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Single Serve Coffee Machine Primer

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In my previous article, I talked about recent news in the single serve coffee market. I would now like to take some time to define what is meant by a single serve coffee machine and highlight the available models, contrasting the styles and features.

What is Single Serve Coffee?

While there are many methods of brewing coffee one cup at a time, the most recent definition of a single serve coffee maker is

  • uses electric power
  • requires a proprietary coffee filled capsule or pod

Generally the market is limited to capsule based systems. This article does not address machines called coffee centers, the most popular brands being Jura Capresso and De’Longhi. These coffee centers produce individual servings of coffee using whole bean and ground coffee supplied by the customer and tend to represent a higher cost due to the rich feature set and beverage options. While the “drip-style” coffee produced by these coffee centers can be well extracted and delicious, they are by definition espresso based pressure brewed systems. Espresso is made by using around 9 BARs of pressure while a single serve drip-style machine will use 3 – 3.5 BARs to force water over the packed coffee. You will see nearly all home espresso machines advertised as having 15-19 BARs of pressure. I have never received a clear explanation of why there is a need for having so much more pressure, but I digress.

The first single serve machine was Nestle’s Nespresso, created in 1976. Then, as now, the machine produced espresso coffee using patented pods, processes and a membership group to purchase coffee. By the 1990s Keurig introduced a drip-style machine which would provide coffee for those who did not like espresso. By the beginning of the 21st century, the market opened up with competition for both the espresso and drip-style segments from names like Senseo, Tassimo, FrancisFrancis and CaffItaly.

Keurig single serve coffee maker

Keurig at Amazon

 

Originally single serve coffee machines were divided between espresso and drip-style, however the newer entrants have begun to offer products that produce both styles in one machine.

The Styles

The styles I will cover are drip-style, espresso and the new combination category. The manufacturers are now calling drip-style single serve coffee, “brewed” coffee. I use these terms interchangeably. Though I take some issue with this co-opted term because all coffee is brewed, I believe the intention is to separate espresso coffee from drip-style, while also recognizing that during the extraction process the water is not actually dripping over the coffee. In a single serve drip-style machine, the capsule is pierced and water is sprayed over the grounds but the resulting brew is generally the same as a drip machine.

“Brewed” Coffee

The brand names in this category are Keurig, Tassimo and Senseo. All three function in generally the same way, a pod is placed into the holder, the lid is closed, the appropriate button is pushed and voila, coffee begins pouring into the cup below.

The Keurig machine uses capsules containing the grounds (or other brew material) packed into a prepared, single-serving unit, called a K-Cup pack. K-Cup packs come in a range of brands, flavors, and roast and blend options, but also include tea and hot chocolate. Tassimo calls their version T-Discs. Tassimo T-Disc coffee brands are owned by Kraft, and include Gevalia, Maxwell House, Jacobs, Carte Noir, Twinings, Suchard, Milka, Cadbury, Kenco, and Nabob. Senseo coffee pods are manufactured by Sara Lee Corporation.

While the extensive list of quality branded beverages is what most people are drawn to and are a great selling point for Keurig, the feature that sets them apart for me is the ability to use your own coffee via the My K-Cup. With this device, sold separately on most models, you can add ground coffee from your favorite roaster and still have the single serve convenience. This feature was initially unique to Keurig, however a third party company, the Coffeeduck, makes a durable filter that can be filled with coffee and placed in the Senseo machine to brew a cup of coffee of your own choosing. Likewise EkoBrew makes an independent version of the My K-Cup for Keurig. Tassimo does not support the ability to use your own coffee.
The reusable pod offerings expand every year, especially as the popularity of these machines continues to grow.

Ekobrew for single serve

Ekobrew at Amazon

 

The capability to use one’s own coffee with the reusable filter devices helps reduce the trash created, which is a big issue with all pod based machines (more on that later).

The Senseo and Keurig have the added ability to vary the amount of water that passes over the coffee which of course affects flavor and strength. Tassimo uses a barcode controlled instruction set to determine the temperature and amount of water.

