Convenience-first single-serve coffee brewing devices are on a roll in North America, fueled by the success of the Keurig and its K-cup capsules. In Europe, where espresso rules, the Nespresso espresso system has had similar blockbuster success. Both systems use rigid capsules rather than tea-bag-like paper pods that characterized earlier (and less commercially successful) single-serve systems. As the capsule concept gains traction in the market and Nespresso expands its presence in the U.S., three new capsule systems focused on espresso have debuted here in the past year: the Starbucks Verismo, the Keurig Rivo, and a dark horse from Italy via Canada, the Singolo.
For this month’s article, we tested all three of these new systems, plus reviewed a range of espresso coffee produced by their little proprietary-design capsules. We benchmarked their achievement against the well-established diva of the category, the Nespresso system. See the end of this article for a tabular comparison of these four systems.
Generally, how did these four convenience-first systems match up? Experienced aficionado baristas working their own higher-end grinders and conventional espresso machines using quality coffees can do far, far better than any of these devices. However, the learning curve for producing good espresso on a conventional home machine is rather steep, so the appeal of a no-fuss capsule system for espresso is obvious.
Nevertheless, it appeared to us that these three new brewing systems and, above all, their matching coffees, could do considerably better for the consumer. Perhaps they will in the future. But at the moment, none of them, to put it sadly and bluntly, quite equaled the quality of coffee and range of coffee choice embodied in the long-established Nespresso system. Unfortunately for these new systems, Nespresso has had years to refine and perfect its system, and this experience shows, above all in the quality of the coffee in the capsules.
When You Buy the Machine, You Commit to the Coffee
Consumers interested in these capsule systems should keep in mind that when they buy the brewing device, they are committing to only using coffees supplied in compatible capsules by the company that sells the brewing device. This is an important point.
If we consider these three new espresso brewing devices separately from the coffees offered for them, they appear quite satisfactory. All produced a technically sound espresso shot on a consistent basis. The Singolo affords a particularly wide range of control of the length of the shot and the brewing temperature, but the shots produced by the other two devices appeared to fulfill both technical and sensory criteria for a solidly normative espresso shot.
But all three of the new brewing systems come with a truly paltry range of coffees: four choices for the Keurig Rivo, three for the Singolo, and three espressos (seven coffees overall) for the Starbucks Verismo.
On the other hand, does a limited coffee menu matter much to most American espresso drinkers? Perhaps not. The fact is, most North- American espresso drinkers take their espresso mixed with other stuff: above all with heated and frothed dairy, as well as with chocolate and other flavored syrups. Both the Verismo and the Rivo are clearly focused on satisfying those consumers who simply want a café in a box that is versatile yet easy to use, and who are not interested in exploring the world of straight-shot fine espresso, at least not at this point in their coffee lives.
The Starbucks Verismo
The Starbucks system is the most comprehensive of the three contenders in its café-in-a-box approach. It attempts to offer in automated capsule form versions of some of the most popular Starbucks café beverages: straight espresso, caffè latte, caffè Americano, and brewed coffee. The coffees selected for presentation in capsule form appear to offer a limited yet thoughtful range of characteristic Starbucks flavor profiles: a gently bright single-origin espresso (Guatemala Antigua) for straight-shot espresso drinkers; a version of the flagship Starbucks Espresso Roast for more robust straight shots and, in combination with a milk capsule, for a short caffè latte; a decaf espresso; and brewed coffees ranging from the medium-roasted Veranda Blend to the darker-roasted Pike Place Roast, House Blend and Caffè Verona.
The main issue we found with the Verismo was the uneven quality of the product in the capsules.
The capsule milk, a 2% butterfat milk powder that is reconstituted with pressurized hot water during brewing, was unequivocally wretched tasting: simultaneously chalky and watery. True, Starbucks got away with some serious flimflamming when it succeeded with Via, an instant coffee clearly inferior to much cheaper freeze-dried competitors, but it is hard to believe they will get away with the more obvious failing in these milk capsules.
