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June 1, 2012

My (not so secret) Love Affair with Nespresso & Their Curious Coffee Capsules.

the art of espresso

My addiction to espresso (pressure-brewed coffee) started in the 1980’s. Being a technically inclined and inquisitive person I sought out to teach myself the essentials of espresso brewing. I read up on the types of coffee blends and roasts, brewing techniques, the art of tamping, proper coffee bean grinding and storage, along with a few espresso machine reviews. After my due diligence I took the plunge. My first purchase was a steam-boiler espresso machine. Steam espresso machines were popular in the early 80’s, as the idea of pressure-brewed coffee was still new to our auto-drip coffee culture. Thank you Seattle for starting the trend that eventually turned us onto the delight of pressure-brewed coffee!

What is Espresso?

Espresso is coffee brewed under pressure at around 195˚ to 205˚. You need 15 to 19 bars of pressure to make a proper espresso. You pressure brew espresso one cup at time using a medium to dark roast. Freshly roasted coffee beans, (the fresher the better!) are then ground much finer than for a drip coffee maker. A good quality conical burr grinder can achieve the powdery grind needed to brew a perfect espresso. The brewing time is also much shorter, only about 30 seconds per ounce. The high pressure, finer grind and shorter brewing time results in a rich, aromatic coffee, complete with it’s signature crema and without the bitter after-taste some auto drip coffee makers impart. Espresso yields between an ounce and an ounce and a half of coffee. No jumbo mugs here! The “less is more” philosophy applies to a properly brewed espresso as it extracts all of the great aroma and flavor of coffee leaving more of the caffeine and undesirable traits behind.

Starting the Journey

Steam machines obviously use steam to provide the pressure, around 9 to 10 bars. These first home steam machines lacked quality and convenience. But, I was not easily daunted, so I tried different coffee roasts, kept fine-tuning the grind and tamped away. With moderately acceptable results I quickly traded up to a pump espresso machine. The obvious advantage with this type of machine is that the water reservoir is external. The steam boiler type of espresso machine operates similar to the radiator in your car, BEWARE - DON’T REMOVE THE CAP WHILE THE ENGINE IS HOT OR RUNNING! This made making several cups at a time impossible, as the internal boiler had limited water capacity.

A pump espresso machine has an ample water tank that is separate from the pressurized brewing system, allowing you to brew cup after cup without interruption. I quickly discovered that these pump machines also produced higher brewing pressures, anywhere from 15 to 19 bars. And, higher pressure means more quality crema. What is coffee crema?

the illusive crema

Crema, which means cream in Italian, is the benchmark of a great espresso and it is what separates espresso (pressure-brewing) from other coffee brewing methods. Perfect crema possess a rich coffee aroma. It should also be lighter in color than the coffee itself. Thick and creamy, it will float on top of the espresso and stick to the sides of your cup, creating a delicate web of lace on the cup wall as you savor every sip.

Some folks mistake the espresso’s crema for frothed milk because of its thick, rich appearance. Without it you might as well return to the mundane world of auto-drip coffee.

A Century Pursuing that Illusive Crema.

The first pressure-brewed coffee contraption was steam powered and the idea was born out of the need to brew coffee quicker to accommodate the faster-paced beginnings of the industrial age. More specifically, employers wanted to make the employee “coffee break” shorter. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. These first machines where large and brewed many cups at once. The steam produced too high a temperature for optimal coffee brewing, which is around 195˚ to 205˚. One of these early steam machines was featured at the 1896 World’s Fair and was said to have brewed over 3,000 cups of, well, lousy coffee.

the first pressure-brewed coffee steam machines

Luckily in 1901 an Italian named, Luigi Bezzera confronted this too-high-a-temperature problem by designing a machine that used the steam to create the needed pressure, but kept the steam’s high temperatures away from the delicate coffee. This was also the beginning of single cup brewing. The steam’s pressure forced hot water down into the brewing filter and brew head at a lower temperature. This produced a better tasting coffee in just 30 seconds. The Italian manufacturer Pavoni purchased the patent from Luigi and started selling commercial machines with this new design in 1905.

early 1900's steam espresso machines

The Italians were not finished however, and from the 1920’s through the 1940’s Italian engineers where testing many different pumping devices that would increase the brewing pressure thus elevating the quality of the coffee even more.

