Coffee Machine World

As I was putting our old (still functional but makes poor coffee) Senseo coffee machine in the barn the other day, I came across my old Lavazza Modo Mio machine, and the empty box for my Nespresso Krups machine. All of which was to make room for a Nespresso Vertuo machine. I also have a bean-to-cup machine at home, which is not to mention the cold brew apparatus.

Then we went down to my brother-in-law’s house in the next village, and I noted how, in his kitchen, he still has a (rarely used) Senseo machine, along with a Nespresso machine and a bean-to-cup machine. Meanwhile, in his garage, he has a collection of about 8 coffee machines that various people have given him to repair. He did one the other day, he said, that needed a €5 replacement part, for which he charged the owner €25.

He repairs a lot of coffee machines. I’m old enough to remember when having an entirely manual Melitta drip filter jug was fairly novel, and then there was the family’s first electric filter coffee machine. I also once had a filter coffee maker that was featured in the design museum. Ah, yes, the Philips Café Gourmet: made objectively terrible coffee because it’s design meant that the last bit of the water reached too high a temperature – as you can see clearly in the product promotional image.

I think we’ve all had a lot of coffee machines, is what I’m saying. At the current rate, the entire world will be one huge pile of coffee machines within 100 years. And this consumption seems to be driven by a perennial dissatisfaction with the results. At my finicky peak I was roasting my own beans (in a popcorn maker), grinding them myself, and trying to make espresso using a (very) basic manual Gaggia machine.

These days I mainly make coffee with pods. What I like about the pod system is not that the coffee is perfect but that the coffee is decent, and most importantly, consistent. With my manual Gaggia I was making maybe one good cup for every three attempts. With a capsule system, within the variations offered by the different roasts and blends, the coffee is pretty much always the same.

I do find coffee culture a little upsetting, particularly in the amount of waste produced. The skips full of Costa takeaway cups outside the store are not a great advertisement. As far as pod systems are concerned, I think Nespresso are doing a good job with their recycling programme. And while you can buy 3rd party capsules in the supermarket, you should avoid the plastic ones, and stick to aluminium, which can be recycled continuously. The coffee grounds themselves are turned into compost/topsoil and/or biogas, while the aluminium pods are turned into all kinds of things, from pens to bicycles and more coffee pods. Aluminium is aluminium: doesn’t become less so when recycled.

The latest machine in my life is a Vertuo Plus. Vertuo could be seen as Nespresso’s cynical attempt to kill the 3rd party pod market. These more technical pods come in a variety of sizes and feature a bar code, which is read by the machine to determine the quantity of water it pushes through. These more technical pods are currently not available from 3rd parties. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I have seen how the presence of Nespresso compatible pods in supermarkets have made the machines more popular. Most recently, even companies like Illy, which had its own (failed) pod system, have started producing them. On the other hand, many of the 3rd party pods are plastic, and sometimes they don’t work properly. And there was clearly a demand for a greater range of coffee sizes. While many great coffee drinks can be made with espresso as a base, a lot of people just want to stick a mug under a spout.

Vertuo coffee comes in sizes from 40ml all the way up to 414ml, with the standard mug size being 230ml. For me the perfect compromise for a longer cup is the 150ml, which offers a pleasant flavour without too much bitterness. As well as different sizes, the coffees have different “strength” profiles, which is more to do with the darkness of the roast, I think. So a 4 is floral and fruity, while a 9 is more like dark chocolate. I tend to like things around the 6-8 range, and my favourite cup is actually their half-caffeinated mug-sized cup, which I make in a smaller mug (you just push the button to stop the brewing process early. These machines are much more technical, with spinning centrifugal action as well as the standard pressure pump system, and they tend to produce a lot more foam (which is more like a crema on the smaller cups but very much more foam like in a mug) so that you might need a bigger mug than you were thinking!

So we got a Vertuo machine for the office, and for the first time in my teaching career I started drinking coffee at work. But there was a problem. The machine leaked. It seemed to spit out a small quantity of coffee with every cup made, until, it overflowed and spilled down the back of the machine, causing a puddle. Feeling responsible, I took the machine home so I could phone Nespresso support.

This I did one Saturday morning. I’m shortening the sequence here, but it eventually got to the stage where they were going to pick the machine up and repair it, leaving me with a loan machine. This seemed like a good result, and Nespresso couldn’t have been more helpful.

But then, two hours later, they phoned back and said they were instead going to send a brand-new machine. Which they duly did, and it sits in the office and gets lots of use, and we’re getting through about 50 pods a week. Kudos to Nespresso for excellent customer service, which went beyond the necessary.

But what about the leaky machine? Nespresso said they weren’t going to pick it up after all, and to cut the plug off and dispose of it.

Oh. So I didn’t do that, obviously. Because for domestic use, as long as you wipe around the inside with a kitchen towel after every cup, the leak doesn’t become a problem. But! I do have an engineer brother-in-law who fixes coffee machines for fun, so I brought it to France.

I’ve noticed that the amount of coffee that leaks increases when the bigger drinks are made. My preference is for the smaller sizes, but if I make a mug for someone (230ml), a lot more coffee leaks out. Anyway, the day came when my brother-in-law came around and I went to demonstrate the leak problem. He wanted a 150ml-size drink. So we put in a capsule, pushed the button, made the coffee.

And lifted the lid to show where the leak was (it starts at the front but then fills up the channel and it drips down the back)…

No leak.

Isn’t that just always the way? You get the repairman in, and the faulty machine works perfectly. But I bet you if I were to make the same drink right now, when the engineering expert isn’t here, it will leak. Is that Sod’s Law?

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