The bane of any espressophile’s existence are those highly popular, cute little capsules of pre-ground coffee known as pods, which completely remove all elements of craft from the espresso-making experience. The argument goes, that you might was well robotize a chef or replace an artisan with a machine if you’re thinking about replacing the barista with a pod. The nuances and variables at work in making a good espresso are still well beyond the systematization and scientific control that pods profess to offer.
While there is wealth of well-established anti-pod reasoning that is replicated across the internet, I still feel somewhat obliged to inform and mildly proselytize against the espresso abomination that pods represent, primarily because they are so popular and increasingly wide-spread. A quick summary of the major strikes against pods is as follows:
- The coffee contained within is pre-ground and often quite old. Even in its hermetically sealed, oxygen free state, coffee ages rapidly and the coffee in pods can’t compare to a comparable freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.
- The quality of the coffee inside pods is rarely on par with the world’s better coffees. Perhaps it’s a chicken and egg problem – customers demanding higher quality shop elsewhere lessening the demand for higher quality coffee. But even if you suddenly saw Intelligentsia beans in a pod (God forbid), the quality would be less as per item 1.
- Pods can’t account for the tremendous number of variables involved in making good espresso. Espresso is a fickle beast and takes great care and attention. Pods have done a lot to remove the worst offenses from the process but don’t allow someone to coax out the best.
- Pods are expensive and produce even more waste than the typical espresso. At 50 cents or more a shot, pods get expensive and the packaging is troubling from an environmental perspective (not that coffee isn’t already a little troubling in this regard already – just look up water consumption and energy involved to make a cup of coffee).
Still, there must be some appeal to pods, right? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be such a hot commodity. The bottom line is that pods are often an improvement given that home espresso is an undertaking that rarely produces a worthwhile outcome except amongst the most committed and obsessive individuals out there. And heck, there are a lot of cafes and providers of “coffee”, where the final product is pretty poor. Pods standardize and idiot-proof the process of espresso-making for those who haven’t, can’t or won’t give the time, equipment or training investment need to get good espresso.
But even if pods have some redeeming value, they hardly seem to produce the type of coffee that this blog sets to seek out. My limited pod experience with an occasional Keurig in an hotel room or with free samples of Nespresso at Williams-Sonoma certainly leave me wanting something more. What I needed, though, was an official, blog-worthy single sampling of pod coffee that would allow me either to make a hasty generalization that all pods are bad, or otherwise rock my world with the realization that I had been unfairly dogmatic towards these capsules of suspended coffee grounds. Nespresso bills itself as an elite product and garners much praise (and ridicule) in the pod world and seemed a suitable target for my sampling. After all, George Clooney shills serves as Nespresso’s “brand ambassador.” This is a man so rich that he could hire his own barista. If he’s endorsing the product, then it’s got to be good, right?**
I therefore headed to ritziest location I could think of – the Upper East Side Nespresso cafe Boutique, which is surely one of the most expensive pieces of coffee real estate known to man. Situated right on Madison avenue, the cafe is vast compared to most New York City cafes, which should signal something about the economics of this particular business. You have to wonder whether the combined food and beverages sales come even close to paying for the rent. Indeed, the back half of the shop is a showroom and demo area. The goal of this operation appears to be to get a Madison Avenue demographic to buy a machine, which then locks you in to the use of Nestle’s line of proprietary pods, which don’t work on other pod machines. It’s the old “give them the razor so they buy the blades.”
I stepped inside and sat down at the bar with my nephew who promptly ordered a hot chocolate. That drink was actually quite good – using two kinds of real chocolate – so long as you don’t mind paying over $5 for a 5 oz drink. In fact, high prices seemed to be the theme as I glanced through the menu at the 16 different espresso pod options. A pod shot costs either $4 or $4.50, which is a bewildering figure when the going rate for espresso at most New York cafes is $2-3. That’s an even more bewildering gap when you consider the waiter at the Nespresso store merely drops a capsule into a machine. That $2-3 espresso at another cafe includes a barista (hopefully) grinding and pulling your shot.
The menu consists of 16 pod options or “Grand Crus”: seven standard blends; three “pure origin” coffees; three blends specifically designed for Lungo, or long shots; and three decaffeinated blends. Why it is that Nestle calls these options “Grand Crus” is a bit of a mystery since the term refers to the region or terroir of the land from which a coffee (or more often wine) comes. Since most of these options are blends, which consist of coffees from different areas, a single pod doesn’t really relate to a single Grand Cru. Then again, many of the pod names are confusingly named after a mix of tempo markings (Arpeggio), geographic locations (Livanto) and styles, not blends, of espresso (Ristretto).
After all that menu critiquing, I opted for the Rosabaya Pure Origin. As single origin coffees are often finicky, this may not have been the most fair test of Nestle’s espresso, but for some reason, the description of this coffee attracted me more than the others. It was also pricier and seemed like one that should be pretty easy to tell if it arrived as promised. Besides, I wrote to Nespresso to give them an opportunity to guide me through their coffees. They wrote back that I’d be welcome to stop in to any store and try them myself, or possibly arrange for a guided visit with an individual store on my own. I therefore figured that I was entitled to whatever customer intuition I had. I apparently haven’t yet achieved George Clooney status.
The results? I have to say, up front, that this was not the terrible espresso I was bracing for. It had a syrupy mouthfeel and certainly the promised winey notes along with some cocoa and a slightly sour tone. The crema was thin and light, but endured reasonably well. It wasn’t quite as off-colored as it appears in the photo above, which was taken under the red, bar-area lighting. It was a decent, if slightly flat-flavored shot with a slightly musty aftertaste that had me debating whether to give it a 3- or simply a 2+.
All in all, this espresso wasn’t bad and I’d gladly drink a shot of this over much of the so-called espresso out there. But the $4.50 price is inexcusable given the lack of work involved in making it. In the right context (maybe an office, home or a gas station), I’d probably drink it again, but I can’t recommend the cafe. And, if this shot is indicative of pod quality more broadly, then I’d say that human-made espresso is still very, very safe.
**Oh wait. George Clooney was getting paid for his adds, has no obvious credentials as someone knowledgeable about coffee, and he signed up for a string of commercials that would only be shown in Europe.