Plastic Capsules
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The Nespresso revolution = yet another myopic article

From time to time an article bashing Nespresso and its business model comes along. Latest in this list is this one from the Guardian. Recently it made the rounds on social media and was shared to us (more than once actually). We read it and reflected on it for a couple of days before collecting our thoughts, before feeling ready to make some points about it.

We are more and more convinced that often these articles are written by journalists that either don’t truly understand what Nespresso is or dislike the company, for whatever reason. Why do we believe this? Because all of them are myopic takes on Nespresso and in general the coffee pods systems. Allow us to explain why.

Nespresso is for espresso lovers

From the above-mentioned article:

Nearly half a century after it was conceived, Nespresso finds itself in an uncomfortable new world. Consumers who might have once craved its polished, urbane chic now look for dirty-fingered artisanal blends to use with their pour-overs and Aeropress machines. A Nespresso machine on the kitchen counter used to prove your membership of a convenience-loving global consumer coffee elite. Increasingly it suggests that you are not a serious coffee person, and that your attitude to the future of the planet is suspiciously relaxed.

The article is right that Nespresso aimed at making people feel like being a part of an elite club, with other coffee connoisseurs around the world, willing to spend higher amount of money per their cup of coffee in the morning. That was absolutely one of the reasons Nespresso became so successful in the first place and what Nestlé aimed at from the very beginning. And the article is also right that nowadays the mass of consumers that want to be considered “coffee experts”, whatever that may exactly mean for them, moved on to Aeropress, pour overs, siphons and the various devices that aim at extracting the most flavors from the coffee beans.

Espresso and book

The problem is that, none of these devices and these new coffee experts are making espressos. They’re making cold brews, americanos, long brews that are kept warm as long as you need them to drink. Only a fraction of these people moved on from Nespresso machines to a proper espresso machine at home, or one of the tiny manual espresso making devices that popped up recently on the market. The majority went into specialty coffee territory and pour overs, because that’s what is in fashion nowadays and what is supposedly the best way to bring out the most of a batch of coffee beans.

Basically, the new “coffee experts” are mostly not making espressos at all. And that’s what instead Nespresso machines are made for.

The Guardian article insists in comparing the output of a Nespresso small capsule to the tablespoons of freshly ground coffee made with a pour over. As with plenty of other articles, this is a misleading take on what Nespresso is. The comparison should be with espresso machines, small and professional ones. And with those only.

Nespresso machines can’t produce the same gentle, flavorful and large amount of coffee that a Hario or Chemex can. People have attempted brewing multiple capsules in the same cup to imitate them but that is a whole different brewing type, making a triple or quadruple espresso, not a pour over. It’s not possible to compare a method that pushes hot water through a tiny amount of ground coffee to one that gently gets through a generous portion of coffee in a few minutes.

Chemex
Chemex

Yet, journalists insists in comparing what is an utility car with average/good performances with a sport car with higher costs, higher maintenance and a steeper learning curve.

We are sure that a nicely-made espresso machine paired with freshly ground coffee and a single origin 100% Arabica beans produce a better espresso than a Nespresso machine ever will. But at what cost, in terms of time and skills? For coffee experts, it is worth it; not so much for simple drinkers.

Nespresso never tried to replace these machines nor the pour overs. The true professionals will always use a big and chunky espresso machine for their cafes, as the wannabe baristas will too, or buy an esoteric carafe and cautiously learn to brew it to the best of the beans’ possibilities . That’s a fact.

Nespresso has to be compared with the same-priced espresso machines, in the order of $2-300, in terms of quality of the coffee, convenience and costs. Not with pour overs or $1000+ espresso machines. That is unfair to Nespresso. And quite misleading for the readers.

