29 Jul 2010

"Anyone for aN 'espresso?" - Machine made coffee seen through transparent glass

A short summer reflection: I've never thought about looking through a cup of espresso, or lungo, or americano, until this holiday. To my surprise the lungo is not always homogeneous (it shouldn't have been, however).

At the house we are exchanging for this summer, in the middle of Paris :), there is a Nespresso machine. At home, we have an rather ordinary/mainstream espresso machine, whereas Nespresso claims to give you a good cup of espresso or lungo without all the hassle: insert one of the many varieties of ready made coffe capsules, press the button, and you get a good(?) cup of espresso without the need for grinding, cleaning etc.

I'm not writing a commercial here, but the concept works quite nicely for our holiday cup of coffee:
  • The coffee is good/acceptable (but not exceptional)
  • it is very easy to use; no preparation, no cleaning, just press the button
  • you get a very reproducible result (same result every time)
Downsides are
  • lack of control, the machine is 100% pre-programmed, you can't tweak anything (it can actually be controlled, but I guess not practical on a day to day basis. Thanks, Priska, for the correction)
  • ecologically/environmentally poor solution (one aluminium capsule in the litter box for each cup of coffee). They've got collections points, but how many do in fact travel to a Nespresso collection point with their used capsules?
  • probably not possible to make the best possible cup of espresso (a compromise solution)
  • more expensive (I think); €0.33-0.40 /cup in Paris
The varieties
The three basic espresso drinks I meet in bars etc. are

espresso: hot water forced through espresso-type coffee (espresso grind, roasting etc.). Single espresso = ca. 30 ml.

lungo: double amount of water through the same amount of coffee as above. Results in a larger and less concentrated version.
How to make: make an espresso and press the button twice (or the "double-button")

americano: same amount of water as lungo, but the last shot is pure hot water. According to our barista friend Randi at Fugl Føniks, an americano will have larger volume and less concentrated flavour than a lungo since the latter has had all the water going through the coffee (and hence some water still left in the coffee)
How to make: make espresso, remove the coffee, add another shot of hot water

The point I'm making...
...came out when we made a lungo in small transparent glasses rather than porcelain cups. Some of the varieties came out with a concentrated layer at the bottom and a watered-out layer on top.
Lungo in a glass, made from a capsule of the "Capriccio" (green)
Nespresso variety. Note that the capsule is meant for 40 ml
espresso and is not a lungo (110 ml) capsule

There are 16 varieties/roastings available, and seemingly the stronger varieties came out as more homogeneous mixtures. Also, note the (unnaturally?) thick layer of crema. BTW, I recommend a great vlog post by Jim Hoffman on the pros and cons of crema.

The Nesperesso machines are quite cool looking,
almost as taken from a book by Jules Verne...

It's holiday, and I'm not that keen on doing lots of research. Evidently, the observation must at least have to do with degreee of extraction, roasting and grinding (amount of dry matter in the resultant coffee), density. Other factors as well, maybe, like temperature gradients etc.

My main point is that in a cup of coffe, there might be much more than meets the eye. Even though it's summer, I never stop being amazed over how many fascinating things lurk right under our noses.

Selected references on coffee
Blogs and coffee info
Jim Hoffman's coffee blog jimseven (Square mile coffee roasters, London)

Added July 30.:
Illy, Ernesto (2002). The complexity of coffee. Scientific American, 286(6), 86-91. (yes, it's the man, at least in family, and a free copy can be downloaded from here for as long as it lasts)

Coffee bars, producers etc.
Coffee collective (Copenhagen)
Fugl Føniks coffee bar
Tim Wendelboe (Tim Wendelboe, Oslo)


  1. Thinking like a scientist... :)

    I recently stumbled across your website when I became hooked on molecular gastronomy. For the past year, I have been maintaining a website dedicated to healthy eating, and now I plan on focusing on molecular gastronomy also. I look forward to reading your previous posts to learn more about molecular gastronomy. Thanks!

    -Earl Lee

  2. One additional downside: each capsule only contains 5,5 g of coffee. Compare that with the 14-16 g of coffee you would typically use in a portafilter. Guess who saves a lot of money on selling you as little coffee (but as many capsules) as possible...

    But I agree that Nespresso is convenient... But an Aeropress is also quite convenient :)

  3. Earl: thanks and good luck.

    Martin: agree. However, if most people (whoever that might be) are content with a cup made from 1/3 of the amount coffee it raises interesting issues. Of course for the producers of Nespresso, but also for coffee farmers and others. I wonder what impact would it have if "all the world's espresso drinkers" should switch to Nespresso (deducting those who are interested in the difference and are willing to spend that extra amount of labour in making a cup).

    Also, another interesting experiment, and maybe the most fair one, would be to compare a cup of Nespresso with one made on a low or mid-range espresso machine which is the predominant in many homes.

    Went to Tim Wendelboe yesterday and got myself an aeropress, by the way. Can't wait to test it. Going there gave me the chance of trying out a cup of Hacienda Esmeralda at the same time (http://www.haciendaesmeralda.com). A real "way up there"-experience

  4. I hate Nespresso! Quality is so much worse than a simple press coffee which is very practical. The aluminium waste is substantial and being a hard core caffeinist I need 6 cups of nespresso in the morning to wake up. I am not price sensitive when it comes to food but there are limits. Since I refuse to buy anything but Fair Trade coffee and still want variety Nespresso is out of the question.

    We (ehem, my husband since he is the early bird) have used our Aeropress for months and the coffee is simply exceptional.

  5. Compared to the cheap varieties you get at mainstream supermarkets and many lunch rooms, I'd say that Nespresso often is better in terms of taste (you know, the ones you get for €1-2 per 250g bag). Sadly, these varieties predominate among the common public around here, and these represent the vast majority.

    However, I fully agree with you as long as you're a little particular with your choice of coffee, and then French press is just another world. Just got myself an aeropress. Playing around, but since my intake is limited to 2-3 cups a day it'll take some time to get through all parameter combinations :)

  6. I have been impressed with single shots (30 ml) from the Nespresso machine. I prefer my home machine (hand tamper/pump type) to the Nespresso shots, but the Nespresso shot is better than the shots made from the many Jura-Capresso machines we have at work.

    The Nespresso idea is being copied by Illy (they call it iperEspresso), which I read as a sign of the method's popularity.

  7. I would like to add another downside - the loss of process! Instant gratification is what you get with Nespresso, which means a duller, less satisfying experience. Don't you miss the smell of the beans, the grinding and handling of the coffee? Nespresso is an abstracted, sterile and shallow experience of coffee. That experience alone, along with the environment considerations of waste and growing practices are why I despise Nespresso.

  8. Nespresso is a HUGE waste of plastic and a complete waste of money for people too lazy to make real coffee and people fooled into shiny objects.

    It's like the fancy TV dinner of coffee. I would never buy a Nespresso machine.

  9. Johnny FD, to a large extent I agree and it is probably similar to many other shiny convenience objects people (we) choose to buy, for whichever purpose. One upside might be that the amount of coffee spent per cup is much lower than in an ordinary espresso (ca. 1/3, I believe), so the aluminium and plastic is somewhat compensated with that. Of course, one might say that this fact adds to the illusion rather than compensates for it.


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