Do Coffee Pods Suck?

I really like the idea of coffee pods. For those of you who haven’t run across the things, they’re basically an attempt to make coffee as easy as humanly possible - they produce something between expresso and filter coffee on a mug-by-mug basis in about 15 seconds, using closed, easy-to-dispose “pods” with coffee inside.

Particularly for social situations, the ability to knock out cups of varying types, strengths and flavours of coffee, and even tea, quickly and easily sounds damn good. And let’s face it, producing good coffee’s a bit of a hassle - I’d estimate my morning mug of coffee takes 10 minutes, between preheating, grinding, boiling, waiting, measuring and steeping.

Now, that’s not a problem for me, because I’m extremely sensitive to stimulants, and more than one cup of coffee inside six hours puts me straight into a gibbering twitching government drugs-are-bad-mkay American Psycho state. So I have my little ritual in the morning and my damn fine cup of coffee. On the other hand, if I was running an office on six cups a day, and making for the rest of the office every time, that really wouldn’t be sustainable.

So, as I say, enter the pods.

h1. Too Long, Didn’t Read: the Coffee Pod Summary

  • They’re very convenient indeed, and work particularly well brought into the workplace to replace shitty office coffee.

  • The taste is somewhere between “foul” and “pretty good”, heavily affected by whether you buy the “official” pods (shonky) or ones from third-party suppliers (links below).

  • The Nestle Nespresso is generally considered to produce average to half-decent coffee (much better than the average office dispenser) but is very expensive and ties you to Nestle (who, as pointed out in the comments on our Fair Trade Chocolate article, are really not very nice people.)

  • If convenience is very important or quality isn’t, they’re the win. Particularly good for an office setting.

  • Otherwise, get a cafetière /cafetières instead.

h1. What’s Out There?

There are a whole bunch of different pod systems and sizes out there, and they’d take more than the length of this article to go into. Thankfully, there are also several excellent dedicated sites focussing on pod machines - if you;re looking at getting one of these machines, I’d recommend a trip to http://www.singleservecoffee.com/ and their forums at http://www.singleservecoffeeforums.com/.

The question of what the best machine is seems to be nearly impossible to answer. Singleserve coffee.com have rounded up their reviews and some of their recommendations, but even that recommends 4 different machines.

Of course, the range of beans is one of the make-or-break factors. The general rule, from Coffeegeek.com and elsewhere on the ‘net, seems to be that the brand-name beans from the machine manufacturers vary between average and awful, but that third-party suppliers (a number of posters mentioned http://www.bettercoffee.com ) produce coffee that, whilst it doesn’t hit the heights of really well-prepared fresh-ground coffee, is pretty damn good. One poster on CoffeeGeek said “Nobody’s going to mistake this for fine French press coffee, granted, but after the Senseo and Yuban attempts, it’s a revelation”.

The Nespresso system belongs slightly in a category of its own. It uses a different pod technology to the other systems, aggressively guarded by patents (indeed, according to Wikipedia, they’re suing one manufacturer of compatible cartridges right now . The pods are very expensive (about 50p each) but are generally considered to be of reasonably decent quality (see below).

h1. Do pod coffee machines produce good coffee?

Depends on what you mean by good coffee. One poster on Metafilter, talking about the Nespresso machines, said “Honestly, they probably produce better espresso than a many people with home espresso machines that don’t clean them properly or don’t have a decent burr grinder, and the patience to dial it in. “

In general, if your coffee palate’s particularly refined, they’re not going to perfectly satisfy. However, many of the awful reviews given to pod machines on sites like CoffeeGeek seem to have been using the default manufacturer’s coffee pods - Senseo pods came in for a particularly thorough kicking, both for lack of quality and lack of range. By contrast, third-party pods offer much more of the range serious coffee afficionados would expect - BetterCoffee offers a few hundred options compared to the dozen or so offered by most machine manufacturers.

Overall, the answer seems to be “satisfactory”, but very much dependant on individual preferences. See the range of reviews for the Phillips Senseo , for example, which vary from “If you’re desperate enought to call this swill coffee, you’d better switch to another beverage.”, through cautious optimism (I’d recommend this review) in particular for a balanced overview) to “Great price, great coffee”.

The Nespresso, again, appears to be a special case. All of the serious coffee connosieur reviews seem to converge on “pretty good, but not as good as an espresso pulled by someone who knows what they’re doing”. Given the relative levels of effort involved, that’s pretty high praise.

h1. Any hacks we should know about?

As you’d expect from a rather cool and complex system exposed to the Internet, there’s a lot of discussion about hacking and improving the darn things.

Most notably:

  • You can make your own pods for the machines half a dozen different ways, the most convenient of which seems to be the Perfect Pod Machine . Potentially useful, again, for an office setting.

  • The pods also make very convenient storage mechanisms for coffee for the Aeropress - as one CoffeeGeek user reports

  • There are a fair number of minor optimisations it’s possible to make to the coffee-making process with a pod - with most pods, one of the most important tips seems to be to pre-wet the pod with hot water before inserting it into the machine.

h1. Any experience?

All of this is from my research, of course. I’ve not used one of the things extensively myself.

Have you? If so, what did you think?


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