Nespresso’s impact on the environment

Another aspect that is inevitably discussed in any article about Nespresso is the impact the coffee pods have on the environment. From the Guardian article again:

Even if Nespresso’s figure is accurate, with a conservative estimate of 14bn capsules being sold each year, and 0.9 grams of aluminium per capsule, that means 12,600 tonnes of Nespresso aluminium end up in landfill annually, enough for 60 Statues of Liberty

We don’t want do dispute these numbers. Let’s assume they are true and Nespresso is exaggerating how much they are recycling. That is something we as Nespresso drinkers should all be aware of.

The point is: why the same data aren’t exposed for the Nespresso compatible capsules too? There are dozens if not hundreds of companies that also produce capsules that work in the same machines as the official Nespresso ones, and none of them as far as we know even attempt to recycle them from the customers. They leave them to the consumers to dispose them, most probably ending up thrown away in the trash along with everything else. Who knows how good are the community recycling centers near you at extracting the aluminium from the compatible capsules or separating the ground coffee inside from the plastic and properly reuse both?

Nobody knows. It’s always “Nespresso doesn’t recycle enough” but never “what about the others”?

Same with general ground coffee packages. While it’s absolutely true that the ratio of packaging per ground coffee is higher in a capsule system (every few grams of ground coffee need a whole capsule to be used vs half a kilo or more per a single package), we never saw an article geared to the general public talking about how much of the packaging of coffee bought in supermarkets or at your local coffee shop is actually recyclable and recycled. It is never said.

Paper Coffee Package
Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

Same with compostable capsules. It is surely a step in the right directions in terms of being good for the environment but still there’s rarely if ever any mentioning of how long the capsule take to dissolve into the terrain and if they contain chemicals that can be toxic for the environment. It’s always assumed that “compostable = good” and that’s about it.

Why not spending a word on discussing the quality of these capsules? Are they air-tight too? How good are them at keeping the coffee fresh compared to the official ones? Do the capsule influence somehow the coffee flavors inside them, being made of a different and often more porous material than plastic or aluminium? We would love to know. But no journalist seems inclined to let us.

For sure there are articles about recycling coffee waste. Plenty of. But they invariably focus on the positive acts some companies are doing and ways to recycle the waste produced by coffee around the world. None of them is written from the point of view of criticizing a specific company in the coffee industry, as so often happens with Nespresso.

Don’t get us wrong though, Nespresso is imperfect and we are not here to defend the company. Nespresso can do better and should. But we find very strange that no other company is held to so high standards in the same industry as Nespresso is. We would simply like to read a proper comparison on what each company, at least the big names, do to recycle their packages and ground coffee. It would have sufficed to add that while Nespresso may exaggerate the amount of material that is recycled from their capsules, other companies don’t even release much data nor we know how it is recycled at all.

Plastic Blue Coffee Capsules
Photo by Kous9 on Unsplash

None of this is present in the Guardian article. We are left assuming that other companies are more eco-friendly than Nespresso and that’s about it. Previous articles, like this one from the BBC, let Nespresso talk a bit more about their efforts about sustainability but the general tone is similar. Both are unconvincing, to say the least.

Is Nespresso better than other systems?

We don’t want to answer this question because it depends on a huge array of factors. Do you prefer espresso? Do you like the choices that the capsule-based systems offer or prefer to be able to buy any coffee in the world instead? How much time do you have to make your coffee each day? How much are you willing to spend for your daily cup? How skillful you are at brewing coffee? Do you want a system with little to no maintenance or are willing to sacrifice a few minutes each day to have the best quality possible?

Too many factors. We leave this answer to you readers. We do believe Nespresso is a quite good compromise between quality and skill needed (or lack thereof). Considering the cost at which the machines and pods are sold, it’s often better than a good deal of cafes out there and of most other brewing systems handled by newbies.

Beside this, we would like to have a good discussion that can put Nespresso in the specific market it is meant for, and a fair comparison of it with other brewing methods. Leave us a comment below or chat on the Facebook group of NespressoGuide. Let us know if we missed a more positive article about Nespresso or a better comparison. We’d be more than happy to amend this.

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