Espresso in a glass cup

Is Nespresso real espresso?

Nespresso has “espresso” in its name so it’s only logical to compare the output of a Nespresso machine to what an espresso machine can brew. Espresso is a specific coffee drink that has specific characteristics. The most recognizable one being the crema (“foam”) that the coffee creates due to the pressure at which hot water is pushed through the ground coffee.

Every Nespresso machine works under the same principles and it is natural to ask: is Nespresso real espresso? Can a Nespresso machine produce an espresso?

The debate has going on for years. Coffee snobs have often snubbed Nespresso as not a “real espresso” and producing a subpar crema, if not just a generic “foam” that is not comparable with the real one made with a good espresso machine. Some abhor the concept that it would be possible to make a real espresso without a proper machine with a portafilter. What’s the truth behind this negative attitude?

What is an espresso?

Let’s see what would be the official definition of an espresso, from the Espresso National Institute:

  • 7 ± 0.5g of ground coffee
  • 88 ± 2 °C of exit water temperature
  • 67 ± 3°C of temperature in the cup
  • 9 ± 1 bar of water pressure
  • 25 ± 5 seconds of percolation time
  • 25 ± 2.5ml of volume in cup, crema included

You can read the full PDF with these definitions and more here. This is for an official Italian espresso but as the drink was invented in Italy, it makes sense to base our concept of it on their definition. It is anyway the most recognized definition of the coffee drink throughout the industry so let’s assume it as the correct one.

Is Nespresso a true espresso?

According to the above definition, no. The amount of ground coffee is slightly inferior, as the Original line pods contain 5g or somewhat more than that. Some compatible capsules have more, like 7-8g, thus matching the official definition but they’re the exception, not the rule. The Vertuoline has more, the standard capsule contains 9g while the larger ones up to 13g. That’s nearly double the amount of the recommended quantity.

By comparison, the espresso machine’s portafilters can contain anywhere from 5g to 30g of ground coffee. Most espresso machine will brew with more ground coffee than any Nespresso ones, as do the vast majority of cafes.

Ground Coffee Taken With A Spoon
Ground Coffee Taken With A Spoon

As per percolation time, the time during which the hot water passes through the ground coffee, with a Nespresso machines we’re close again to the standard: most capsules will take 15-20 seconds to complete an espresso-sized brew.

The volume in the cup can be customized with most non-entry level Nespresso machines. The same can be done for the water temperature. We can assume that Nespresso can match the official definition of an espresso here, at least in some specific cases and with tweaking the default values.

The pressure is way above what it’s recommended by the Espresso National Institute: 19 bars vs just 9. This is the only parameter in which any Nespresso machine considerably deviates from the official standard.

So, if we want to follow that definition as above, we could conclude that a Nespresso, Original or Vertuo, machine can make a drink similar to an espresso but not truly one. At least if we think in a purely technical way, ignoring the final taste of the coffee in the cup, which can be highly subjective.

But do espresso machines make true espressos?

Well, if we keep following the same Italian definition, we should conclude that maybe: many espresso machines on the market, including the professional ones, do follow that standard, but not as closely as you’d expect.

Most espresso machines use more ground coffee: a basket that can contain 30g of ground coffee isn’t unusual. That’s up to 4 times more than the recommended 7g. There are plenty of differences here from machine to machine and often the grounds dose is meant for a double or triple espresso, thus the need to accommodate more coffee in the portafilter. It is definitely possible, and many do, to make an espresso with the recommended amount of coffee grounds though. Whether the specific espresso you drank at a cafe has done so it’s impossible to say unless you ask the barista.

Thus, it is very possible that an espresso from an espresso machine, that looks and taste absolutely delicious, isn’t made with the recommended 7g of coffee of the standard. It is easy to claim that this change is for the better, and we’d agree, but here we’re talking about whether a machine can produce “official” espresso, not the “best” one.

Espresso Machine Brewing
Espresso Machine Brewing

Most if not all espresso machines can be configured to work with different water temperatures, different extraction times and to yield variable amounts of coffee. More on this here. We can assume that the majority of espresso machines on the market can brew an espresso at the temperature and extraction time and with the right volume in the cup as the official standard. Most will require a bit longer percolation time, but 25 seconds are normal.

The pressure is also often in the order of 9 bars, but quite a few machines can go above it. Whether this makes any difference is debatable.

