« Back to Maxwell’s Blog


December 23, 2015

Coffee is full of surprises.

In our minds eye we categorise everything, putting labels on ideas and experiences. What do we label as good and what do we label as bad?

Speciality coffee is an area of the market place that often has a mild tension between exploring the new, exciting and innovative whilst also searching for a more constant, authentic idea of quality. The two are not always mutually exclusive, that’s for sure.

We experience technology. In coffee that means we experience a drink that a certain piece of technology played a part in creating.

The drink essentially defines our idea of that technology’s value, of its capabilities. The technology however is not the sole maker of that quality. It has a user, a driver. A product it was asked to prepare. It is often extremely hard in coffee to separate which element of the making process is responsible for which flavour element. The water project has displayed this starkly.

Have a bad batch brew, brewed with undesirable beans and little governance of the process and we could possibly deduce batch brews are then bad. Somebody lovingly makes us a pour over with great coffee and then we may deduce a pour over is far superior. Case closed.

It is also true of course that meaning is placed in the making process itself. There is a value system here and not one to be shirked off. Ritual and process have their place.

However it is often stated that something objectively makes good or bad coffee. This is the concept being explored here.

Capsule systems are particularly unique in this regard as the product chosen to be delivered via a capsule system is more curated. Your choices are limited. It requires a fair amount of expensive technology to put coffee in capsules, especially if you really play with the technology.

Capsules currently available on the market place do exactly what they’re supposed to do and they do it very well. It’s just difficult to realise that if we don’t share the same product goals. They are supposed to offer an espresso style drink with loads of crema, to an audience looking for and expecting a traditional commercial coffee taste profile.

I’ve always been interested in tasting what the rest of the coffee world beyond speciality has to offer, not because I personally enjoy it, (although I appreciate others do) but because of the reference it offers. I find it interesting to see what people are drinking and how the flavour relates to the narrative the companies are telling.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who works for a very successful company in the traditional Italian style market was kindly driving me from London back to Bath. He pulled over into a layby excited to show me something. The company’s latest in car capsule machine was revealed.

This is a big company whose whole bean and ground coffee I was very familiar with and had tasted on a number of occasions. I thought it was all very neat that we were brewing espresso on the side of a dual carriageway half way through our trip, but what really caught me was that it tasted better than any other experience I had had with the companies coffee. For me this was the first time I had been able to experience a direct reference, to see what Capsule delivery systems are capable of brewing wise. In the past I had always tasted coffee from a “capsule only company”, so I didn’t know what that coffee tasted like when brewed manually.

The idea of using capsules as a genuinely worthwhile way of brewing speciality coffee is likely a rarely held notion. The zeitgeist and status quo of the community does warp and evolve regularly though, and what was not considered at all a few years ago can suddenly become cautiously considered and then embraced.

So, is now the time that capsules go from being ignored, even hated, to embraced by the speciality coffee community.  A valuable and unique delivery system for the coffee we are looking to share?

Personally I like to try and remain open minded to any delivery system.  That is if it is able to combine water and coffee in a way that the resulting beverage displays the characteristics that define the coffees provenance and value.

I really think capsules are a unique and valuable delivery system with many additional benefits.

Over the years we offered coffee training courses in our store. These courses were often bought by the non industry drinker. Friends and family would buy a course for their coffee obsessive hard to buy for sister or friend.

Personally the courses ended up being extremely fascinating for myself. There tended to be a correlation that individuals from very interesting fields of work would come on the courses.

At the beginning of the course I like to get to know a bit about my student. We quickly cover their interest in coffee and how they currently approach preparing themselves a cup. More often than not we discuss how they have an Aeropress and buy coffee from such and such, and use scales etc. Then comes an apology.

“I’m sorry but for the office and for espresso type drinks I have a Nespresso machine. I am not overly enamoured with the results but there is a lot about it I like. Ease of use etc”

In consultancy jobs I would often come across discussions about capsule systems. In this case it was more a frustration about a solution for their business that offered them the convenience and the quality/flavour profiles they were looking for. I remember a restaurant owner that told me how they had tried capsule solutions but weren’t happy with the results, so they moved over to a manual set up. Lots of investment, staff training and quality control. However, if they were honest with themselves the quality was incredibly hard to maintain across the staff base. At the low points the consistency and quality actually dropped below that of the capsule. So now they are back with capsules. Their question to me was, do I have a solution?

I think the wrong way to see capsules is that they are in danger of replacing the craft and quality of a handmade espresso. The right way to see them is as just another brewing method. “Just” sells them a bit short though.

It is a brewing method that many people are using. The exciting thing here is the opportunity to display amazing coffee in another way.

The shift of narrative that comes with a more “finished” product and single servings is also something to get excited about.

A customer buys a bag of beans in my store. The discussion we have has a strong likelihood that it will focus on brewing methods and guidance mixed with the provenance and flavour profile of the coffee. We may chat about grind, water temperature, weight of coffee to water etc. For a lot of customers this adds to the immersion of the experience and there is a lot of value here. But the idea of also offering coffee in a way where we skip the making lessons and focus on the choice of coffee as the centre of the experience is alluring.

The dynamic of the experience with the coffee can then manage different angles in one fell swoop. The dialogue and story are now primarily about the coffee itself and what it can offer in the cup.

Choice and comparison become the central experience. To taste different coffee and origins in the speciality sector at the moment you would have to buy several bags at once, which when opened present staling issues and then you have to brew two or three manually side by side to try and taste multiple coffees. You have to grind them individually and so on and so forth.

Today I was sat in a café in London and we plugged in a capsule unit (with the permission of the proprietor) and tasted different coffees side by side within a minute or two, then discussed the flavour and origin of each.

This didn’t dumb down the experience. It had its own value. Just like the several stages of a more crafted traditional process have their own value. I brought my own water in a bottle to get the best results. We effectively focused on ingredients first and foremost.

The capsules we were drinking were ours. It was so exciting to see them fit in neatly on a table of well-prepared speciality coffee drinks and brewing methods. In fact they won some favour in places.

Of course, you, the reader have likely not tasted them. Currently, this is all hypothetical for many.

Hopefully, early next year you will be able to make up your own mind……..


Explore Our Beans

Beans An icon showing a coffee bean.


Catch up

October 11, 2015