Power to the Pod!
They’re commonly seen to be a ubiquitous part of the middle-class, suburban lifestyle; an innocuous status symbol that nevertheless proudly proclaims from its place on your kitchen or hotel room counter: “You’ve made it in life!” While the capsule coffee machine started out in the late seventies as a way for us to get our single-serve coffee fixes with utmost convenience, a growing insistence on eco-sustainability, coupled with the specialty industry’s ethos of traceability and direct trade meant a clear divergence between specialty consumers and pod consumers. The line was drawn.
However, with the global pandemic limiting our time outdoors, many of us have had to turn to new and creative ways of consuming coffee. More and more specialty coffee roasters are rising to the challenge and embracing the pod format as a way both to unlock new consumer demographics (those who already drink commercial pod coffee, but want to upgrade to higher-quality coffee) as well as catering to those of us who are working from home - and thus, drinking coffee from home - as a result of COVID-19.
I catch up over email with Andre Chanco, co-founder of the smart capsule machine Drink Morning, based in Singapore and Hong Kong; as well as Maciej Duszak, Master of Coffee Science at Coffee Desk Poland working with Savage Coffees, based in Panama, a brand that is the brainchild of renowned producer Jamison Savage, most known for his award-winning coffees at Finca Deborah and Morgan Estate.
Drink Morning is looking to revolutionise the way pod coffee is consumed, by allowing users to dial in their coffee by altering the same variables a barista would in a cafe. This flexibility allows for more nuanced dialing-in through tweaking variables that are otherwise usually preset, such as temperature, bloom, pressure and yield - a far cry from historical capsule machines.
Coupled with this is an equally stunning coffee capsule offering on the Drink Morning online marketplace. From roasteries that are established household names, like Colonna Coffee in Bath; Roastworks Coffee Co. in Devon; St. Ali’s in Australia; The Cupping Room from Hong Kong; and April Coffee Roasters from Denmark, to name a few, it’s a welcome surprise to see so many renowned specialty coffee companies already on the capsule train. It’s even more astounding to see the array of origins, processes and varieties of coffee available - from washed Ethiopian Heirlooms to Natural Brazilian Catucais, and even Panamanian geshas.
Similarly, Savage Coffees is one of those companies that has taken it upon themselves to bridge the gap between specialty coffee and the average consumer who is just venturing out into the world of better-quality coffee. For many, great coffee can only be unlocked with the prerequisite tools, which may take some upfront investment in the form of good, if slightly costly, coffee brewing equipment. A specialty capsule mostly eliminates that need, allowing consumers who already have access to a Nespresso-patented machine to drink compatible capsule coffee.
At the forefront of this technological coffee revolution, of which many proponents are aiming to counter the capsule format’s known sustainability caveats, as well as improving coffee and hardware quality, I’m interested to hear what Andre and Maciej have to say about the coffee capsule revolution is upon us - and whether it may be here to stay.
Capsule coffee machines have come a long way since Nestle’s historical patent for the single-serve coffee machine in 1976, a year after an enterprising young employee by the name of Eric Favre took his momentous trip to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe in Rome. When the Nespresso branch of the Nestle empire finally took off in 1986, the original machine prototypes were clunkier and larger than the sophisticated models we associate with the brand today. Within a couple of years, however, the company had brought on board Jean-Paul Gaillard, usually credited with overhauling the branding and marketing of Favre’s original invention.
Favre had envisioned the ability for every consumer to drink quality espresso in the comfort of their own homes; Gaillard made that privilege exclusive, transforming an otherwise unassuming innovation into a global status symbol. Anyone who purchased a Nespresso machine was automatically inducted into the ranks of the Nespresso “Club,” a global database of consumers who considered themselves coffee literati, as aided by Nespresso’s bright, colour-coded capsules.
“The demand on the consumer side has always been there, and single serve formats have always been growing in popularity,” says Andre, whose experience in the industry and impressive specialty coffee resume, not least as co-founder and roaster at Yardstick Coffee in Manila, prompted him to explore how Nespresso’s influence on the coffee scene was the first step in widening consumer accessibility in consuming what was then perceived as “good-quality” coffee.
Maciej agrees. “Since Nestle's patent expired in the early 2000's it was no longer protecting the crucial parts of their capsule technology. Therefore it became possible for Nespresso's competitors to produce compatible products,” he says, citing that this wave of competitor innovation was really a response to increasing consumer demand. “For 25 years since releasing, Nespresso has built a strong brand and recognition of capsules around the world, particularly in Europe & Asia. Now, consumers are familiar with the concept, enjoy the ease of use, consistency & quality. From the consumer point of view, you don't need a scale, grinder, expensive espresso machine, and a lot of time to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee. If one puts the specialty coffee into the capsule and ensures the highest technology is there, it is a fantastic product.”
Soon enough, competitors such as the European Illy, Lavazza, and Tassimo by Bosch as well as the American Keurig began producing coffee in formats compatible with Nespresso’s patented design - by the final count in an article by the BBC in 2016, nearly 254 separate patents for similar capsule technologies. The global market for coffee pods amounts to a third of the €18bn (£13.9bn) Western European coffee market, at last estimate in 2016; with nearly a third of all U.K. households owning a capsule machine. In a related poll, 1 in 10 Britons surveyed also condemned coffee pods as being “very bad for the environment,” while 22% of the same participants simultaneously admitted to owning a capsule coffee machine.
