The Pod People are Here

TRIBE Arroyo Grande

This week’s blog may seem like an odd rant, but then do you really read this page for normalcy? It may also seem like a sponsored piece, but I assure you neither the brand showcased here, any of their associated network OR any coffee shops mentioned contribute to my wallet or well-being. This is my own pitch, stimulated by personal experience, observations over the past several years, and triggered by an event over this past Thanksgiving weekend.

My coffee progression begins rather normal, then goes opposite most, but started out typically with a tiny De Longi pressure machine–as many have–soon taking the MASSIVE step to an entry-level pump, then a nicer pump, a grinder, far more expensive machines, naturally trading the grinder in for a proper mill, and generally geeking out on more and more selective beans as my home coffee setup expanded and the morning espresso ritual became, well: just that. Along this journey, my acceptance–and criticism–of espresso served at shops and restaurants became both limited and increasingly vehement, respectively. This status was exacerbated by frequent trips to Europe, where the simplest, most effortless 2€ cup produced nuances and flavors drastically out-weighing ANYTHING being served at even the nicest shops. It was delicious and fruity, always of perfect temperature and smothered under heady crema. I started bringing huge stashes of–basically supermarket–ground espresso coffee home from France, packing the little bricks into my freezer to last until a return visit. I kept this up for many years, until many of the brands of European coffee became readily available at Cost Plus World Market and others.

This pattern interrupted the *normal* path I have watched many progress on, one of better and ridiculously more expensive machines–and the associated rigmarole–even so far as home-roasting and of course beans approaching the price of drugs. For many of my coffee-geek friends, this represented a huge step back in proper coffee evolution, but then: I took an even BIGGER leap backwards in snobbery. 5 or 6 years ago, I tired of my daily coffee routine and decided to try pods, causing an almost universal asterisk on my coffee credibility. I started with a Bialetti machine–yes, the famous moka-pot people–mainly because the proprietary pods were ONLY available in or from Italy, but of course also for the quality of cup it produced.

TOP DOG Morro Bay

Eventually, the machine began to wear out and the logistical issues with limited pod availability state-side, and I began to snoop around. Nespresso was an obvious choice, and I went quickly through not only two machines, but the VAST numbers of both proprietary and compliant pods. The coffee quality–frankly–sucked, and no amount of experimentation improved it. The only slightly bright light with this system were the illy and Lavazza pods, names coffee snobs roll their eyes over, but ones I had learned to look for hanging in cafes in Europe–along with their branded little cups.

Armed with this glimmer of hope, I made the obvious mathematical calculation, deciding to go straight to the SOURCE, cutting out the sub-par Nespresso machine. Lavazza does not make a machine (at least last time I checked) but research showed illy not only had a machine, but a proprietary pod quite unlike any on the market and promising great advancement. I quickly ordered their little Y3.3 machine along with several cans of their single-source coffees–something I immediately discovered made FAR superior espresso than the standard Classico and Robusto. This machine made a GREAT cup of coffee, and–based on my experience with their FrancisFrancis machine from grind & tamp days–began eyeing the Y7.1 unit. These machines–despite their basically one-button operation–were highly programmable on extraction and volume and made BEAUTIFUL espresso (to be fair, the Nespresso machines are also slightly programmable). In addition to a solid one-pound porta-filter, these machines also included a feature I had learned to *trick* my conventional units into performing, and that is to pre-charge the pod with a tiny shot of steam, pausing several moments, then resuming full flow.

In Italy a couple years ago, I noticed for the first time many restaurants, hotels, bars and even cafes with plain little illy x7.1 iperespresso machines–the same one I have at home, costing almost exactly 1/10th what the pinnacle of my conventional lifestyle had–being used for coffee-service. This was a SHOCKING discovery–I couldn’t believe my eyes–one which shook the very foundation of my Euro-centric coffee-assumptions. Often they were in heavy use directly alongside an idle La Marzocco! And yet, when I looked in my cup, or held it to my lips, I had no complaints.

Which brings us to last weekend.

An interesting thing happened Monday mornings in Carmel. Unplanned and without meaningful objective, merely simple happenstance, it violently reflects the extremes of coffee-culture–and snobbery–where the rubber hits the road–or in my case: the feet on the sidewalk. A literally side-by-side juxtaposition of events spurring at first anger–and then shock–inducing much thought this past week and spawning this post.