Fortunately for those interested in the Verismo system, it is possible to buy a stand-alone milk frothing jug (Starbucks sells a good one for $59.95; the outstanding Aeroccino Plus frother from Nespresso lists at $99.00). We would definitely recommend the stand-alone frothing jug option for buyers of the Verismo system.
Returning to what’s inside the Verismo capsules, the Espresso Roast pods we received with our review unit were at best disappointing (we review them here at 80). They did not produce espresso nearly as rough, roasty and bittersweet as the espresso produced in a Starbucks caffè. The output of these capsules was faded and woody, either staled and/or produced from the same clean but tired green coffees that go into Starbucks supermarket offerings. So if the goal of the Verismo is to provide a Starbucks café-in-a-box, then the fundamental building block of Starbucks milk-based beverages, the Espresso Roast, needs some attention.
On the other hand, the Guatemala Antigua Espresso (reviewed here at 86) was delicate but pleasing, and the three brewed coffee capsules we tried (Pike Place Roast, Veranda Blend and Caffè Verona) produced seven ounces of solid Starbucks-style brewed coffee. These drip-style coffees are not reviewed here, but we did rate them at respectable capsule scores of 84 to 85.
A last caveat: We evaluated the two Verismo espresso blends using whole milk conventionally frothed on the steam wand of our La Marzocco machine; had we evaluated them using the Verismo milk pods our scores would have been two to three points lower than the ratings we publish here.
The Keurig Rivo
Although it aims at clarity and simplicity of function, the Keurig Rivo does not attempt to automate everything for the user as the Starbucks Verismo does. No milk pods and no built-in brewed coffee or Americano features. The coffee brewing function produces a solid 40ml/1.35-ounce espresso shot and a predictably thinnish 80ml/2.7-ounce lungo or long shot. (If you buy the Rivo and want more volume of espresso for a frothed milk beverage than a single shot can provide, we recommend that you run two regular shots rather than use the lungo option.)
For milk the Rivo offers an excellent, full-featured milk-frothing-and-heating jug that produces both cold and hot froth, and customizes the froth style for either a caffè latte or cappuccino. The froth for the cappuccino is outstanding: fine-textured and velvety. A very well-written-and-illustrated recipe booklet coaches users through production of a range of the most popular American café beverages using the Rivo system.
But, as with the Starbucks Verismo, the coffee quality could and should be much better. The Italian roaster Lavazza provides the four capsule blends; again, you can’t use any other coffee aside from this limited array of coffees. Lavazza produces what are, in my opinion, outstanding espresso Italian-style blends, including its flagship Qualità Rossa blend. But either the podding process and accompanying staling compromised the quality here, or Lavazza flops when it comes to producing all-Arabica blends for a presumed American taste. (The classic Lavazza espresso blends incorporate Robusta, very skillfully in my view). At any rate, we were not greatly impressed by the coffees in the Rivo pods; our ratings ranged from a high of 86 for the Espresso Delicato to 84 for the Espresso Intenso (both reviewed here) and 83 for the Espresso Classico.
A Dark Horse: the Singolo System
Finally, the Singolo system. Both machine and the three available coffee capsules are produced in Italy. The distributer is headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, with distribution in the United States.
Perhaps the main distinguishing feature of the Singolo system is its completely biodegradable capsules. In waste management districts like mine that accepts food scraps as well as yard trimmings, the entire Singolo capsule, shell, seal and all, can be tossed into the appropriate bin. Backyard composters may be frustrated, however, since according to Singolo the capsule requires up to a year to completely decompose in a home compost.
Turning back from composting to coffee, the Singolo system does not attempt to offer a café-in-a-box American style as do the Starbucks and Keurig systems. It is potentially an outstanding aficionado single-shot capsule brewer, however, because it gives the sophisticated user full control within a very wide range over brewing temperature and length of shot, two key parameters in espresso brewing.