The first machine to achieve this lofty goal was developed in 1938 by M. Cremonesi. His new design used a hand-powered piston to create more pressure than the steam boiler could on its own. The pressure from the steam in the boiler forced the water into a cylinder, then it was pressurized even further by a hand-operated spring-powered piston lever. The process was revolutionary as it provided about 8 to 9 times the pressure of the earlier steam machines of Luigi’s era.

piston-pump pressure espresso machines

What dripped from these new brass piston-pump brewers was a fuller-bodied espresso with an exquisite layer of sweet crema. Alas, dark, rich, complex, concentrated and satiny espresso shots with a rich, hazel-colored crema on top and an overwhelming aroma was achieved. Piston-pump machines were manufactured by Achille Gaggia starting in 1946.

Brewing the perfect espresso with these lever machines was tricky and took knowledge, experience and artistry. Skilled coffee bar keeps were needed to operate these commercial machines and so the Barista was born.

Innovations kept coming and the next major design change happened in 1961 by another Italian manufacturer, Faema. They came up with the idea to use an electric pump to move cold water through a heat exchanger, now known as a thermoblock, to the brew head. This design eliminated the steam-boiler altogether. The electric pump provided the pressure and the heat exchanger provided the proper brewing temperature. More bars of consistent pressure and a more stable water temperature brewed a fabulous espresso. The addition of the electric pump paved the way for the coming wave of home espresso machines.

Electric pump espresso machines

By the 1970’s a company called Ulka (should have been called Eureka!) introduced to market a smaller, inexpensive pump that could produce the pressure needed to brew authentic espresso. This enabled manufacturers for the first time to produce affordable and small pump espresso machines designed especially for home use. Gaggia was one of the leading manufacturers to introduce these small pump espresso machines to consumers. These new home espresso machines where somewhat expensive, varied in quality, and in the amount of pressure they produced. Because of their manual nature, even the quality brands still took a good deal of finesse to achieve the ultimate espresso and espresso-based coffee drinks like cappuccino and latte. The Barista was not dead, yet.

the true art of espresso

My Ongoing Search for the Perfect Espresso.

After my first pump espresso machine, I traded up to several different brands and models with varying degrees of success. While my passion was growing for pressure-brewed coffee my patience with these manual espresso machines was growing as thin as the crema they produced. There are several key steps involved in producing a high-quality espresso with a pleasing crema. And, getting all of them just right can prove daunting.

Steps to Brewing Espresso or The Art of Espresso Making

  • The Coffee - the blend is crucial to achieving a well-balanced, rich but smooth espresso.
  • The Roast - the roast needs to bring out the aroma and sugars without being too dark and bitter.
  • The Grind - you must achieve the perfect extraction time. Too fine and the brewing time is too long, too course and the brewing time is too short.
  • The Grinder - the grinder of choice is a conical burr grinder because it does not heat the coffee beans during the grinding process and it can be set when the perfect grind is achieved.
  • The Dose - another critical part of brewing espresso is the amount of freshly ground coffee you put into the filter holder per ounce of water.
  • The Tamp - probably one of the hardest of the steps to achieve consistently and often the most over-looked. Tamp too hard and the extraction time is shortened, tamp to lightly and the extraction time is lengthened. Either way you get a bad cup of coffee.
  • The Temperature - stable water temperature during brewing needs to be between 195˚ to 205˚ to ensure perfect results.
  • The Pressure - pressure between 15-19 bars is optimal to achieve the perfect crema formation.
  • The Brewing Cycle - extraction time needs to be between 25 - 30 seconds per ounce of water.
  • Cleanliness - anything that comes in contact with the coffee grounds and coffee must be clean and free of oils, old coffee grounds and old coffee residue.