This cognitive dissonance is fascinating, particularly in the light of modern pressures. With a growing global urgency for sustainable consumption in the last decade, along with the rise of third-wave coffee and its traceability-savvy consumers, pressure has been placed on Nespresso - both from commercial competitors with the scale and scope to improve on existing hardware, as well as from an increasingly eco-conscious consumer base who are concerned by the visible waste produced by the single-serve format. Coupled with COVID-19s devastating impact on the coffee and hospitality sectors worldwide, many avid coffee drinkers are caught between a rock and a hard place. How do we drink delicious coffee from the safety of our own homes?
This is where specialty coffee capsules are bridging the gap. “I think the rise from consumer demand recently was due to people working from home, while the [specialty] coffee companies were exploring ways to reach a new audience and also wanting to encapsulate their coffee to be experienced in a different way,” says Andre. “There are also more companies around the world giving roasters the access to put their coffees into a capsule, with a reasonable investment.”
With encapsulation technology becoming more available to smaller-scale coffee companies, why haven’t pod coffees been more popular with the third wave scene before now? It’s often argued that the very nature of the pod format - convenience, automation and speed - seems to be at odds with the values that specialty coffee champions: namely, an insistence on quality, traceability, freshness and control over the brewing process. Avid coffee drinkers tend to identify a discrepancy in flavour and quality between capsule coffee and barista-made coffee - but is there anything being done to close that gap?
“The difference between a barista-made coffee and a capsule made coffee will always come down to the dry coffee dosage, with cafes dosing between 18-21 grams whereas capsule coffees go from 4-6 grams of coffee. It's an apple and orange comparison,” says Andre, saying that he sees the above-mentioned types of coffees as distinct categories, such as the difference between filter coffee and espresso-based beverages.
“Having said that, we are seeing new capsule formats emerge with higher doses of ground coffee, closer to what is being used in a cafe. That's encouraging! I can also see improvements in capsule brewing equipment, which opens up the possibilities within that category.”
“I would say that this is possible only if you combine four factors: bean quality, roast, grind & capsule technology,” adds Maciej. “Roasting for capsules is a little different than for regular espresso. With grinding it's a whole different story, as we use multi-stage roller grinders at Savage Coffees, which are unavailable in your average coffee shop, due to their industrial size and cost of operation.”
To give me a sense of the amount of labour and attention to detail that goes into making sure Savage’s capsules are world-class, Maciej says that simply to test one particular setting, the company purges the grinder with fifteen kilograms of precious coffee! Following that, they measure the ground coffee with a particle size analyser; brew the capsules using a variety of machines; run multiple taste tests; measure variables such as the TDS of the yield, and so on. It’s mind-boggling. “All that, we also do after three, six, nine, and twelve months after the production run, to gain as much data as possible and deliver the product of the finest calibre. Quality, consistency, and ease of use for the final user are only possible if we know what we do in the tiniest detail,” he says. “In our case, we still learn a lot each day, and I can only imagine how much knowledge and experience Nestle has [had], since they started working on capsules in the 1970s…”
While the attention to detail on the side of the roaster is astounding, there’s a question I’ve been burning to ask a coffee tech startup like Drink Morning, that perhaps Andre is best placed to answer. For many coffee drinkers who already own a pod machine, how important is external machinery to deriving a good cup of pod coffee? Is it possible for consumers who have traditionally consumed commercial pod coffee to switch to specialty capsules and notice a difference, even with the same machine they’ve always owned?
“Honestly, it always starts with high-quality ingredients - the coffee, that is,” says Andre. He talks of the eureka moment, the tipping point for him in deciding to co-found Drink Morning with his colleague, Leon, when they realised roasters around the world were already beginning to put better-tasting, high-quality, traceable coffee in capsules. From that point, it seemed only natural and fitting to invent a smart coffee capsule machine, with a sleek customisability that allows the user to better highlight the flavour nuances highly prized within specialty coffee. “The external machinery allows for better control, more consistency cup-to-cup, and what we may see in the future, equipment that may open up the flavour possibilities with capsule coffee.”
While that may be the case, capsule coffee still has its largest stumbling block yet to achieving mainstream popularity in the coffee world. Environmental harm often crops up as the main argument against the pod format, even though multiple studies demonstrate that pod coffee may be a more efficient and sustainable way of making coffee that we think. Instant coffee tends to come up top in terms of energy efficiency and overall environmental impact from bean to cup, because the lowest amount of actual coffee makes it into the final cup due to the way it’s made and processed.
Capsule coffee is the next runner-up, followed by - shockingly - the drip-filter format and espresso-based drinks, due to the overall amount of electricity, water, and wastage that results from those methods. “The pre-brew production for both pod coffee and barista-made coffee goes through the same process, and the paths diverge after coffee is packaged,” says Andre. “The difference is exemplified at the brewing stage, where capsule machines may require less energy consumption at home, compared to a barista in a fully-outfitted cafe. The power requirements of a commercial espresso machine is clearly different from a capsule machine.”
