expensive of the four formats and offer by far the most variety in blend and brand.
If it were possible to simply use a standard home espresso machine with these pods, their advantages would be even more striking. One then would have the option of using pods during busy moments, for example, and producing shots the conventional way at more leisurely times. However, it appeared to us, based on some admittedly very limited experiments, that to get best results from ESE pods one needs a brewing device dedicated to using those pods. We had poor results from two good conventional espresso machines fitted with pod adaptors, for example, but very good results from a relatively inexpensive home machine dedicated to using ESE pods (the IllyCaffe FrancisFrancis! X6; $400).
ESE Quality and Distinction
Of the twenty ESE pods we tasted, sixteen were roasted and packaged in Italy, where I take it a robust market exists for espresso pods. Two pods showed up from Brazil, both from the same farm and roaster, and two from small American specialty roasters. Four of the Italian pods were from large companies with international presence: Illy, Segafredo, and Lavazza. The others were from smaller companies well established in Italy but not much heard from in the United States.
As I indicated earlier, I suspect that some of the Italian pods were a bit long in the tooth, or long in the package, with subtly faded aromatics. The Illy pods produced versions (both rated 89) of the refined 100% Arabica Illy blends as good as or better than I've managed from the same blends in conventionally brewed whole-bean formats, but both the Lavazza GranCrema (87) and the Segafredo Espresso Casa (87) were disappointing. I was hoping for an outstanding Italian robusta-centered blend that would bring some excitement and controversy to these reviews, but none came close to the syrupy, rich, carnal distinction generated (for me at least) by the 93-rated Segafredo Massimo blend I sampled using conventional espresso equipment in one-kilo whole-bean format in August of 2007.
On the other hand, the two blends from small American specialty roasters, the Island Joe?s 90 Mile Stretch Espresso (91) and the Supreme Bean (88) were both impressive, in part perhaps because they were fresher than their overseas counterparts. The Island Joe's in particular stood out. The grind in the pod was perfect, netting a 26-second shot with all the fundamental sensory virtues of a fine straight espresso: viscous mouthfeel, natural sweetness, great depth of sensation. However, how much of this success was owing to the fact that the pod was fresh, perhaps only a week or two past grinding and packaging? Espresso beans straight out of the roaster are far too volatile and seething with off-gassing of carbon dioxide to make good espresso, but once the espresso is ground and packaged I strongly suspect that sooner is better for consumption.
The Nespresso System
Quality of production from the D290 Nespresso machine and its proprietary metal capsules was impressive overall, with ratings varying from a high of 91 to a low of 87.
As a personal aside, I find it remarkable that a huge, cumbersome corporation like Nestle managed to pull off a project so creative in its total impact: great visual design, outstanding blend design, solid engineering and manufacturing, and impressive marketing and positioning, not to mention the first steps in a sustainable coffee initiative. All of the Nespresso blends we tasted were distinctively different, all were interesting, and none were complete duds. I suspect mild oxidation of the coffee during and after packaging was the only impediment to consistently exceptional sensory performance. The 91-rated Ristretto blend particularly impressed. It contains a small quantity of African robusta roasted separately from the other components, a touch which, combined with an East Africa component and the usual base of Brazil and Colombia, may be a key contributor to its distinction.
With the Nespresso system, however, you are enslaved to Nestle for your coffee. The currently available twelve Nespresso capsule blends are genuinely different and distinctive in blend character, but they certainly do not exhaust espresso expression. At a current cost of 55 cents per capsule they are cheaper than many pods and capsules but still no bargain.
The IllyCaffe iperEspresso and Tassimo Systems
IllyCaffe is heavily represented in the world of ESE pod espresso. It offers its three blends in the ESE format, and the Illy-branded FrancisFrancis! X6 brewer used for this review article is one of the best of the pod-only brewing machines. However, in 2007 it launched a more technically advanced capsule brewing system, the Metodo iperEspresso.
This system, as noted above, produces great-looking and fine-tasting espresso, but your choice in blend is severely limited - you can choose among the three Illy blends, one medium-roasted, one dark-roasted, and one decaffeinated. (The medium-roasted version also comes in a "lungo" version designed to brew a longer, 2-ounce serving.) The Illy capsules are also quite expensive (currently 76 cents each).
Finally, the Tassimo system. Regrettably, the espresso-oriented message here is simple: Don't buy it if you aspire to classic straight-shot espresso. The three espresso-recommended T Discs we tried produced listless, almost crema-less shots. On the other hand, if you want to produce a variety of decent hot beverages quickly and conveniently (small office? large family?) you might want to consider it and its wide-ranging array of beverage discs. The discs we reviewed cost around 50 cents each at this writing.
To conclude, here in tabular form is a summary of our ratings of espressos produced from thirty pod, capsule and disc blends. Note the narrow range of ratings for the non-Tassimo blends, neither exceptionally high nor dramatically low. What this narrow range suggests to me is that the consistency assured by pod or capsule brewing on a well-engineered machine plus the impact of quality assurance procedures necessitated by the technically demanding pod and capsule format assure a decent to good product, while compromises in freshness limit the possibility for even higher ratings. Number of Blends evaluated Highest rating Lowest rating Average rating ESE paper pods, Italian roasted and packaged 16 89 86 87 ESE paper pods, American roasted and packaged 2 91 88 90 ESE paper pods, Brazilian roasted and packaged 2 87 86 87 Nespresso espresso capsules 6 91 87 89 Tassimo T Discs recommended for espresso brewing 3 84 83 84 IllyCaffe iperEspresso capsule 1 90 90 90
Our sincere thanks to all of the companies that generously provided coffee and equipment for this article: PodMerchant, Italian Bean Delight, My Brazilian Coffee, Island Joe's Coffee, The Supreme Bean, Illy, Nespresso, Tassimo, Rancilio and Espresso Equipment Engineering.