The newest model in the segment, the Keurig Vue, offers even more brewing possibilities, including beverage size, flavor and strength control options.

With the introduction of the Keurig Vue, all the brands have the ability to make milk based beverages. However the machines use brewed (drip-style) coffee based milk drinks, not espresso so the creations are meant to give the impression of a “coffee house drink”.

I was never a fan of the quality of coffee produced by Tassimo or Senseo and the companies haven’t kept up with Keurig in the area of feature function and product innovation.

While Senseo was the first real competitor to Keurig, it was, in its later years, marked by unreliable performance and short product life span. As I mentioned, the coffee produced was, to my taste, not very good quality. Plagued by these short comings, Sara Lee Corporation, announced in November 2011 that they will discontinue the Senseo single-cup coffee business by the end of Spring 2012, “with the exception of certain online channels.”

Tassimo changed hands from Braun to Bosch in the back and forth of recent years after Procter & Gamble phased out all Braun kitchen products from North America, but the lesser quality of coffee and limited user control features have hurt sales.

Tassimo single serve

Tassimo at Amazon

 

Adding to Tassimo’s difficulties was what happened in February 2012: approximately 835,000 coffee makers were recalled in the United States and another 900,000 in Canada, after dozens of reports of the brewers spraying hot liquid, coffee grounds or tea leaves onto people. Data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission state that there have been 140 reports about the coffee maker, 37 of these cases involving second degree burns. The Commission has also issued a recall of 4 million T-Discs concerning reports that they can burst while brewing. Customers who participate in the Tassimo recall are shipped a replacement component which will help prevent the contents of a defective T-Disc from spraying if they burst. The component is shipped free of charge, including instructions to allow customers to install the new component themselves. The details can be found at this Tassimo website… http://www.tassimosafetyrecall.com/Brewer_Check.HTML

Companies like Breville and Cuisinart have made versions of the original Keurig coffee machine which you may see on the market. They use the same coffee pods, function the same way and may even have features that the basic Keurig model does not. For example, the Breville version includes the My K-Cup as part of the set.

Although the coffee machine division of the company is known by the brand Keurig, in 2006, they became a subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. In one of the most successful sales approaches going, the company maximizes its brand by selling machines in traditional retail outlets, using the Green Mountain roasting team to expand the beverage choices, and selling machines and coffee to hotels, inns and B&Bs through their hospitality arm. The combination of these three elements has put Keurig in front of the widest possible audience and is a key reason they dominate the market.

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Espresso

The brands in this category are limited (**see update below), Nespresso and Illy. I want to reiterate that this discussion is about pod based machines only, not traditional espresso machines.

The Nespresso Company, a subsidiary of Nestle Group, manufactures both the machines and the capsules they use. Nespresso machines and their capsules can be purchased in Nespresso stores, by mail-order, or in many other retail shops. As mentioned previously, Nespresso pioneered the premium single serve coffee concept more than 25 years ago, when it introduced its first espresso machine to European consumers.

Nespresso Pixie single serve

Nespresso Pixie at Amazon

 

The Illy brand is both a coffee roaster and an espresso machine manufacturer. Founded in 1994 by Francesco Illy, FrancisFrancis has produced traditional espresso machines for the home market. Italian architect Luca Trazzi was responsible for the striking design aesthetics. In 2009, the X7 model was introduced and used Illy’s IperEspresso single serve capsules while retaining the unique styling of the orginal FrancisFrancis machines. In 2011, the X7 was upgraded to the X7.1 with the main improvement focusing on the time required to achieve the proper heat zone throughout the coffee making process. This upgrade is a vast improvement over the first generation machine which took several minutes to both heat up and to cool down to coffee temperature after steaming, much like a traditional espresso machine. The time to do both functions is now measured in seconds rather than minutes.

FrancisFrancis X7.1 single serve

FrancisFrancis X7.1 at Amazon

 

Illy has also launched a partner product with Gaggia, called Gaggia Illy, which uses the same pods as the X7 but has a shape and style that is more similar to the Nespresso.

