One of the greatest advances in coffee has matured into a mainstream aid to caterers. Ian Boughton explains the impact of the easy-serve espresso pod.
The concept of easy-serve espresso was devised some years ago and at one time it was seen as an easy way out, maybe for periods when fully trained staff were not to hand. Now, the concept is seen as a quite legitimate way of serving espresso.
The first form was the "pod", which is still in use. With conventional espresso coffee, loose ground coffee is placed in a filter basket and manually firmed up, or tamped. After brewing, a firm puck of spent grounds has to be cleared out manually.
In the pod system, a pre-portioned amount of coffee, already tamped into a firm puck, is held in something like a hard, circular version of a tea bag. That goes into the filter basket and is easy to remove after the espresso shot has been pulled. Virtually all espresso machines will take pods, although sometimes an adapted basket is required.
The concept is now so widely accepted that at a coffee trade conference in October, even the Australian espresso guru Instaurator remarked that "a good pod is better than a bad barista - although a great barista is better than a good pod".
Big brands continue to turn to pod-making - even Gala Coffee, which holds the Lyons brand, has just developed a new pod service for the hospitality trade.
"It makes great sense to look at ‘convenience' ways of delivering coffee," says managing director Murray Leslie. "The important difference between a good pod and a bad pod is down to two things - the right grind of coffee and the right tamp. The whole potential of pods still waits to be tapped into by the catering trade. Any staff member can produce an acceptable espresso with a pod."
But in addition to that, the pod allows for variety. Many coffee houses quickly realised that slow-moving coffees, maybe decaffeinated options, could not be stored in the conventional bean hopper for fear of going stale. So, they carefully stored pods for their specials and opened up the store when asked for a decaf or a Fairtrade drink.
There are several specialist suppliers of pods. One is Cafeco, of Edinburgh, whose managing director Adam Badger observes that the value of pods is a matter of judgement. They are more expensive to use than ground espresso coffee but are more practical and consistent, with no wastage.
"As most pods sold in the UK are made in Italy, the exchange rate has made them seem unattractive and some operators are going back to ground coffee, thinking it is cheaper. But this is a false economy because you get no wastage from pods and you get a more consistent drink," explains Badger.
He advocates the use of pods as a convenient way of offering specials. He provides flavoured pods, typically with vanilla or amaretto, which avoid the need for a bottle of flavoured syrup - practical, he says, and at roughly the same cost price.
However, his speciality coffees in pod form are a really unusual offer. "Every quarter we offer a ‘one roast wonder'. We buy a few bags of a really stunning coffee and turn it into pods. We have done it with Sumatra Lintong, Pamwamba AA, Panama Bouquette, Honduras Genuino Lenca, Gorilla Mountain and Zimbabwe Pezuru. It's a very useful way of offering a special," he says.
The most high-profile pod arrival of recent years was from Rombouts, which created the 1,2,3 Spresso system, using specially adapted La Spaziale coffee machines, which can take the Rombouts pod and still be used as conventional espresso machines.
"We now see more and more trade customers who just want to serve a consistently great cup of coffee, made without the waste and mess of traditional espresso machines," explains Rombouts training manager Jonathan Wadham.
"We have a large number of high quality hotels and restaurants who use the system and the Sofitel St James uses our small semi-automatic machines in some of its executive suites."
Rombouts has created a full menu of seven coffees in pod form, featuring not only a Fairtrade espresso, but some Ethiopian, Colombian and Brazilian specialities and Jamaican Blue Mountain, a delicate coffee that is rarely used in espresso and is one of the most expensive in the world. As a result, says Wadham, it provides an answer to the complaint that pods are an expensive way of brewing coffee.
"Prices of our espresso pods range from around 28p, up to £1.25 per pod for our Jamaican Blue Mountain. With the average selling prices of cappuccino and latte being around £2, there is still a great margin - and for the Jamaican Blue Mountain we would recommend a selling price of around £8 for an espresso due to its status in the coffee world."
The most recent development of the easy-serve espresso is the one that has received the most attention in the consumer world. This is the capsule, pioneered by Nespresso and with some recent developments from other big names.
In the capsule system, the coffee portion is held inside something resembling a milk jigger. The entire jigger goes into the machine, which pierces top and bottom to force hot water through and the entire spent capsule is then removed or ejected. Generally, capsules cannot be interchanged between machines - once a machine is selected, that maker's capsules must be used.
They are expensive, exclusive and not easily recycled and yet, they have achieved cult status. The brand has moved quite definitely for the lifestyle approach first, and in cities such as Paris and Vienna, Nespresso now has extremely high-profile shops in the best shopping areas, cultivating the idea that it is now chic to visit once a week and buy your next supply of capsules. Giant images of George Clooney, the face of the brand, dominate the stores.
The consequence, of course, is that Nespresso now expects to see its appearance in restaurants accepted by the public on the same basis. Heston Blumenthal was the first and much-reported trade user in the UK and food critics have reported being charged £7 for a Nespresso coffee in other restaurants.
The biggest espresso name to join the capsule format is Lavazza, where vice-president Giuseppe Lavazza argues actively that the capsule format remains true to the principles of espresso brewing, although he knows it has come in for criticism.
"Our capsule is not promoted as a better way of espresso but a method of brewing espresso in a different way," he says. "You must always respect all the basic aspects - the quality, the grind and the dose. Ours is 7.5g of coffee and slightly damp. This is correct, as in the pre-infusion stage of a normal espresso. In the capsule, the upper part of the capsule is pierced first and, when a little water is introduced, this is the pre-infusion stage. It is after the pre-infusion that the bottom of the capsule is pierced, allowing the brewed coffee to flow out.
"This is true to correct espresso brewing and we have followed the authentic procedure. The proof is in the crema, the sign that the extraction is following the rules."
Nespresso (above) and Lavazza (below) are two of the leaders in the espresso capsule market
Rombouts' 1,2,3 Spresso pod system can be used coventionally, too
0800 074 7577
Lavazza 01895 209750
Nespresso 0808 100 8844
0845 604 0188
0800 074 7577
0808 100 8844
Rombouts 0845 604 0188