“The thing worth mentioning is the capsule technology itself,” adds Maciej. “From the perspective of resources, it’s super economic and sustainable. The consumer doesn't need a grinder, nor scale to prepare delicious coffee. The capsule machine itself is only heating a small amount of water necessary for brewing a cup of coffee and does it on demand. Therefore, it uses way less energy than a traditional espresso machine in which the water tank is being kept hot at all times.”
Sustainability in coffee, however, is rarely as clear-cut as we would like. Depending on the quality and quantity of coffee that is harvested (for example, lower-grade commercial coffee from bigger farms tends to go into the making of instant coffee, which usually results in a less fair wage for farmers, and proliferates the type of large-scale farming that is detrimental to the environment), any environmental benefits from the process can easily be offset.
“It's encouraging that the big coffee capsule companies have established recycling programs for their customers,” says Andre. Even so, recycling records from the behemoths are hardly encouraging. Nespresso has the scale and scope to provide recycling facilities for their aluminium capsules, their unique selling point, and claims a 30% global recycling rate across 91% of its consumers who have access to one of 100,00 recycling points worldwide. However, there is evidence to suggest that that percentage is far lower, at 5% of Nespresso pods recycled in reality.
When you consider that capsule coffee has waste that is difficult and inconvenient to sort, depending on whether the capsule is aluminum, biodegradable or compostable; along with the actual coffee grounds within, it’s not surprising that something like 12,600 tonnes of aluminium Nespresso capsules end up in landfill annually, despite the company having top-notch recycling facilities, which is something their competitors struggle to offer.
This is doubtless one of the factors that has always prompted competitors to explore other materials that are relatively lower-impact in the making of capsules, such as plastic, biodegradable plant fibres and more besides. “It all comes down to the material that the capsule is made of,” says Maciej. “Apart from that, the whole technology is very sustainable and definitely more environmental and user friendly than a traditional espresso machine. But when we talk about capsules themselves, aluminum and compostable, bio-based, oxygen-tight plastic are the only two ways to follow. From the environmental point of view, the second of these two is the best though.”
“We also see other roasters adopting the biodegradable/compostable capsule format, which is one step forward from the plastic capsules that have proliferated in the past,” Andre continues. “That discussion or topic [on environmental harm] will always be there, because of the visible 'waste' that is so tangible after the brew process.”
And rightly so. It’s important to note that recycling should often be a last resort, and that perhaps more emphasis should be placed on not producing as much waste product in the first place. “With more education, access to local recycling/composting programs, and innovations in capsule material, I feel that the reputation of capsules will improve over time,” says Andre.
With all that in mind, why is it important for specialty coffee to begin diversifying its offerings through its exploration of the capsule format? For an industry that is often teased for its snobbery, pricey-ness and inaccessibility, specialty capsules can be an important and approachable step towards bridging the gap between commercial pod consumers and the world of high-quality, traceable, fair-wage coffee. “Because of how pod coffees are dosed, they appear to be priced competitively compared to coffees in a cafe, or whole bean coffee for those who are shopping for retail coffee,” says Andre. “I see capsule coffee as a gateway. It's easy to brew, with little chances of human error during the brewing process. It gives consumers (new or experienced) an opportunity to taste an array of different coffees, one right after the other, similar to how wine or whiskey tastings are done.” From that point, it’s not too far of a next step to then encourage consumers to explore different coffees, varietals and brew methods if their experience with capsule coffee has been positive.
“I fell in love with capsules the moment I understood their potential to reach a wide audience with a niche product,” says Maciej. “When you first encounter specialty coffee and appreciate the quality, there is a lot to learn before you can brew a great-tasting coffee yourself. It's a lot of fun for some, but also a big obstacle for the majority of people who just want to drink great coffee without the hassle. That's why I believe that capsules are one of the things the specialty coffee industry should explore, and I have no doubt it will grow significantly.”
More importantly, it’s an avenue for our industry to revitalise itself during a time when we are worst-hit by a pandemic that is hobbling the hospitality sector. And with COVID-19 likely changing the way our industry works in the future, for good, it’s only natural that more roasters begin to investigate the ways in which specialty coffee can be brought to a new, wider audience, in the comfort of their homes.
“I do hope that more roasters adopt the format to share their amazing coffees and their sourcing perspectives.” Andre says. “I hope to see improvements and innovations to address the environmental impact of the category. And for the industry, I do hope that it's something that we accept as a viable format to share the coffees that we love.”
About the Author
Apart from her full-time job as Alpro UK's Coffee Specialist, Sierra has her fingers in several pies. Along with founding The Kore Directive, a womxn's coffee professional network and events company based in London in 2018, she also writes in her spare time for coffee publications, which include or have included Perfect Daily Grind, Caffeine Magazine in London, and Barista Magazine among others. Sierra is also certified as a licensed Q-grader.
Her varied loves and interests include: Singaporean/Malaysian cuisine from home, gettin' down to tacky 00s hiphop/RnB, Blue from Jurassic World, and furry jumpers.