Tuesday, April 22, 2008


People who come over to our house know we aren't bit coffee drinkers. It's not that we don't like coffee, it's that it's a bit of a pain in the ass for people who don't tolerate caffeine very well. A cup of regular coffee in the morning will wake me up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, so I've had to be pretty careful about just drinking decaf. That means that coffee becomes something more aesthetic than functional, and that means that the whole pain in the butt ritual of coffee preparation, including the ceremonial dumping of the grinds, is just not something that I kept up after leaving my office job (where I had to have my own coffee maker as I was the only guy drinking unleaded on my floor). 

And forget espresso. I don't know how many times I came home to find Mel had started out making a cup and ended up with the grounds everywhere after a user error. 

That has all changed.

I'm going to sound like I'm doing product placement, but I assure you that I'm nothing other than a satisfied customer, at least so far. Oh, I'm still clearly overly caffeine-sensitive, that hasn't changed. What has changed is that I can get a really good cup of espresso or lungo (a larger version that's still smaller than your standard cup of American Joe) with a minimum of effort, in about one minute, even less if I'm producing multiple cups. The product is called "Nespresso" and while it's not perfect, it's pretty darned close. 

We ended up with our low-end model (the C100 - the consumer models can exceed $1000 if you're more anal about your espresso than I am) because my good friend Steve bought us a housewarming gift from Macy's. We like wine, but we don't drink it often enough to feel that a free-standing wine chiller was worth the counter space it would take up, so we took it back and were having quite a bit of trouble finding a suitable replacement. For one thing, we wanted to get something that was in the spirit of the original gift, so clothing was out and the lamps they had were far too expensive for what we were looking for. That left housewares, and after 22 years of marriage you tend to have pretty much all the housewares you need. We considered plates, cookware, even an electric martini shaker (really). 

Then we noticed the Nespresso system. Great, I thought, we did espresso at home once and it was a disaster. If you tried to take the grounds out too soon while they were still under some pressure, you could be picking grounds out of your kitchen for days. Trying to get the milk heated/frothed was an exercise in frustration, and the damned thing took up about a cubic foot of counter space, always at a premium. 

Still, this machine looked a little different. It had a much smaller footprint, and instead of having to mess with measuring and cleaning up the grounds (not to mention grinding them if you're really serious), it uses capsules - 12 different blends, 9 of which are for espresso, 3 lungo. Of these, 2 of the espressos are decaf (one appropriate for cappuccino), and one lungo is decaf. However, the cheapest package was $230, and even taking off the return value of the wine cooler I wasn't sure this was something I wanted to spend that kind of money on.

Mel wanted to look for some pants, so I crashed on a couch in the mall. Fortunately, the Apple Store a few doors down had a wi-fi cloud that was public, so I was able to do a little iPhone surfing at decent speeds. I did a search on the Nespresso system, and found that it is not only popular, but the people who have them are crazy about them for all of the reasons I mention above. For every complaint I have had about home espresso machines, they have an answer.

The only real drawbacks in the system are twofold. First, you are limited to buying your coffee from a single source, and then the coffee is shipped to you within a couple of days. That means you better plan when you'll need the capsules! Of course, they're sealed so no need to refrigerate or bag them. That also means you are limited to whatever coffee they make. The capsules vary in acidity, strength, and bitterness, so there's a pretty good selection and the system comes with a sampler containing one of every type, so you're likely to find what you want. They do put out a couple of limited edition varieties during the year, which cost a bit more (still less than $0.60 per capsule), but otherwise you're limited to their choices.

The other problem, one that the company is starting to address, is that the coffee hasn't been fair-trade. They now have one regular variety that is a "sustainable" blend, which I guess is their term for fair-trade. I've not thought much about this until I read somewhere that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil. I'm not sure if that's true, but if it is perhaps we should also be buying fair-trade gas. So your mileage and conscience may vary.

Note that this is not a coffee maker, it's an espresso maker that does lungo as well, so if you like having a tanker of coffee to take with you in the morning, it's probably not a great choice. However, if you like espresso drinks, it doesn't take much math to figure out that that $4 iced mocha would cost you something like $2 after taking into account how much the machine itself cost.

Capsules are generally within a couple pennies of $0.50, which is a perfectly acceptable number for me assuming the coffee is of sufficient quality, and they come in "sleeves" of 10 capsules. I made an order of 110 capsules, and the cost (including shipping) was about $65. Sadly for my friends visiting, all but 10 capsules (those of the limited edition coffee) are decaf. You see, I tried one of the leaded lungos the first day we had the machine, thinking that it couldn't possibly hurt for me to be wired on a day I was performing in the chorus of a major Beethoven work, but I was up at 2:30am anyway. No more leaded for me. 

Making a cup is extremely easy - you open the capsule slot, insert capsule, close, stick a cup under the spout, press a button, and wait about 20 seconds. You get a cup that has a near-perfect crema (the foam on the top) every time that sticks around for at least as long as it takes you to enjoy the coffee (in my case, about 15 minutes). The taste is as good as any chain-bought coffee I've ever had. If your tastes run to coffee that's been excreted by large Amazonian rodents, then you'll probably be disappointed. Me, I was in heaven.

Two more items - we waited for a sale at Macy's to pick up the unit we liked, bringing it down to around $180, which is about as much as I'm willing to spend on something like this. I mean, I'll probably have a lungo every morning from now on as it's so easy to use, but I'm not getting a unit that warms cups and has a direct water line. Note that the units are actually OEMed by traditional coffeemaker companies, but the model numbers seem to be fairly consistent. Ours, as I mentioned above, is the C100, which is semi-programmable - you can set how much water the unit produces by holding the appropriate button down until that much liquid has been dispensed. There's no frother, no cup warmer, but the unit takes about 5"x9" on our counterspace, and you can get several 1.5 oz cups with one tank. 

The other thing you'll want to get, and you might as well get it when you pick up your unit as they sometimes come packaged with it for about $60 more, is the Aeroccino frother unit. It's a metal container that looks a bit like a small measuring cup and has a base unit you plug into the wall. For milk froth, you put in about an ounce of milk, put it on the base, push a button, and in less than a minute you have froth. No muss, no fuss. You can switch the frother piece out (the replacement "lives" on the lid for convenience), and get heated milk in two minutes, although I'd probably just nuke mine. I don't take cream with my coffee, but I do likee the froth, and it makes cappuccino a breeze to make. With this in the package, our cost was $230 minus the value of the returned wine cooler. That's less than a year's worth of lattes from Starbuck's, plus no wasted paper cups. Or surly baristas (I've taken over that role).

For me, the biggest impediment to morning coffee was having to undergo the ritual without the traditional payoff - enough liquid energy to get you through the day (or, in my case, into the wee hours). Shortcomings aside, the Nespresso system lets me enjoy coffee with enough ease and more than enough taste to make coffee worthwhile for me again. I like this system so much that I will consider getting one for the vacation house as well, or maybe a hard-shell carrying case so I can take it with me. 

Ahhh, crema...

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