For coffee consumers, capsules have traditionally been a compromise: greater convenience, lower quality. Yet as they grow in popularity, specialty coffee versions are also on the rise.
How good can a specialty coffee capsule be? And why are they increasingly popular? Let’s find out.
Lee este artículo en español ¿Por Qué Las Cápsulas de Café Especial Aumentan su Popularidad?
Brewing capsule coffee with a capsule.
What Are Specialty Coffee Capsules?
Coffee capsules were first invented around 44 years ago, with the machines arriving roughly 10 years later. They are now a common sight in homes, offices, and restaurants around the world. More than 40% of US consumers own one, while in the UK, nearly a third of households owned one back in 2016.
We think we know the story about capsule coffees: we associate them with Nespresso, commodity-grade coffee, convenience, and a poor environmental impact. Yet recent research from the University of Bath suggests that capsules have a better footprint than both filter and espresso when you take into account all stages from coffee farming through to brewing and waste disposal.
And the quality of capsule coffee has also improved, pushed by coffee companies sourcing exceptional green beans. These specialty beans are graded at a minimum of 80 points out of 100, meaning they have superior flavours, aromas, and mouthfeels, but they can score much higher. Coffee graded as specialty can also, in theory, result in higher prices being paid to coffee farmers in the form of quality premiums.
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Coffee trees grow under shade at Hacienda El Roble, Colombia. Credit: Hacienda El Roble
“Ultimately, 90% of the taste of any coffee is down to the bean – if it didn’t happen in the farm, it will not happen in your cup,” says Amir Gehl of Difference Coffee, a manufacturer of Nespresso-compatible specialty coffee capsules.
One of the coffees he sells is the famous, award-winning Geisha variety from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, owned by the Peterson family. This coffee is known for its delicate and distinctive notes. Rachel Peterson tells me, “All the attributes of the Geisha come through in the capsule loud and clear.”
Freshly picked, ripe-red coffee cherries on Hacienda La Esmeralda, Panama. Credit: Hacienda La Esmeralda
Yet it’s widely known that ground coffee quickly loses its flavours and aromas, resulting in a stale cup. How do capsules avoid this?
Amir says that it comes down to the materials. “Coffee loses flavour mostly through degassing and oxidising,” he says. “Many capsule materials used today, unfortunately, do not have a sufficient oxygen barrier so even if they do contain high-scoring Arabica, the coffee would most likely arrive stale.
“Each Difference Coffee capsule contains less than 1% residual oxygen and it’s nitro-flushed and hermetically sealed to preserve each portion’s freshness… The equipment itself needs to have a grind-by-weight weighing system which will discard any capsules within 0.5 g deviation so that the recipe is maintained for consistency.”
Another factor in the capsule’s quality is how it’s brewed. Using good quality water, regularly cleaning the machine, and running a cycle without a capsule to bring the machine to the correct temperature will all help.
A Difference Coffee capsule containing washed Geisha coffee from Hacienda La Esmeralda. Credit: Zsuzsa Zicho
Consumers Increasingly Interested in Quality Coffee Capsules
Capsule sales have been rising globally by 9% annually, compared to the 1.6% growth rate of the general coffee industry. In 2016, around a third of the Western European’s coffee market sales were from capsules.
For some in the specialty coffee market, competing in this sector just makes business sense. And for consumers, it answers many of the issues they’ve historically had with specialty coffee: the inconvenience, the steep learning curve, and the risk of ruining a cup of expensive coffee by brewing it poorly.
“Those who do frequent specialty coffee shops can purchase beans, but that would require the customer to have brewing skills, and most often expensive equipment as well as time. It’s not easy in this day and age to have all of this and most people don’t really wish to become baristas,” Amir says.
Oswaldo Acevedo is the owner of Hacienda El Roble in Santander, Colombia, a coffee farm known for its unique and rare HR-61 variety. According to him, no other farm in the world grows HR-61, which is known for its complex, floral notes and silky body. It has sold in auction for higher prices than experimentally processed Geisha. He tells me, “We are just learning about the specialty coffee capsules. However, we think capsules will continue to grow.”
First introduced to the concept of specialty capsules in 2016, when Difference Coffee won a lot of his HR-61 beans in auction, he sees the value for them in consumers. Today, he says he is “honoured” that his coffee is being served in Difference Coffee capsules.
“A numerous segment of high-end coffee drinkers value being able to enjoy the ﬁnest coffees without investing time and effort in brewing. Capsules are the perfect answer for them and one would think they would continue to drink coffee that way.”
Placing a Difference Coffee capsule in a capsule machine. Credit: Zsuzsa Zicho
Why Are Capsules So Attractive to Consumers?
Rachel Peterson tells me, “[Capsules] are so easy to prepare and enjoy. You don’t need to have anything other than a coffee machine that uses capsules to enjoy an outstanding coffee… There is no dosing to figure out, no water to weigh, no grind size to worry about, and no timer needed.”
With capsules, the whole process can take under a minute: the machines need about 25 seconds to heat up, while the extraction time is around 20 seconds. You simply fill the water reservoir, place the capsule into the machine, and push a button.
Contrast this with the abundance of recommended specialty brewing equipment, such as pouring kettles, expensive burr grinders, and scales, as well as the process of dialling in, grinding, and brewing at home. This is especially true if someone’s using a notoriously tricky pour over or an espresso machine. Even the relatively user-friendly French press takes longer, involves more cleaning, and requires careful attention to water temperature, brew time, and more.
And nobody would recommend using a French press to brew a Hacienda La Esmeralda Geisha, Hacienda El Roble HR-61, Cup of Excellence: Rwanda winner, or many of the other specialty coffees that are available in capsules.
Capsules make it easier and cheaper for a home brewer to begin enjoying great coffee at home. And it shouldn’t need saying that perceived ease of use has been shown by multiple studies to result in higher interest from consumers.
There are also other advantages attracting consumers. First, they’re not tied to roast-by dates. Rather than buying a 250 g bag of coffee that’s best used fresh and then calculating when they should drink it by, customers can buy the capsules coffees that appeal to them and in the quantity that they’re likely to drink. If one doesn’t get drunk as quickly? No problem, it’ll keep. Much like how best-before dates can impact how much a consumer buys, roast dates can send customers towards instant and capsule coffee.
Perhaps even more importantly, there’s also the reduced brewing risk. Fiddling around with grind size until the coffee stops tasting sour or bitter? That doesn’t just take up time and energy, but also money – especially when you’re brewing extremely expensive coffees.
Difference Coffee capsules, prior to brewing. Credit: Martin Behrman
Capsules sales are continuing to grow strong: in France and the Netherlands, they made up over 30% of coffee sold by volume in 2018. Most European countries, while slower on the uptake, are still showing an upward trend. In the US, it is now the second-most popular home brewing method.
It’s easy to understand why. This method offers convenience, freshness, affordability – and increasingly often, specialty-grade beans.
And Amir believes that when capsule coffee is better, the whole industry can benefit, from the consumer through to the producer. He says, “My vision is one where every consumer with a capsule machine brews specialty coffee – a coffee which not only tastes amazing but also pays farmers a big premium for their coffee.”
Written by Tasmin Grant. Feature photo credit: Zsuzsa Zicho
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