ESE PODs versus capsules

1. Owners of various types of portion control equipment requesting us to confirm if ESE coffee PODs suit their own personal machines.

2. I like strong coffee, can I make 2 large cappuccinos from your ESE coffee pod ?

Unfortunately, we cannot always provide clear answers to these questions.

Firstly, we will tackle the challenge of coffee capsule and ESE coffee pod compatibility.

The purpose of this dicussion is not to draw up a list of machines that support ESE coffee pods, but we note why there is a difference between ESE coffee pods and capsules.

There are literally hundreds of brands and models of equipment in the market (new and old) with many of these equipment manufacturers tend to be very careful (perhaps bordering upon deceptive) in releasing the CLEAR and CONSISE details of what consumables can be supported or used on their systems.

We know of a few companies that sell their machines with literature stating simple “POD compatible”.

Unless your machine specifications explicitly declare the words ESE or Easy Serving Espresso (E.S.E) compatible, then you are best served to contact your equipment maker directly – don’t rely upon POD supplier websites to answer your queries – they may have the information wrong and ultimately they just want to sell pods !

Closed versus Open Systems

The perfect dream product for any manufacturer is one that is popular, uses their proprietary consumables (or restricted complementary components) and has a long lifecycle.

This is the most profitable outcome for a designer and manufacturer. Apple have mastered this concept exceptionally.

A proprietary (or closed) system can offer performance, reliability and function but it comes at a premium to comparable open systems.

Having worked in the technology industry for 30 years, I have personally experienced the transformation from large (and expensive) proprietary mainframe and mini-computer systems into low-cost, powerful, open systems and now the ubiquitous mobile device is rapidly taking over as our preferred platform of choice.

The IT industry is a classic example of how proprietary systems have ultimately faded through the evolution of cheaper open systems – there are a few notable exclusions of course – Apple and to a less extent Microsoft, but despite the billions of $$ in their war-chests, there are already storm clouds on the horizon for both Microsoft and Apple.

When it comes to single serve portion control coffee, capsules are the equivalent of a closed system whilst ESE coffee pods are open.

Capsules are designed in various forms (shape, size, materials, dosage, extraction methods, etc.) and need to be specifically matched, or compatible with the machine, device or appliance used to brew or extract the coffee.

The “closed” design of capsules and can be considered similar to how you manage or operate your printers, e.g. inkjet or toner.

It is important to use the right consumables, else the results will not be suitable, it can be messy or even worse – there are increased risks of damage to your equipment.

“Closed system” coffee capsules are essentially marketed the same way as inkjet and laser printers. Flog the device/appliance/machine for a very attractive price, or in many cases below cost, in order to “seed” the market with an army of machines forcing owners to return and purchase your consumables sold at higher margins – in other words this is simply portfolio pricing at work.

ESE coffee pods are an international, open standard. It is not “owned” by a corporation. These standards govern the size, shape and expected extraction results of ESE coffee pods.

Manufacturers of ESE coffee pod machines have been slow to embrace the “appliance” concept – design of low cost devices that can be distributed via the white goods stores.

Traditionally, the ESE coffee pod manufacturers have been focused on the European markets and stuck in the mindset for many years building strong, reliable ESE coffee pod machines having components leveraged from “commercial” espresso machine construction – heavy brass, copper, etc.

This created an opportunity for the cheap capsule machines to take a large slice of the market.

In Australia, we have seen Breville and Sunbeam grow their footprints in espresso coffee. Their focus has been too narrow and they allowed Nespresso systems to build considerable market share. We understand Sunbeam and Breville are considering dedicated ESE coffee POD machines to compete with Nespresso, but in my mind they have missed the boat to some degree.

In Australia, the instant coffee segment continues to shrink at considerable rates and the natural transition for many instant drinkers is either capsules or ESE coffee PODs. Many have been lured to capsules and then left a little disappointed by the experience, the cost or the inconvenience of having to source capsules from limited suppliers.

What about the flavor (strength)

In the second part of our discussion, we dissect the issue of dosage and how it relates to what actually happens in practice within the Australia coffee scene.

Generally, capsules (regardless of vendor) have around 4.5g to 5.5g per serve compared to ESE coffee pods containing 7g to 7.8g per serve.

ESE coffee pods are also available in 10g and 14g portion control sizes.

These larger dosage ESE coffee pods are typically used in commercial situations like fast food outlets or where there is a distinct limitation on available barista skills.

14g ESE coffee pods have been around for a long time whilst the new 10g ESE coffee pods are emerging as a viable standard intended to balance the demands for stronger coffee flavor with a reasonable cost per serve.

Australian coffee drinkers prefer rich, smooth, creamy milk-based coffees in large cups or mugs. In contrast, Europeans have a higher proportion of short-black drinkers in small cups.

Australians also demand sweet, non-bitter coffees that do not require sweetening with added sugar.

As a nation of 95% milk-based espresso, the addition of milk to the coffee alters the “flavor” balance and in many respects it dilutes and weakens the beverage.