The point to make here is: if we follow the same strict definition of an espresso as stated above for both Nespresso machines and any espresso machines, we should conclude that neither respect it for sure every time. Nespresso pods have too little coffee inside, excluding the Vertuo’s ones though, and too much pressure, while espresso machines may use more coffee and sometimes also higher pressure. If we wanted to be strict, we should conclude that a Nespresso is not capable of making an espresso as defined by the Italian National Espresso Institute, while an espresso machine may not.

What definition matters?

Clearly something is amiss. Most cafes around the world have standardized an espresso that is similar to the Italian definition but not quite. We could say that that definition is outdated, or even wrong. Sure, things change over time and standards can be updated.

But then whose standard should we follow? Why the way that some cafes make an espresso, or any coffee expert or any other specific association in the industry makes an espresso should be “the standard”? How do we establish it?

We can’t. At least if we want to be scientific about this, we can’t. Only if a large part of the coffee industry came together and standardized the espresso definition, we could assert that something is an espresso while something else is close to but not quite so. The claim that a Nespresso machine doesn’t produce an espresso is thus unsubstantiated.

As we stand, either we follow the Italian definition, that at least has a long tradition of history and expertise to back it, or we can’t clearly say what is an espresso. And neither what is not, logically.

Even the most expensive espresso machine for professionals may not quite match the definition of an espresso. Or, you need to take good care to follow the standard, as by default an espresso machine may not. Yet hardly any barista will ask whether any particular machine makes real espresso or not. We take for granted that an espresso machine makes espresso, without considering if that specific shot was pulled by following the Italian definition of an espresso. We assume it is an espresso. After all, it came out from an “espresso machine”, so why shouldn’t that be an espresso?

Instead, when talking about a Nespresso machine, the answer becomes often a “maybe“. Or “absolutely not“, if you ask some coffee snobs.

It is not even a matter of a wholly different taste, as some blind tests (like this) didn’t discover much difference here between a Nespresso and the average espresso from a classic espresso machine. These are of course totally subjective and not scientifically valid, only anecdotally of interest. It would be interesting to make a roundup of the same coffee brewed with a few entry-level espresso and Nespresso machines by a pool of coffee tasters. It would be very interesting to discover if and how much the differences from the standard influence the taste of the espresso.

Coffee Bubbles
Coffee Bubbles

Again, technically speaking, the only factor that should make us say that any espresso machine makes any more “real” espresso over a Nespresso one would be the stronger water pressure of these. Which is a weak argument as it is not uncommon for espresso machines to have more than 9 bars of pressure when extracting an espresso.

Unless we have a priori established that an espresso cannot come out from a small, aluminum or plastic, capsule. But in that case, what would be the exact shape, size and material of the “right” portafilter to make an espresso? Who knows.

To come to a conclusion, if you expected a definite answer to the question “is Nespresso real espresso?”, you are probably by now deluded. There’s hardly anything in the world of coffee that is objectively true or false anyway. Our conclusion is that no, Nespresso is not real espresso, but it is very possible that neither is your espresso machine’s coffee. Unless you tweak the espresso machine to respect that definition, you aren’t technically making espresso. Which makes the question “what is real espresso” somewhat futile.

Perhaps the whole question was wrong in the first place. Perhaps instead of asking what is a real espresso with a series of technical parameters, we should ask what is the taste profile, the visual-olfactory components that make an espresso? What result from a brewing method produce a coffee that has the qualities and characteristics of an espresso? Mainly, a strong coffee, with a heavy body and a crema on top. But that is material for another article.

Let us know in the comments what you believe should be the exact definition of an espresso. We would be happy to start a lively discussion on this.

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  • Michael Erb

    I think this is an excellent article. It clearly discusses the factors that go into making what we would call Espresso and thoroughly dissects the “official”, as defied by the Italian Espresso National Institute, parameters of how to produce an official Espresso. Coffee Snobs will be Coffee Snobs. Blind taste testing is really the answer and rather than pose the question as you did… “It would be interesting to make a roundup of the same coffee brewed with a few entry-level espresso and Nespresso machines by a pool of coffee tasters. It would be very interesting to discover if and how much the differences from the standard influence the taste of the espresso” why don’t you just do exactly that?

    • Nespresso Guide

      Thanks a lot for your feedback!

      We would truly love to make a blind taste testing of a few Nespresso machines and coffee vs entry-level espresso machines of a few different brands but the harsh reality is that we don’t have the necessary funds to do so 🙂 We aim one day to be able to do such large comparisons though, as soon as we can afford them. In the mean time, donations are welcome 🙂

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