At the same time, I’ve wondered if machines could make espresso drinks better. It turns out they can.
Julian Baggini wrote two years ago in Aeon magazine about how (then) more than 15 Michelin-starred restaurants in London used Nestle’s Nespresso machines, as did more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants in France and more than 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, with many others using espresso machines from Illy, Kimbo, Lavazza, and Segafredo. Those are some of the fanciest restaurants in the world choosing to use a capsule espresso machine rather than leave coffee to baristas.
Baggini held a blind taste test between a Nespresso and the espresso served by a barista in a two-starred restaurant. The Nespresso won hands down:
The traditional house espresso scored 18 points, and was the favourite of one taster. But the clear winner with 22 points was the Nespresso, which both scored most consistently and was the favourite of two of the four tasters. Of course, these were just four people’s opinions. But their consensus fits the judgment of top chefs and Nespresso’s own extensive testing, which must have been conclusive enough for them to have the confidence to agree to my challenge in the first place.
It’s not surprising when you think about it that a vacuum-sealed dose of perfectly ground beans run through a finely tuned machine would beat a drink that was subject to endless human error.
Technically, it’s relatively easy to get hold of the best coffee beans, roast them at the right temperature for the right time, grind them to the right fineness, and then vacuum-seal the right quantity for one shot. From that point on, the coffee will not degrade, effectively being as fresh once the machine pierces the capsule as it was when it went in. Then it’s a matter of hiring leading coffee experts, throwing millions of pounds of R&D at a crack team of engineers, and building a machine that will force the right amount of water through the coffee at the right temperature and pressure.
In theory, that is bound to result in a better brew than the traditional process, which, for all its romance, is full of opportunities for degradation and mishap. A bag of beans, once opened, will start to lose its flavour very rapidly once it is ground. Calibrating temperature and pressure is also difficult and subject to human error. While the capsule always contains exactly the same amount of coffee, the amount the traditional barista places in the portafiltro, and the degree to which is it compacted with the tamper, will always differ slightly. Most cafés do not get every step right, and they only get away with it because most people drown their espressos in steamed milk.
It’s just another thing that machines can do better than humans. All told we’re better off to have this technology, created by human ingenuity, though some companies, such as Starbucks, risk falling on the wrong side of the disruption.
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