The term “cut through milk” is an over-used saying that very few people actually understand and unfortunately it can be incorrectly applied when rating or ranking coffees.

In Europe, the solution to the low dosage coffee extraction problem is simple – they just use “rougher” coffees with more “bite” and add higher proportions of robusta than the Australians palate are generally accustomed to consuming.

This method of preparing “rough, sharp coffee with bite” might suit Europe as they can easily operate on price-sensitive, lower-quality metrics, but in Australia we have a taste-sensitive market. Alas, these cheap, “sharp” ESE coffee pods and capsules are still being imported into Australia in volumes and sold to consumers as a “premium” experience.

As a side note, the whole “arabica versus robusta” debate is a much maligned topic and unfortunately there are hundreds of thousands of ill-informed, technically incorrect articles and posts circulating the internet from the last 20 years of espresso coffee evolution – most of it centred around the alleged paranoia that roasters substitute cheap robusta to make more profit.

The plain and simple facts are there can will always be a place for robusta and arabica in the coffee world. Currently, robusta prices have rallied up high over the last 6 months meaning the price differentials between quality robusta and arabica are minimal, however, the competition to produce great coffee is so intense that compromises are becoming increasingly impossible, thus the decisions made by roasters are always around making the best product for the customer, rather than the cheapest product.

Now, back to the discussion on flavor.

Most of the larger and successful cafes in Australia use a double-shot basket on their commercial multi-group espresso machines to make a standard coffee – irrespective of whether it’s an 8oz (small), 12oz (medium) or 16oz (large) takeaway – except when they are extremely busy and need to pump out volume. No doubt, there are people out there who will argue with me about it and debate dosage and extraction times.

A few years ago, the practice of running a double shot split across 2-cups was more common (and is still the norm in many average or down-scale establishments that don’t know any better), however, with every physical location now saturated with an over-supply of coffee outlets, the competitive nature means cafes must offer more “bang for the buck” when it comes to coffee.

This has given rise to the increased popularity of the “double ristretto” style of espresso extraction.

A double-ristretto extraction provides a high dosage of coffee with a shot that is cut a bit shorter during the execution of the extraction, e.g. instead of allowing the shot to run for 25 – 30 seconds, the barista may cut the shot at say 15 seconds.

This technique captures the predominant intensity of sweetness and body. When a shot runs longer and begins to blonde (as is the case for many unskilled baristas), the contents of the extraction become increasingly watery and bitter.

Therefore, if you have the successful cafes using 16, 18 or even 21 gram baskets for your milk-based espresso (latte, flat white, macchiato, cappuccino, etc.), then it becomes difficult, or impossible to compare that coffee experience to a 7g POD extraction.

What we are trying to demonstrate here is a 16g cafe coffee is not the same as a 7g ESE pod or a 5g capsule.

In designing the coffees used in our mycuppa ESE Pods, we are trying to pack more coffee intensity into a 100% arabica blend so that it can at least deliver a drinkable cup from the 7g POD. We actually prepare our mycuppa ESE coffee pods with 7.8g coffee.

We use our premium high-grade Kenyan and Central American arabica with a deliberately “tuned” acid balance given the majority of Australian coffee drinkers add milk to their espresso.

Does Packaging make a difference ?

Absolutely.

Capsules are generally available in either plastic (clone) or aluminium (genuine).

We know from many years experience with our coffee bean and ground packs of the need for effective barrier protection.

Coffee is a fresh food and it’s literally impossible to suspend the oxygenation (or deterioration) of the coffee as it ages. There are fancy methods such as nitrogen flush that exhaust oxygen and therefore limiting the CO2 effects, but these are really only intended for coffee products are destined for very long shelf life, such as the Italians who seem persistent on placing a ridiculous Best Before date of 2 years on their coffees.

Different metalized films used in barrier protection perform with various results. Plastics, regardless of the density are very poor choices when it comes to packaging coffee.

We have seen the emergence of clone capsules hitting the market in an attempt to bring the price of capsules down. Competition on these “closed systems” is a great thing, however, we are seeing many of the clone capsules being manufactured using the plastic method instead of aluminium.

Plastic will not provide an effective barrier compared to aluminium and most of the plastic capsules can not be recycled in the same way as aluminium capsules. We are aware of a bio-degradable plastic capsule being recently released, however, we have no anecdotal evidence on the performance of the barrier technology used to preserve the flavor and essence of the coffee.

If we consider our own experiments with bio-degradable coffee bean packaging, we found that the beans had lost considerable character over a 4 – 6 week period and were clearly not comparable to the packs of traditional metalized foil-lined coffee bags.

In our view, bio-degradable coffee packaging is only intended for short transit periods, e.g. from retailer to customer, e.g. a few days, etc. and not to be used for longer term storage due to the rapid staling effect.

ESE coffee pods are manufactured in a controlled environment using two thin films of bio-degradable filter papers that can be composted. Each ESE coffee pod is individually wrapped in foil packaging, providing effective barrier protection against staling.