Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Good article on capsule espresso systems in Coffee Review

Ken Davids has this excellent article comparing capsule-based home espresso systems from Starbucks and Keurig with Nespresso, the market leader. The short summary is there is no comparison - Nespresso remains the gold standard.

Where the article falls short, in my opinion, is in looking realistically at alternatives for the consumer who'd like to enjoy espresso-based drinks at home. Davids mentions a minimum ante of $700 for a home espresso set-up, but clearly a decent doser-grinder and a machine capable of producing the high pressure and precisely controlled temperatures required is going to cost more like 2-3 times that amount, plus of course entailing either previous training on commercial equipment or a lot of trial-and-error.

For the rare consumer who drinks primarily straight espresso it's probably worth it to just buy a small commercial machine and grinder, but for the other 98% who just want a tasty caffe latte or cappuccino in the morning there two time-tested alternatives that work a whole lot better. The first is a stainless steel stovetop espresso maker like this one:
Add a decent conical-burr grinder like Bodum's for around $100 and a stovetop milk frother ($40) and you have a simple, durable way to make very good drinks for under $200 total invested. Most people have no idea just how formidable a cup these stovetop machines can make. It takes attention and skill, but by using a fine (but not commercial espresso) grind, tamping the basket tightly (use a water glass) and above all watching the brewing like a hawk and turning the heat off once the coffee is flowing into the top (and long before it gets overheated) you can, with truly fresh (a week or less from roasting) coffee get results from one of these machines that are far superior to what you'll get out of any capsule machine, and better than a lot of espresso made on commercial machines by less-than-optimally-skilled baristas. 

For less hassle still, more versatility (since it makes superb drip-strength coffee as well) and lower costs, get an Aeropress ($25) and the same stovetop steamer. You can even get by with a blade grinder in this case, though a burr grinder is certainly superior. Using a heaping Aeropress scoop of beans per shot of espresso-strength coffee you can brew a very tasty cappuccino in minutes. 

Better still, take a chunk of the hundreds of dollars you just saved over both a true espresso machine and a lifetime of 70 cent a shot Nespresso mediocrity and invest it in a Behmor roaster and some great green coffee from Sweet Maria's. You'll soon be drinking better, fresher coffee than you can buy from almost any roaster-retailer, and at a fraction of the price. 


  1. Does it REALLY cost that much to make decent espresso at home in you are only making a few shots a day? You don't need a dosing grinder for home use, just one that grinds fine enough and consistent enough for espresso. I've been very happy for years with a $150 Baratza. And I get great espresso from my Gaggia Carezza that I bought, reconditioned, for $170. An ugly but very functional machine. It has a 58mm commercial-style marine brass portafilter and brew group that seem to really make a difference. That's $320 for, in my humble opinion, better espresso and cappuccino than I can find anywhere in my Philadelphia area. I did modify the Gaggia with a replacement steam wand to get rid of the pannarello wand ($20?) so I could froth decently. I've used both daily for about a decade now. What a bargain. Imagine what I've saved over a pod machine. I drink a double a day and make my wife a double cap, so 4 pods a day would really add up. Of course, I do roast my own coffee, which has costs, or buy fairly expensive coffee from local roasters ( I like "One Village" in my area) for about $14/pound. But I still think I've come out way ahead, cost-wise, and certainly ahead taste-wise. I've paid about $60 for new burrs and $12 for a new gasket for the Gaggia during this time, but other than cleaning, very little in maintenance for 10 years. I'll have to work out my true cost per shot over the last decade, but it is not high. I DO appreciate "stove-top" espresso, and have three different size pots, but it is a different animal, less complex and subtle than espresso, certainly if we are talking about American third-wave style.

  2. Kevin,
    Nice to see you back . . . I admit to checking your blog (it's bookmarked) every few days, hoping for a fresh brew, er, take on things coffee. But please don't get folks all over the country roasting and brewing their own: it's bad for my business ;)

    My take on all this: having tried to train and educate chefs and staff at some of the finest establishments in the Bay Area, I pretty much arrived at the conclusion that only a very few would ever produce a consistently good espresso. And those were the ones with some person in charge who truly paid attention to the details every day. I doubt we in the US will ever have anything approaching the level of coffee culture that Europe enjoys. I am heartened occasionally by the rare exception, a cafe that makes better coffee than I can at home. But yeah, for the most part, you're better off home brewing.

  3. Thanks Peter and Robert for your comments.

    Peter I think your setup sounds great, but most folks aren't nearly as mechanically-inclined and savvy as you are. Checking Sweet Maria's machine selection (I think they do a good job of testing the stuff they offer), the cheapest viable home espresso machine is $400 (Gaggia Baby), one with decent fit and finish is $500.

    Anyway, the capsule (not pod - that's a different and decidedly inferior beast) machines are certainly not for the enthusiast - or the connoisseur - or the cheapskate (I include myself in all three categories, to varying degrees). The reason I talked about the stovetop and Aeropress options was just to point out that you don't have to take on either the big bucks expenditure or the quite time-consuming learning curve required to make real espresso in order to have what most people want at home. I don't think it's any accident that Italians brew stovetop coffee at home and leave the espresso to the professionals at their neighborhood bar.

  4. I think manual cone drip and stovetop espresso are two very viable ways for people to get decent home coffee. A small learning curve for each but very inexpensive. I've noticed in Italy few people grind their coffee but buy preground high-end commercial stuff. So you don't even need a grinder to have the Italian experience. But no reason we Americans can't kick it up a notch and buy decent fresh whole beans and use decent burr grinders.

  5. As a follow up, this post from Sweet Maria's arrived in my in box just as I was finishing this blog post:

    This is business as usual for these guys, but if you're a home roaster you should be grateful and amazed to have coffees of this caliber available all the time. If you're a retailer, SM's precise descriptions and above all their Catholicity of taste are the gold standard to which we should all aspire.

  6. I know this is off topic, but I am curious on your opinion on the Starbucks reserves in the clover machines. Living in NYC and sick of overly acidic, under roasted beans they have actually been rather refreshing. My hipster buddies make fun of me for it, but, hey, I'm sick of watery sour coffee.

  7. Hi Patrick,

    The few times I've had Starbucks coffees made on the Clover I've been quite impressed with them, and they're certainly sourcing some excellent coffees for their reserve series. The other thing I'd look for in NY is authentic Italian espresso, which I know exists. I can't remember the name of the place I read about recently in the NY Times, but it sounded intriguing.

  8. Thanks for the response, Kevin. A quick search turned up that maybe the place I should swing by is "I am coffee". Will check it out, thanks!