That’s a lot to think about! While they say practice makes perfect, even a self-proclaimed coffee snob and gadget geek like myself found these steps, most of which are out of my control, prohibitive to brewing great espresso with any consistency. I needed a better solution.

Nespresso espresso coffee maker collage

Enter Nespresso. An Honest Review of Nespresso Coffee Makers.

What is Nespresso? In 1986 the Nestle Nespresso Division was launched in Switzerland and in 1991 they introduced their innovative new line of espresso makers in the USA. It took almost a decade and an attic filled with used and unwanted espresso machines before I stumbled upon this new brand. Nespresso machines use their proprietary, and at first puzzling, capsule system.  Yes, you brew espresso from special capsules filled with ground coffee. My coffee snobbery kept me from embracing this new concept as it took away my ability to buy and grind my own coffee beans each morning. But, after a few more frustrating months fumbling with my latest pump machine I came to realize that half my problem was not so much with the machine, per se, but from all of the steps required when using a manual espresso machine. Grinding, dosing, and tamping, oh my! Somewhat reluctantly, I finally gave into Nespresso’s new fangled coffee capsule system.

Nespresso D300 coffee maker

It was 2001 when I purchased my first Nespresso machine, a D300. It featured the classic filter holder like the manual machines I was accustomed too, but the difference lie in the curious little coffee capsule. Instead of filling the filter basket with ground coffee, I just dropped a shiny coffee capsule into the filter holder, brought it up to the brew head, gave it a short twist to the right and I was ready to go.

Next, I pushed the “small espresso” button, which I set to yield a 1.25 ounce espresso. A little pop followed, and then to my total amazement out poured a thin stream of the most beautiful, hazelnut-colored coffee I had ever laid eyes on. The intense, sweet aroma quickly filled my kitchen.

As I looked down into my cup there it was, that illusive crema, proudly floating atop my espresso. Yes, it was the same crema that Luigi tried to coax from his steam machine over a hundred years ago and the same crema that Mr. Cremonesi produced in 1938 with his invention of the piston-pump lever espresso machine. I was on my way to becoming an Nespresso pro!

Perfectly brewed espresso with a thick, rich, aromatic and creamy crema was now mine to enjoy right in my own home! Soon I discovered that every morning I would be greeted by the same amazing cup of pressure-brewed coffee, in about a minute and a half from start to finish. Baristas beware - over a decade of searching for the illusive crema had ended. I had finally found the best coffee maker for brewing authentic European cafe-style espresso. Thank you, Nespresso. The coffee quality, compact design, ease of use and mess-free brewing make any Nespresso Coffee Maker the perfect choice for a small business or office. It is no wonder why Nespresso coffee makers earn top ratings.

Fine Tuning

In the beginning I experimented with all the different Nespresso Grand Crus or coffee capsules. I settled on Arpeggio, the purple one. Nespresso’s website touts Arpeggio “as a dark roast of pure South and Central American Arabicas, with a strong character and intense body, enhanced by cocoa notes”. I say “perfectly brewed espresso every time that is creamy, nutty and intense without all the fuss and mess.”

Now that I had found my favorite Grand Cru it was time to find my favorite coffee drink. I steamed milk, I frothed milk, I added one shot, two shots, sugar, no sugar and I landed on this version, a modified breve, which I still drink today. A traditional breve is a shot of espresso with an equal part of well-steamed half and half.

Frankie’s Nespresso Citiz Breve Recipe

My Nespresso coffee recipe uses their Arpeggio coffee capsule, feel free to try another Nespresso coffee capsule flavor if you like. You can also substitute frothing for my microwaving the half and half. You can use either a traditional wand-style frother or Nespresso’s easy-to-use Aeroccino, frother which can be found on their Citiz + Milk, Pixie Bundles, Essenza Bundles and now the new Gran Maestria.

  • Start with a small, approximately 4-5 ounce coffee cup, or a European sized cappuccino cup.
  • Add 2-3 sugar cubes, depending on your taste.
  • Pour in half and half just until the sugar cubes are covered.
  • Microwave for 30-35 seconds, depending on your microwave
  • Brew two 1.25 ounce shots of Arpeggio, that’s two capsules into your cup.
  • Lightly stir and enjoy!