KIN San Luis Obispo

Emerging from my hotel, I made a short walk, entering one of a couple very popular coffee-destinations on the main drag. This cute little place roasts their own beans, has a $20,000 machine, was staffed by the owner and–assuming here–a highly-trained barista manning the levers. My usual order–“single espresso”–was met agreeably, and moments later was handed a small vessel containing some of the most vile liquid I have ever experienced. Flat, watery, brown, over-roasted, cooked, one-dimensional, flavorless tar under perhaps a dozen small bubbles clinging to the rim. I mean: this stuff was on STARBUCKS level, and if you’ve ever ordered an espresso from Starbucks, you KNOW what I’m talking about. Now, I don’t mean to single this establishment out, as this is not a singular event. THAT’S WHY THIS POST! It happens over and over and over and over and over and over with a consistency defying reason.

Shaken–but not shocked–I wandered up the street to visit a donut shop I had heard recently opened. I don’t ingest too many donuts, but this was a bit of an *artisanal* style, and I was curious. While ordering, I noticed they had a small–but impressive–machine, and asked for “a single espresso”–expecting my extremely lackluster track-record with donut-shop espresso to be met. The place was staffed by a few kids, full focus was on the pastries and their preparation, the patina of freshly-opened restaurant (one week) was apparent in both operation and conversation, and–assuming again–I’m guessing these were not highly-trained baristas. Gourmet coffee was NOT the focus of this place.

THE ROCK Morro Bay

You’ve already figured out where this is going, right?

Out to my table came one of the most beautiful containers of joy I have ever held. I’m embellishing here a bit–of course–most notably because of its stark contrast with the previous cup. Smelling gorgeous, nutty and packed with fruit, delicious crema covering the perfect liquid and clinging thickly to the sides. Exclaiming my surprise and satisfaction, I noticed for the first time a tiny “illy” sign–not prominently-displayed–and tucked behind the machine: the open containers of pods. “OMG!” I shouted, and immediately turned my attention to *the machine*. Sure enough, I was being served POD COFFEE. The shiny UNIC Twin Mira had been fitted with impressive porta-filter blocks to accept illy iperespresso pods.


Now, you may be assuming the gist of this is to convince my industry readership to convert, emphasizing the lack of muss & fuss, the (lack of) training required, and the consistency realized. Restaurant owners probably know of this option, but may be hesitant for appearances sake. But that’s not completely it, and for the REST of you reading this: consumer stigma must also be overcome, and I am hoping these words help sooth those asterisks and create a public more accepting. I am not suggesting a *dumbing-down* of coffee culture NOR would want this option to replace procedure at establishments where “COFFEE” is on the mast-head. That would be criminal, and pods will never come close to reflecting the quality of espresso from shops serious about their craft, like Kin, Kreuzberg, of Banner–my three current local favorites. But if your coffee-service is merely an accoutrement: a bakery; a cafe; a bar; a restaurant offering real coffee with breakfast or after dinner; I beg you to consider this path, as THESE are the biggest offenders.

I am not necessarily *in love* with the concept of pod coffee or even that it can compare to highly-regulated and professional conventional machine operation–just highlighting the potential for happier customers in an atmosphere where espresso or cappuccino is ordered irregularly or where clientele is not expecting 10/10 product. And I DARE you to eat dinner at basically ANY local restaurant and order espresso after dinner. The vast majority can not even approach 5/10.

Chez McConnell

And what about logistical issues? What about capsule availability, cost or sustainability? Availability is no issue, however, only three illy coffees are offered in commercial-sized–and priced–quantities: Classico, Robusto, and Decaf. These make *decent enough* coffee, and will run you less than 50¢ a pull but if you really want to step up your game, the consumer line of specific-origin pods from Guatemala (my favorite), Costa Rica, Brazil, India (my least favorite), Ethiopia and on and on make unbelievably good coffee, but will run you around $1/per. I’m hoping illy starts offering these coffees in commercial sizing and pricing in the future. The best consumer machines from illy will cost only $300, but regeneration will be an issue in a busy spot. Professional machines go from 3k to 15k. And of course, as always comes up in this conversation: recycling and sustainability. Listen: be your own judge on that issue, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. illy DOES have a very efficient recycling program in place, but I question the ‘green-ness’ there, as it requires shipping.

And the consumer stigma? Unless you are ‘barista front and center’, NO ONE will ever know. They’re just going to love their coffee. I know of at least one MAJOR resty here locally who has moved to this product, and I hope many more do. Think about it, and for the love of Dog stop serving swill for espresso at your restaurant. Here’s some links:



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