Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Perhaps, but honestly the home barista in me would welcome that hobgoblin with open arms. Even after years of making espresso at home with a decent, though not fancy, machine, my skills leave something to be desired. Assuming the machine holds up its end of the bargain—water temperature and pressure—there’s still ample room for user error. Are the beans fresh? Did I grind them properly? Have I put the right amount of grounds into the filter and tamped them down just so?
Sometimes I get it all right, and my espressos are great, with a thick crema (the surface foam widely acknowledged to be one mark of a well-pulled espresso) and a smooth, bittersweet flavor. But I’ve choked down far too many bitter brews, wondering where I went wrong and why my espressos aren’t good from one shot to the next.
And don’t even get me started on the mess. Have you noticed that dry coffee grounds seem to go everywhere and wet grounds go nowhere as they cling to the filter basket for dear life? These phenomena can make spooning the dry grounds into the filter basket and then emptying the spent grounds from it—for every single shot—into an irritating chore. The mere thought of it has led to more than one nice cup of tea in my day.
Now the good news. Coffee roasters and espresso machine manufacturers have a variety of new machines that promise to deliver consistently good espresso without the muss and fuss. Instead of loose espresso grounds, these machines use prepackaged single-serve doses of espresso. There’s virtually no room for user error, so you’re ensured consistent, high-quality espresso—easily and quickly, too.
Given the advantages and the increasing number of home espresso machines that are designed to use espresso pods and capsules, we thought it time to take a closer look at this phenomenon. Turns out the machines fall into three distinct categories, and we tried at least one of each type. Speaking generally, each machine lived up to its billing of simplicity, cleanliness, and consistency. But there are some noteworthy differences among them. On the following pages you’ll find an overview of the options and the results of our trials.
What are espresso pods and capsules?
From top to bottom: Illy Hyper Espresso System capsules, Nespresso proprietary capsules, and standard E.S.E. pods
E.S.E. pods: “Easy Serving Espresso” pods are single-use disks of coffee with a paper filter covering, somewhat like tea bags. Each pod contains 7 grams of ground espresso, tamped and then hermetically sealed. These pods can be used in any E.S.E. machine.
Proprietary capsules: These are plastic capsules filled with a single serving of espresso that work exclusively with one manufacturer’s machine. Illy’s Hyper Espresso System capsules are clear with a red top, while Nespresso’s capsules are colorful tubs resembling individual creamer containers.
Where to buy:
Espresso pod (E.S.E.) machines
About ten years ago, a few companies, spearheaded by IllyCaffé in Italy, formed a consortium and developed standardized, self-contained, easy-touse coffee portions. Dubbed E.S.E. (for “Easy Serving Espresso”) pods, these packaged, single-use espresso servings contain 7 grams of ground coffee, tamped and hermetically sealed between two layers of filter paper.
Some experts say you can use the pods in the single-shot filter basket of any home espresso machine, but our research and limited testing suggest that E.S.E. pods work best in machines designed to use them specifically and exclusively. There’s a handful on the market, ranging in price from about $200 to $1,000 and beyond.