The invasion of the (coffee) pod people

In Italy, Nespresso machines can't compete with the divine espresso served in cafes. Elsewhere, it might be another story. 

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Aperitivo snacks

In Italy, Nespresso machines can't compete with the divine espresso served in cafes. Elsewhere, it might be another story. 

So here we are in Torino, or were, four years ago, drinking a coffee at the storied Caffè Mulassano and watching smartly dressed Italians walk by. Their shoes cost more than a month's rent, but their aperitivo's a bargain, since it comes with free access to a buffet that puts Seattle's happy hours to shame. (Not to rub it in, but where else do freeloaders expect happy hour deals as if they were a birthright?)

And the coffee! Sure, it costs 5 euros at the baroque counter, but it's the most fragrant, flavorful espresso you'll ever drink. And while we're on the subject: remember how McDonald's used to bitch about Starbucks and its fancy-pants coffee? (The YouTube commercials are here.) Well, take a look at the billboard campaign Mickey D is running now!

Which brings us to Nespresso. I tried the machine and its single-serving espresso a couple of times on a recent trip to Vancouver, B.C. (where the Tourism Vancouver people generously put me up in two new luxury hotels). The coffee was surprisingly good, and a lot tastier than the filter-basket drip you find in most upscale hotel rooms.  A nice range of styles, organized by the color of the little pod containing the coffee, from robust to mellow. Of course if you want a machine of your own you've got to start by shelling out at least $300 for a machine (and up to ten times that much). And that's just the beginning.

The cost per capsule is 55 cents, and there are 16 different flavors and intensities. Nespresso boutiques in Europe are like high-fashion showrooms. Once you buy the machine, you return regularly as if checking out the latest couture designs ... or the latest movie star. George Clooney made a string of witty commercials for Nespresso; one with John Malkovich is here. You can buy the pods online, too, if you figure out how to navigate the too-cool-for-school website.

Nespresso doesn't sell its pods in supermarkets, but its single-serving coffee competitors are happy to attract customers that way. And boy, does it make Nestlé mad! So does the imminent expiration, in 2012, of its patents to the Nespresso machine. According to a big story in the New York Times last month, "Nestlé has been working on ... ways to prevent competitors from hacking a system that uses unique water dynamics to pump an espresso kissed with foam out of a hermetically sealed aluminum capsule."

The biggest competitor, Sara Lee's Senseo, started selling its own pod, a perforated plastic capsule called l'Or, in French supermarkets this summer, priced at 37 cents. The company says they've sold 30 million units since June. Another rival, Ethical Coffee, found its factories raided by French police on a claim of patent infringement. And an Italian rival, Lavazza, announced last week that it is buying a stake in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters so that it can compete head-to-head with Nespresso in the US market.

More than three quarters of Green Mountain's $800 million in sales last year came from espresso brewing systems and their disposable capsules — single-use, nonrecyclable, nonbiodegradable pods made of plastic and tinfoil that are meant to be thrown away, filter, grounds and all, after a single use.

But what can they do? More biodegradable packaging? Recycling programs? Reusable filters? "The whole concept of the product is a little bit counter to environmental progress," says the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If you are trying to create something that is single use, disposable, and relies on a one-way packaging that can't be recycled, there are inherent problems with that."

The problem is less pressing, though, if you're sitting with your barista-brewed macchiato on the Piazza Castello in Torino in the late afternoon. Might even come up with a solution: why not mail the spent pods back to the company and require them to solve the problem? Meanwhile, I'll head along the arcade to the next café, Roberto or Florio, maybe, or even Torino, and get started on the aperitivo buffet.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).