The secret to my Nespresso machines longevity and reliability? After you are finished brewing run a cycle without a coffee capsule. This quick step rinses the brewing chamber free of coffee residue. Note how clean the water is running out of the spout in the 5th picture below. Below is a pictorial of my morning ritual as made in my current and beloved Nespresso Citiz.

how to make a nespresso coffee pictorial

NOTE: If you choose to froth your milk instead of using a microwave make sure your cup is warm before using. An ice cold cup can ruin even Nespresso’s best intentions!

Hooray For The Nespresso Citiz! (Nespresso Citiz Review)

My D300 was respectively retired in 2010 (it still works!) after gracing me with over 15,000 delicious cups of coffee house quality espresso! Feeling it was time for a new Nespresso and wanting to take advantage of their new innovations I purchased the top rated Citiz espresso maker in classic white, (it’s actually an off-white). I loved the slim retro design and urban feel of the Nespresso Citiz and it fit perfectly in my space-challenged kitchen.

Nespresso Citiz Coffee Machine Range

The Nespresso Citiz which was introduced in the US in 2009 features Nespresso’s “open jaw” capsule system eliminating the need for the separate filter holder of my D300’s design. This system lets you drop the coffee capsule right into the brewer and then automatically ejects the used capsule into a removable capsule holder after brewing. It is much more convenient and less messy than my old machine. All of their current models use some variation on this improved capsule handling.

Another feature that enticed me to make the upgrade was the three-point extraction system. Three holes are precisely pierced into the top of the capsule before brewing. This further maximizes the extraction process, resulting in improved flavor, aroma and crema. My beloved D300 has a one-point extraction system. Hail to Nespresso for their continued pursuit of coffee excellence!

Nespresso Pixie - Electric Red

One For The Road!

For my travel adventures I have the compact Pixie in electric red. It’s actually more of a deep persimmon color and it follows me almost everywhere!

The hip Nespresso Pixie coffee maker comes in a variety of fun colors and finishes. I’ve purchased a couple more of these hipsters over the last year and gave them as gifts. Needless to say, now there are a couple of people out there that consider me a gift goddess!

I do wish Nespresso USA would introduce a very-compact version, with a one to two cup water capacity that is small enough to neatly pack in a suitcase for air travel. I warned you this was a love affair!

NOTE: All of Nespresso’s current espresso machines brew the same quality and the same tasting espresso. The difference between the range of machines and prices are the bells & whistles and programming features of each Nespresso espresso machine.

Nespresso Coffee Maker Range. Starting at about $130 for their bare-bones manual Essenza to around $550 for their new aluminum body Maestria.

Nespresso Coffee Makers

Nespresso Coffee Maker Range with Integrated Frothing. Starting at about $200 for their basic Essenza Flow-stop Aeroccino Bundle to around $700 for their newest machine, the aluminum body Gran Maestria with the new Aeroccino4 Frother.

Photobucket

Nespresso’s One-Button Cappuccino Machines. The Lattissima and Lattissima Plus, made by DeLonghi are fully-automatic and nifty one-button solutions for around $400.

Nespresso Lattissima Plus

Nespresso Aeroccino Frother Range. If you are looking for a better way to froth and steam milk for cappuccinos and lattes, this simple, little automatic frother is just the ticket! Nespresso Aeroccino

Happy brewing everyone,

Frankie

PS: Here’s a brief description of the 16 Nespresso Grand Crus.

Nespresso Grand Crus

The Flavor of Nespresso (The story of the Nespresso Coffee Capsule)

These 16 outstanding Nespresso coffee flavors range from subtle to bold and offer single origin coffees, along with well-balanced coffee blends. Each coffee capsule ensures freshness and a commitment to using the finest coffees from around the world. Brew excellent espresso with these special coffee capsules and discover the Nespresso difference today!

