I was quoted in an article this evening on Marketwatch.com about the phenomenal growth of the single-serve (capsules and pods) coffee market, led by Nespresso pods and Keurig K-Cups, which is now estimated to have tripled since 2011.
Could it ever beat a freshly brewed cup? Andrew Hetzel, owner of CafeMakers, a coffee-consulting business in Hawaii, says there’s at least a consistency with single cups. “Companies [like Nespresso and Keurig] are using some pretty high quality coffees, which are arguably on a par or better than typical coffees you would find in chain coffee shops,” he says. “Unless you’re going to a well-trained barista you risk getting your coffee brewed incorrectly anyway.”
Although accurately characterizing my support for Nespresso capsule technology, I’d like to explain my thoughts in more detail. So many of these articles make the assumption that a migration from out-of-home consumption to in-home consumption must have a negative impact on quality, which I do not believe always to be true. In fact, the conversion of existing in-home preparation or QSR chain beverage out-of-home consumption to single-serve preparation is probably a net-win for better quality.
Argument in favor of Nespresso pods
First, Nespresso, Nespresso-compatible capsule makers and K-cup producers are using coffees that are often of objectively higher quality than those found in traditional grocery store shelf packages and also larger coffee shop chains.
Believe it or not, there is real coffee inside of those little Nespresso pods… coffee, that in some cases comes from places like Kenya and Guatemala that are not ‘cheap’ origins even for global giant Nestle. It is readily apparent from the taste of those products that they have not selected cast-off coffees otherwise destined for soluble processing. Converting a coffee drinker that historically has preferred low-grade grocery store ‘shelf’ coffees into one with a preference for any Nespresso pod or K-cup containing better quality coffees (which is many of them) is a step in the right direction and a small victory for specialty coffee.
Just earlier this year I was contracted by a Nespresso-compatible capsule maker to assist them with the development of new products, which will be superior to typical supermarket coffee and ultimately may even rival the quality of green coffees purchased by better specialty coffee boutique roasters. Farm-to-pod is in our future.
Second, consider the many ways that the coffee experience is damaged by sloppy preparation. There are many way to brew coffee incorrectly and only a relative few to do it correctly; the movement toward single cup technology reduces the number of variables (grind particle size, coffee volume, water contact temperature and time, pressure) and coffee freshness (from sophisticated capsule packaging, unsealed only as needed) that improves the resulting quality. Not many typical consumers that I know weigh their coffee on a gram scale for each batch, as would be recommended by any coffee professional. Furthermore, capsule technology ensures that coffees are not left to rest as liquid or worse, sitting on a burner where quinic acid forms from the breakdown of chlorogenic acid, causing the characteristic taste of ‘end of the day office coffee.’
Technologies like Nespresso pods and K-cups are the coffee industry’s first few steps into creating our own wine bottle to ensure that high quality and properly roasted coffee tastes as it is intended by the roaster. They undoubtedly have drawbacks and although these technologies do not produce quality equivalent to World Barista Champion Pete Licata pulling shots on the La Marzocco Linea in my kitchen, neither do I when pulling shots alone on the same machine. What single capsule and pod formats do is offer a convenient and affordable way for a mass audience of consumers to experience better quality coffee at home or in the small office. It is getting better, which is driving those coffee drinkers to expect better quality out-of-home.
Imagine what awaits the specialty coffee industry when, one day, it’s as easy to serve good espresso or slow bar pour-over coffees as cracking open a bottle at the restaurant table.