Gaggia Illy single serve

Gaggia Illy at Amazon

 

Both of the Illy machines have the ability to froth milk using a standard pressure system and mounted frothing wand.

Illy’s IperEspresso capsules come in the same roasts as the Illy whole bean and ground coffee sold in markets around the world: a regular espresso roast, dark espresso roast, decaf and a regular espresso roast large shot.

Nespresso creates a wide range of blends and roasts with varying flavor profiles and intensity. They offer 16 different coffee “Grand Cru” arabica and robusta blends; two Limited Edition Grand Crus are released every year as well as a new set of seasonal “Variations” or flavored espresso capsules. The Nespresso brand coffee can only be purchased from Nespresso online or via their retail outlets.

Nespresso has really dominated this segment against Illy based on Nestle’s marketing savvy and brand management. But if the espresso quality were poor, it wouldn’t matter how good Nestle is at salesmanship, they wouldn’t succeed.

In tasting the best coffee offered by Nespresso and Illy, I find that the Illy produces a better tasting coffee. The Illy espresso most resembles espresso produced by high end traditional machines. Whether this is due to the coffee, the extraction method or a combination of the two elements, I cannot say.

While the classic FrancisFrancis styling of the X7 and X7.1 – based on the dashboard of an Italian sports car – is not as varied as Nespresso, it is in no way an unattractive machine. The aforementioned Gaggia Illy gives you a second choice of style and color, but Nespresso wins the duel in style choice.

The quality of coffee favors Illy and this holds true with either the FrancisFancis X7/X7.1 or the Gaggia Illy models, but machine style choices, coffee variety and retail availability favor Nespresso. Additionally, the CoffeeDuck company makes a reusable pod that will work in most Nespresso models.

**Update November 2012 – Keurig and Lavazza have partnered to enter the espresso machine segment with the newly launched Rivo Cappuccino and Latte System. As of this update, the Rivo System will be sold exclusively at select Bloomingdales’ locations beginning in mid-November 2012 and is expected to become more widely available in stores, including on Amazon.com & Keurig.com, by the spring of 2013.

The Keurig Rivo System ($229.99 SRP) froths the milk with a unique combination of hot steam and a high speed spinning whisk which delivers single serve espresso-based beverages with long-lasting foam and ideal in-cup temperatures. The combination of fresh milk and a Lavazza crafted Rivo coffee pod offers users up to 32 authentic espresso-based beverages at the touch of a button. The espresso coffee packs will have a suggested retail price of $14.99 for an 18-count box. Stay tuned for more information.

Combo Machines

In the most exciting area of the single serve market, come two machines who will decide the direction going forward. Fitting into both the brewed and espresso coffee categories are the CBTL machine (Caffitaly) and the yet to be released Starbucks Verismo.

CBTL produces both pressure brewed espresso and a drip-style coffee, as well as tea and hot chocolate. This machine crosses into the world of both Keurig and Nespresso/Illy. CBTL is Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a coffee roaster and cafe which originated in Los Angeles, CA. It is a single capsule system that uses two heating elements to allow the user to brew espresso, drip-style coffee or tea. There are several styles of espresso, a dozen varieties of coffee and 4 types of tea. The most versatile model in the CBTL line prepares multiple sizes of coffee and tea, with a special hot chocolate button. I have tasted the results and find the coffee quality very good.

The machines design and style resemble Nespresso or Gaggia Illy and come in vibrant colors. The CBTL coffee machines are available in Bed, Bath & Beyond stores nationwide and online.

CBTL single serve

CBTL at Amazon

 

As mentioned in the previous article, Starbucks has announced they are entering the single serve market with the introduction of a new machine, the Verismo® system. Like the CBTL, the Verismo system will create both espresso drinks, including milk based beverages, and brewed coffee. Starbucks chose not to add the ability to brew tea with the initial product launch.

Given that CBTL is the only combination beverage machine currently available, they stand alone at the cutting edge of the market. When Starbucks releases their machine, targeted for the Fall of 2012, their national name recognition and reputation will make them a formidable player immediately.