But, regrettably, the coffee in the capsules may be even more limited and unsatisfactory for the Singolo than for the Verismo and Rivo. What American (or Canadian, or, I presume, Italian) aficionado would put up with the coffee in the three available Singolo capsules? Either because the coffee in the capsules was badly staled or there was too much faded green coffee in them, two of these blends (the Vigoré reviewed here at 79; the Toscano rated at 76 but not reviewed) were woody, salty, and generally empty of nuance. One of the three, the Verità (reviewed here at 85) showed depth and complexity, but we found the capsules we tested quite uneven, some dead and woody, others smooth and quietly lively. We could only conclude that the blending had not been performed thoroughly (the blend contains five origins) and we were responding to variations in the coffee from capsule to capsule.
In respect to frothed milk and the Singolo system, those who take their espresso with milk can, of course, buy one of the many excellent stand-alone milk frothing jugs available, including the Singolo version ($89.00), but at this writing there appears to be no way out of the disappointing coffee quality and the limited coffee selection.
Queen Nespresso Sails On
Which leaves the Nespresso system. Nespresso is doubtlessly cordially despised by many aficionados for its slick, spare-no-expense marketing and over-the-top visual presentation, but it remains without a doubt the class of its category. Put a bag over George Clooney’s head, scribble on the pretty little capsules and close down the snotty boutique caffès, but the quality and sound technical thinking that support this system still would be apparent. The blends all taste different, they taste better than their current competition, and there are more of them (sixteen, not counting three flavored selections). We review two of the sixteen non-flavored Nespresso blends here, the Ristretto at 89 and the Cosi at 87. The Nespresso U D50 brewer we tested offered both simple default shot length as well as flexible programmed shot length. The stand-alone milk frothing jug worked as well as any of the competing devices we have tried, including the excellent snap-in jug on the Rivo.
Capsules and Cost
A final note on cost. The capsule brewing devices reviewed this month range in price from around $200 up to $300. A milk-frothing jug adds $50 to $100 to that total (except for the $230 Rivo, which comes with a snap-in jug). That may sound like a lot of money for a coffee maker, but it is considerably less than the price of a really solid, dependable conventional home espresso machine and matching grinder, which taken together begin at, say, around $700 for a decent, well-made starter set up to astronomical for the best.
Of course, the coffee itself costs considerably more if you buy it in capsules rather than as whole bean. Depending on how good a coffee you buy and how much you tamp into your portafilter per shot, a good whole-bean espresso will cost anywhere from about 35 cents per serving through about 50 cents. The very finest and rarest espressos will cost more, of course.
On the other hand, capsules for the reviewed systems cost anywhere from $0.65 per capsule for most Nespresso selections up to $1.00 for the Starbucks capsules, or about 30% to 65% more than the cost of a good espresso blend purchased whole-bean.
Of course, to affect that savings you need to learn how to use the conventional equipment, plus spend a few extra minutes extra per day grinding, tamping and wiping grounds off your kitchen counter. Not a lot of attention and effort, but we are an impatient society, which suggests why there is a market for these automated capsule machines in the first place. The engineers who designed the machines did their work rather well; now the companies that support the machines need to get their coffee act together.
Starbucks Verismo; coffees by Starbucks
Tested model: Verismo System 580
Price tested model: $199.00
Number of coffees currently available in proprietary pods: Seven, three intended for espresso production and four intended for brewed coffee
Ratings (five tested)
Average price per capsule: $1.00
Frothed milk feature:
Milk pods (83 cents each) produce frothed milk in a separate step
Versatile drink production: produces espresso (1-ounce servings); brewed coffee (7-ounce servings); and one-touch Americano (1 ounce espresso plus 7 ounces hot water)
Consistent coffee production
The brewed coffee feature produces a sturdy coffee similar to Starbucks café production
One-touch Americano production
The proprietary milk pods produced hot frothed milk that to our palates was close to undrinkable
Limited number of compatible coffee capsules available at this writing; only three designed for espresso
Capsules currently are not recyclable in the United States, but may be in Canada and Europe