In Quest Of: A Perfect Cup of Coffee

Have you ever noticed how many blogs by women feature the word “coffee” or mention coffee in their tagline? A quick search on “mom blog coffee” pulled up Mommy Needs CoffeeThe Coffee Shop BlogBusy Mom (Better Parenting Through Coffee), Coffee Lovin’ MomCafe Mom, and Mommy Loves Coffee.

And that was just on the first page of results.

I could do another search for titles that include the words “Java,”  “Cappuccino,” “Latte” and “Caffeine.” The point is, there are a lot of women who cannot get through the day without their hot, caffeinated beverages, and I am one of them. I have a Pavlovian response at the site of a Starbucks logo, and an uncanny ability to remember the exact locations of coffeehouses I’ve visited — even in cities I rarely frequent.

I admit it: I am an addict. I go through periods where I try to cut down on my consumption (such as the nine months of pregnancy, when I switched to decaf) — but I always come back. I just have a hard time waking up in the morning, and need a little liquid kickstart. And I need it even more on days when I’m trying to write: Caffeine has been shown in studies to help increase women’s focus and concentration, and I have found that an extra cup has the power to jolt me out of my spacey stupors and back on track.

But I won’t drink just any cup of Joe. My favorite coffee beverages are the sweetened lattes, which have way too many calories to consume in mass quantities. I hate a brew that’s overly bitter or weak, and while I enjoy a good espresso, I don’t often make one for myself, even though I have a pretty good espresso machine. I’m lazy. I don’t want to take the time to heat the machine, measure and tamp the grounds — and then clean it — just for a single tiny cup. (We won’t even talk about the effort it takes to froth milk and clean the nozzle for a cappuccino or latte.)

So given these proclivities, it’s not surprising that I took some time out of a busy day earlier this month to attend an event showcasing the latest single-cup machine from Nespresso. The festivities were held in a pop-up cafe at LA’s famed Grove shopping center, and for most of those attending, the big attraction was celebrity spokesperson Padma Lakshmi. But for me, it was the coffee.

The Nespresso “U

Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi is the type of woman I like hanging out with. She loves good food and good drink and I could put up with her being so gorgeous long enough to enjoy a Girls Night Out in a trendy restaurant. She said that she had stopped drinking coffee in the United States because too often, it tasted like a hot, bitter liquid with grounds.  And then a friend suggested she try one of Nespresso’s machines. She bought one for herself and loved it — so her endorsement actually means something, as it comes from someone who uses the product herself.

The Good

The machine has a small footprint, so it does not take up a lot of counterspace. The water tank swivels so you can configure it to fit exactly how you want it.

It is extremely simple to operate: turn it on, drop in the capsule and let it go. You can modify the size of the pour: Ristretto is the smallest, at 0.85 oz, Espresso is 1.35 oz and Lungo is almost the size of an old-fashioned coffee cup, at 3.75 oz.  These are NOT Ventis — but the resulting brews are not weak and nicely balanced.

When you turn the machine on, it takes just 45 seconds to heat enough to brew a cup of coffee with 16 bars of pressure, which create a gorgeous crema float at the top.

The colorful, aluminum coffee capsules are also small and Nespresso sells a variety of attractive containers for storage and display. However, they’re really expensive (scroll on down to the section titled “Bad.”) The capsules are airtight, which ensures that your espresso or coffee will always come out fresh.

The U automatically pushes the empty capsule into a container for emptying and recycling later. There is also virtually no excess dripping, which is super nice.

Nespresso has targeted foodies and coffee snobs with this machine. It’s only available at Nespresso boutiques and high end department stores and cookware chains like Bloomingdale’s and Williams-Sonoma, which — whether you like it or not — gives the machine some cachet. But that means if you don’t have a retailer near you, you must order the coffee capsules online or by phone. It’s easy to do with membership in the Nespresso Club, where you can get personalized advice on which of the 16 “Grand Cru” coffee blends you like best. (The U came with a sample of each; I have been busy jotting down my tasting notes on each one so I can figure out what to re-order).

I love the ease of making myself an afternoon espresso pick-me-up or an evening decaf. It is no exaggeration when I say that owning this machine has changed my life (in a good way).

The Bad

As mentioned above, you can’t just run out to the supermarket to buy more capsules. And if you don’t have a Nespresso boutique near you, you will have to order by phone or online.

The capsules will run you about sixty cents a piece. This is expensive when you compare it to the cost of coffee by the pound, but it’s within range of the price of other single cup coffeemakers’ modules. It’s also way less than you would pay for a shot of espresso at Starbucks, and the flavor is better.

You cannot make cappuccinos or lattes with the U. Nespresso makes other models that include a frother. They also make an Aeroccino (seen in the video), which heats and froths milk.

Of course, as with any single cup coffeemaker, there is a lot of waste inherent in all those little coffee capsules. The good news is that Nespresso’s all-aluminum capsules are 100% recyclable. Nespresso will even pick your used ones up for you — if you live in Manhattan.

The rest of us have to do the recycling ourselves. That means taking them to your local recycling center, after you have washed out all the coffee grounds. You will also need to pack and bundle the used capsules tightly (because their small size can jam the machines that process the aluminum).

Another issue is Fair Trade – ensuring that the farmers use best practices and earn a fair return. For the last couple of years, I’ve only purchased Fair Trade certified coffee for my home. Nespresso’s coffee has been certified by another organization, the Rainforest Alliance, which aims to accomplish the same goals of sustainable farming with living wages. And here is where it gets dicey: The Rainforest Alliance has been accused of being a greenwashing program, because they will certify a product with as little as 30% sustainable content. (Nespresso says their goal is to source 80% of their coffee from the 40,000 farmers who are participating in their own proprietary sustainable coffee program.)

So that could be an issue. However, all is not rosy with the Fair Trade organization, either. There has been a rift between Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International,  the organizations that issue the coveted certification. The bottom line is that it’s increasingly tough to tell what you’re getting, even when you make the effort to pay a premium so that the people who grow your coffee benefit.

This is one I’ll be chewing on for a long time — while sipping an espresso.

This article was previously posted at In Quest Of. We were given the Nespresso U machine reviewed in this post. Review our Disclosure policy here.

2 thoughts on “In Quest Of: A Perfect Cup of Coffee”

  1. The Nespresso machine Donna gave me a as a holiday gift last year has been well used. I knew I really wanted one, but wasn’t quite sure how to manage it as our mom gave us a Keurig also. Then my husband gave me a pound of Peet’s coffee for one night of Chanuakah. I was swimming in coffee. But I’ve found a good routine: Keurig M-F and Nespresso Sat/Sun. Sometimes on Friday night or Saturday afternoon I sneak in an extra espresso. I have a lot of unused coffee beans now since I’m not using the drip lately.

    As a treat, I’ll put a little half and half with a little sugar and two chocolate Nespresso capsules. Yum.

    1. Goofy Girlfriend

      I love my U, so much so that I take it to the office during the week and bring it home on the weekend. It is the highlight of my afternoon! Generally around 3p, I will pour a little unsweetened vanilla coconut milk in a double-walled Bodum glass and add two capsules (Santander with Caramelito is a good one). As I admire the layers of my cuppa, the beautiful crema floating on top, I’ll deliberately take a minute to slow down, maybe look out the window and relax for a bit. It definitely gets me through the rest of the day!

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