The Espresso Range of Nespresso Capsules

The espresso collection features seven coffee capsules (varieties) from bold and robust to subtle and smooth.

  • Ristretto - Arabica with a touch of Robusta, strong roasted notes softened by notes of chocolate. Perfect for Ristretto and Espresso.
  • Arpeggio - A dark roast of pure Arabica beans, intense grilled notes alongside subtle cocoa notes. Also perfect for Ristretto and Espresso.
  • Roma - Arabica and Robusta blend is full and balanced, with roasted and woody notes. Perfect for a classic Cappuccino, as well as Ristretto and Espresso.
  • Livanto - A rounded and well balanced full Arabica, with fruity and caramelized notes. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Capriccio - Rich and distinctive Arabica with a touch of Rubusta, has a light acidity. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Volluto - Sweet and Fruity pure Arabica, reveals a sweet biscuity flavor and light acidity. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Cosi - Light and lemony Arabicas blend, light-bodied with strong citrus notes. Perfect for Espresso.

Pure Origin Coffee Capsules from Nespresso

Three distinct blends that are region specific offer the ultimate in coffee refinement.

  • Indriya from India - a noble marriage of Arabicas with a hint of Robosta from southern India, full-bodied with distinct personality and spice notes. Perfect for Ristretto and Espresso.
  • Rosabaya de Columbia - fine individually roasted Colombian Arabicas, subtle acidity and fruity notes. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Dulsao do Brasil - pure Arabica blend that is delicate and balanced, sweet and complex. Perfect for Espresso.

The Lungo Range of Nespresso Coffee Capsules

These three blends offer a bit more coffee per capsule for a larger cup.

  • Vivalto Lungo - balanced and complex Arabica is the perfect mix of several origins that result in a rich, sweet cup with subtle floral notes. Perfect for a taller coffee.
  • Fortissio Lungo - Arabica with a hint of Robusta, intense and full-bodied blend with a bit of bitterness. Perfect for a taller cup.
  • Finezzo Lungo - delicate marriage of lightly roasted Arabicas, notes of jasmine and orange blossom. Perfect for a larger cup.

The Decaffeinated Range of Nespresso Coffee Capsules

Bold blends without the caffeine.

  • Decafeinato - a blend of Arabicas with a touch of Robusta is lightly roasted, hints of red fruit, wine and a buttery note. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Decafeinato Intenso - dark roasted full-bodied decaf espresso, intense body with chocolate notes. Perfect for Espresso.
  • Decafeinato Lungo - slow roasted Arabicas with a touch of Robusta, smooth creamy body. Perfect for a taller cup.

Nespresso also releases one or two Limited Edition Grand Cru Coffee Capsules each year.

5 Comments »

  1. That was a very interesting and informative article, thanks for the time you put into it! I came to it looking for a basic review and learned quite a bit more.

    Comment by Rob P. — May 28, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

  2. Hi Frankie,
    I was impress, and would like to thanks for the great information/ artical.

    I have a few questions; To brew a good, crema high-pressure espresso, we need the 10-combinations (as mentioned above)…
    1) Instead of 15bars to 19bars pressure… Do you think, a “pistor” pressure + hot-water steam presure can brew a good-high-pressure crema espresso?
    2) Do you mean, higher-brewing pressure, such as more than 20bars brewing will have even better cream effects?

    Appreciated, if anyone can comments? Many thks.

    LucasChin

    Comment by Lucas Chin — August 26, 2013 @ 2:30 am

  3. Just wanted to send my thanks for a great review. Learned some new stuff and you helped me decide to get the Nespresso. It’s going to be a Christmas present to myself. Can’t wait.

    Thanks for taking the time to review.

    Dennis

    Comment by Dennis — December 1, 2013 @ 12:56 am

  4. MY GOODNESS! Thank you so very much for this informative and well detailed article. You are so knowledgeable and a good writer. Thank you for sharing :)

    Comment by Minoska — January 21, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

  5. AWESOME review, thanks so much!!!

    Comment by Karen — January 28, 2014 @ 2:39 am

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