By Jeffrey the Barak
Single serve coffee and single serve espresso are the fastest growing trends in home coffee preparation. While the cost per cup can be a lot higher than you would pay with a normal coffee maker or home espresso machine, capsule systems take away the guesswork, the mess, the constant cleanup and the wastage
In an older article on the-vu, I compared the Keurig, which only makes brewed coffee, and not espresso, and the Tassimo, which makes both, except it does not make high BAR pressure espresso but rather a close facsimile. My review of these two systems can be found at http://www.the-vu.com/2009/05/discovering-single-serve-coffee-keurig-versus-tassimo/
But the world is going nuts for Nespresso, an espresso making system that delivers a perfect pull with every shot, and no cleaning required. Having pulled many a lousy shot with an array of manual, semi-automatic and fully automatic espresso machines over the years, The consistently perfect shots delivered from the Nespresso system are beyond impressive and I would challenge any highly practiced barista to consistently match the results.
But as perfect as the system is, the only place to get the capsules of coffee, unless you are close to a very rare Nespresso boutique store, is at Nespresso.com. Customers say they arrive in two days and Nespresso has the best customer service, even if a problem develops with the machine. Nespresso will even send out a loaner to use while the customer’s own rig is being fixed.
But Nespresso is not the only player. There are several aspiring single-serve, pod or capsule, espresso and/or coffee competitors in the world including Dolce Gusto, also owned by Nestle (as is Nespresso), Gaggia, Flavia (Mars), Illy (with or without Francis Francis), Comobar, Lavazza, Italcaffe, Benotti, La Piccola, Tuttocialde and several more, including Caffitaly.
And it is Caffitaly that has struck distribution deals in various countries. In the United States, the partner is The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and the brand name for the machines in the U.S. is CBTL. In the States, the coffee varieties available for the CBTL machine are all from The Coffee Bean, and this is not such a bad thing, as the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf have some of the best coffee in the world. Customers far away from any Coffee Bean store can order capsules online, just as they would be forced to if they chose to buy a Nespresso machine.
The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf started as a local Los Angeles family-owned firm that was closely watched by the Seattle giants and in many areas beat all to the start line with new innovations. For example, one day a couple of decades ago, the manager of a Coffee Bean invented the Ice-Blended Mocha. Cinnabon has another claim for the invention of this concoction, but It seems that the Coffee Bean manager was probably unaware of it when she dreamed it up, and the Coffee Bean’s unique use of cold-brewed “Toddy” coffee did contribute greatly to its success. Now every cafe, ice-cream store and donut shop has some version of a coffee smoothie, most noticeably, the cleverly named Starbucks Frappuccino.
And it is Starbucks who is strangely absent from the single serve revolution. True, they partnered with Tassimo (Kraft) to make Starbucks brewed coffee T-Cups, and they also make paper Pods to fit in E.S.E compatible machines, but they have not partnered with a single-serve espresso machine manufacturer so far. CBTL with Caffitaly have beaten them to market.
As mentioned earlier, the Keurig and Tassimo were compared in the aforementioned article, and so here we will compare side-by-side, a Nespresso machine and a CBTL machine. In each case we will focus on a single short shot of espresso, and simply note that both providers offer a virtually identical electric milk frother/heater should you want to incorporate your shot into a latte, cappuccino or machiatto.
And the comparison is fairly easy. Both Nespresso and CBTL have a good variety of coffee capsules. Both offer at least four excellent espresso varieties. But only the CBTL machine can also brew a lower pressure large size drip coffee drink. So if you want both espresso and brewed coffee, and choose Nespresso, you will also need a Keurig to sit beside it.
Both machines accept and eject the capsules in much the same way, but the Nespresso excels in finishing cleaner with less post-shot dripping
And as for price, the CBTL machines are significantly less expensive. For visual design, Nespresso wins with the narrow profile $279 Citz, but the $150 CBTL Kaldi looks great, and so does their less expensive CBTL Cantata, which has identical specs and function for just $130. I personally have an aversion to the shape of the $200 Nespresso Essenza but that’s just me.
Nespresso, being an espresso-only machine, has more varieties of espresso, but most of these are very mild and therefore not what you would expect to receive if you ordered a real espresso at any self respecting cafe. So both systems only have three or four truly excellent proper espresso blends in their line up. That’s right, not very many! But these few are excellent, authentic, and of course completely consistent from shot to shot, something of which few baristas can boast.
My own top capsule picks, based on the criteria that espresso should be the strength and intensity of proper espresso, not just a tiny little cup of fairly strong coffee:
- Nespresso Ristretto
- CBTL Italian,
- CBTL Premium,
- Nespresso Arpegio,
- CBTL Continental,
- Nespresso Roma,
- Nespresso Indriya.
Decafs and lungos were not included in this comparison, and my order of favorites is preliminary because I have not yet experienced several of each and considered them over a reasonable period of time. Your preferences will of course vary.
I think the Nespresso and CBTL systems are both excellent and both will give better shots than your best effort with a portafilter or a super automatic, and do so every time with never a bad shot pulled. While the Nespresso generates 19 BAR of pressure and the CBTL only gives 15 BAR, the difference is not possible to notice in the extraction and crema, so 15 must be enough.
But the price difference makes the CBTL the winner, for now. They are too new to have many reviews and Nespresso fans will be alarmed this verdict, and the long establishment of Nespresso means you could find old used machines at a bargain price etc., but assuming you want a new one, it’s CBTL who wins today.
As a final aside, since these systems focus on convenience, I would recommend that if you drink lattes, cappuccinos etc., that you pair your CBTL or Nespresso machine with the $60 CBTL milk frother or the similar $100 Nespresso Aeroccino, rather than pick a machine with a difficult to master steam wand. Or take the even lower cost route with CBTL’s $13 hand-held frother and heat your milk in your microwave! (Or even pick up the $3 version at Ikea). Having practiced micro-foaming milk for years with several steam wands, I would not recommend the procedure to anyone seeking convenience and consistency!
Jeffrey the Barak is a coffee enthusiast and is the publisher of the-vu.