The Last Mile

OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a huge fan of single-serve capsules. From Monday through Friday, that is. I’ll also argue that capsules are just the thing in certain professional settings.

There, that feels better. Let me explain.

To say that my day doesn’t start until that first coffee would be a serious understatement. It-literally-does-not-start. I can barely turn a shower handle before espresso number one. But my hyper-trained taste buds come alive with the sound of the alarm, so settling for anything less than palatable isn’t an option. So happily, even one-twentieth awake, I’m able to hit the bulls-eye on my capsule system’s start button, and get the day rolling in less than a minute. The result is about 90 percent of the way to perfection, and that will more than do when time isn’t on your side.

That capsule system sits alongside my ultra-high-end professional machine that gets the royal treatment, just as in a professional setting. That means 25 minutes to properly warm up, a few minutes more to recalibrate the grinder, properly tamp…you know the routine… then savor the phenomenal result. And then a few minutes more to clean the machine (yes, even after pulling just one shot; see last month’s column). This is a routine I absolutely love and embrace come the weekend, when time is counted in hours, not seconds.

As you might imagine, I’m particular about my capsule system, and am partial to the iperEspresso system that my company makes, which uses a proprietary, two-stage method to form a beautiful, long lasting crema. Taste being a matter of choice, I begrudge no one’s choice of system, because if almost every single serve apparatus does one thing well, it is creating a consistent result every time. And more than anything, save for the most adventurous single origin bean hunters out there (you know who you are, and I love you for it), what people really want is the taste they know and love, time after time. Consistency is king.

Which brings a back to the second and more provocative part of my opening statement, about capsules in professional environments. Ask yourself a question: is coffee the business you’re in, or does coffee play a supporting role? For café owners, that can be a judgment call, and a matter of whether your fans come first for (a), the sweet or savory, with coffee complementing the culinary, or (b), vice versa. And also (a), whether you have dedicated, well-trained baristas behind the counter, or (b), well-intended multi-taskers who do their best to get it right, with up and down results.

If you answered (b) to either question, you might want to consider a capsule system, keeping focused on what people love most about your shop, while upping the ante on consistent coffee quality. The benefits extend to custom drinks, and the confidence of knowing that the key ingredient – the “Intel Inside” – will be right every time. Also, consider that a mere 10 percent of espressos are enjoyed on their own, the rest served with some kind of milk. Moving to capsules will give your staff more time to focus on steaming, and for the art-inclined, some latte art mastery. That said, even the best capsule systems don’t have wands that match traditional machines’ in creating that perfect leaf. But on balance, the benefits far outweigh that shortcoming.

For the lion’s share of restaurants, it’s really a no-brainer: capsules are the way to go for on-demand espressos and espresso-based drinks. I have long argued that baristas should join sommeliers on fine dining staffs, but that’s not likely to happen to any meaningful degree any time soon. Imagine a chilled-to-perfection glass of Sauvignon Blanc left out too long before reaching the table. Now picture a crema that sits too long, and the need becomes clear. Moreover, consider that coffee is often the last thing that comes to the table before the check; that final touch with power to color the entire dining experience, and influence tips.

Some of the world’s finest restaurants have seen the light and converted, fully understanding the “consistency means quality” argument, and secondarily, for the efficiency that it introduces to coffee station operation. They also like fretting less over proper bean storage, and appreciate the inventory control that comes with capsules. Which raises discussion of the actual cost differential between capsules and beans not being as great as the nominal price difference. There is inevitable waste that comes with beans, in shots that need to get re-pulled and spillage of beans and ground coffee. That isn’t to say that capsules are the most economical solution, but that a bigger picture view is worth taking in overall decision-making about formats.

The best argument against capsules is of course the green one. While Keurig’s refillable “basket cups” for its consumer machines do well for the environment in eliminating plastic, and the coffee drinker in offering personalization by bean preference, they also negate some of single serve’s biggest benefits: preparation speed and consistency from cup-to-cup. Illy’s RENEW program for iperEspresso capsules has made sending spent capsules back effortless for subscription customers, with spent capsules’ contents going to compost and housings upcycled into park benches and other products. The industry as a whole is committed to finding standardized solutions, as reported in these pages, and for the good of all.

So am I ready to put my conical grinder and favorite tamper on eBay? Not now, not ever. Though you might get a different answer if you ask at, say, 7 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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