**September 2012 Update – The Verismo is now available for purchase. It costs $199.00 and is available at Starbucks, Amazon and Sur La Table, among other locations.

Single Serve Coffee Summary

There is a major concern with all single serve coffee machines: the environment. Aside from the additional energy needed to create the capsules and the carbon gases generated by this process, there is waste produced by the spent capsules. Even though the manufacturers are attempting to deal with this capsule waste by using metals and plastics that can be recycled in community programs and establishing collection points regionally, the fact remains that very few capsules will make their way to a recycling plant. The main reason for this is that most of the capsules are still not recyclable. Even for those that are easily recycled such as Nespresso’s aluminum pods, the sad truth is that not enough of us take the time to recycle as we should.

This problem of capsule waste is lessened by using products like My K-Cup/Ekobrew for Keurig and the Coffeeduck reusable pods for Nespresso and Senseo.

The other concern with single serve coffee machines is that switching from one machine to another is costly due to the fact that none of the coffee capsule systems are interchangeable. The new Keurig Vue for instance, introduced a new K-Cup design that is not compatible with earlier versions.

In spite of these issues, it has been my experience that most people prefer convenience and good tasting coffee over any other concerns.

As for the future of single serve coffee machines, the presence of CBTL and Starbucks Verismo will allow customers to select a machine based on the quality of the beverage produced and not limit their choice based on the type of coffee.

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8 Responses to “Single Serve Coffee Machine Primer”

  1. kitchenboy

    @tewkewl – When this article was written in 3 years ago, Tassimo was in a bad place both from a machine and coffee perspective. That sort of thing can happen when ownership changes hands but I understand that Bosch has brought some stability to the machines and increased coffee partnerships which has the brand doing better.

    I am not a fan of single serve coffee machines in general, but the taste and preferences, as with nearly all things is very subjective. Glad you like their coffee.

    Thanks for your kind words though.

    Kitchenboy

  2. tewkewl

    Tassimo makes espresso. and it is wonderful. I don’t think you know enough to write this article. IMHO drip coffee single serve machines are simply a waste of money. the coffee is no better than a standard drip machine.

  3. G Kerr

    Today I just made a cup of coffee on a keurig maker and another on a nespresso maker. I can detect no difference in quality, flavor, intensity or darkness, nor time it takes. Only difference is the size; the Keurig reusable pod allows me to pack in twice as much ground coffee, giving me almost a second 8 ounce cup. Although both are best just making only a single 8 oz. for keurig and no more than 6 oz. for nespresso. Neither can make that thick syrupy shot that you can get over the counter in a good Rome coffee bar.

  4. KitchenBoy

    Steve, I am not aware of anyone making reusable pods for CBTL. While I think the machine is very versatile and enjoy the coffee it can make, it has a uniquely shaped pod and given that it isn’t very well known across the broader market, no one has taken the time to make reusable pods for their machines, nor have CBTL themselves made one.

    Keurig has made deals with many companies to use their pods so the reach goes well beyond their own machine, hence the reason for so many reusable pod manufacturers.

    The same applies to Nespresso, they are the “big dog” so many companies make pods for their machines, but for companies like Illy/Francis Francis and Starbucks, no one has bothered to make pods.

    I will send an email to their reps and ask if they have plans to introduce reusable pods any time soon. I will get back to you when I hear something.

    Thanks for reading

    KitchenBoy

  5. Steve P

    Great article. Is a reusable pod available for the CBTL models which would allow one to use his/her own coffee/tea, etc., and reduce waste/trash?

  6. Andriono

    I have used cbtl machine for 4 months, it works really well and gives me fresh espresso every morning. However i like appreciate if cbtl provides more choices/selection. Thanks

  7. Mohammed Abouramadan

    Hello Kitchen Boy,

    Very good article thank you. I’m in the process of preparing a PR proposal for a CBTL launch in Dubai, UAE. Very Good insights and comparisons in your article. I would appreciate any more information or ideas from your side for this upcoming launch in Dubai. Please email me.

    Thanks

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