This is a head-to-head espresso shootout between two affordable capsule-based espresso makers: Nespresso by Nestle (around R1800 for the Essenza), and Mitaca by Illy (around R1500), both available from Dion Wired (http://www.dionwired.co.za) and probably other places.
For the uninitiated, capsule-based espresso makers were pioneered by Nestle. It overcomes all the difficulty in manually making espresso shots at home: no expensive grinder and coffee maker needed, no fresh roasted coffee beans needed, no manual tamping and extraction of espresso shots, no cleaning up afterwards. It's as simple as popping in a capsule, and pressing a button. Once in a while you top up the water and discard the spent capsules. That's it. The downside: each machine uses it's own proprietary capsule, which you have to buy from the manufacturer, at rather inflated prices (compared to buying coffee grind or beans). Each capsule costs around R5.30 for Nespresso, or about R4.66 for the Micata.
Why does it work? Mainly because:
- the capsules have a precisely measured amount of coffee in them
- the capsules are sealed and filled with Nitrogen. This keeps the coffee fresh for a really long time (several months to a year).
- the machines are pre-programmed with the correct temperature and pressure for extraction from the capsule. Often their pump pressure far exceeds the necessary pressure of around 9 bar (probably for marketing purposes).
- no precise tamping and polishing is needed as the capsules are designed for perfect extraction.
The end result is repeatable, great tasting espresso with crema.
How good is the espresso compared to the manual process? I've had the best possible espresso shot made by a well-trained barista at a coffee roastery, and my opinion is that the capsule espresso is not bad: a decent amount of crema, lack of bitterness, good taste, and highly consistent results. Taste-wise, it is certainly not as good as espresso from a manual machine, mainly because the capsules have so little coffee in them - around 8g vs around 25g you would use in a manual machine. This also means you get a tiny amount of espresso - only about 30ml. However, the good taste, low cost (of the machine), and the convenience factor make it a far more compelling option than a manual espresso machine, for home use.
Not all machines and coffees are created equal, so how do these two machines compare? To find out, I decided to try a few tests.
How I tested
I used the Ristretto capsule for the Nespresso (strongest espresso mostly Arabica with a small amount of Robusta) and the regular Illy capsule (100% Arabica) for the Mitaca. I could have used other flavours for Nespresso, but to me these are the capsules I think most people would use to get a strong, rich espresso. I first pre-heated the cups using boiling water. Since the Nespresso is pre-programmed, I let it run first, then ran the Micata until I got the same amount of espresso. I then tasted each, rinsing my mouth between tastings. No sugar was added. Things I was looking for:
- amount of crema (foam)
- any bitter taste (signifies burnt or over-extracted coffee)
- richness of coffee flavour and aroma
- any sweet taste
I noted my overall impressions without assigning scores to each attribute.
Test 1: Single shot espresso (30ml)
The first test I did was the single shot of espresso. The results:
- Nespresso had slightly more crema, much lighter in colour
- Mitaca had a slower flow rate, requiring a longer extraction
- Neither coffee had a bitter taste
- Mitaca coffee had a significantly richer taste and aroma
- The Nespresso coffee was smoother but lacking in flavour
Test 2: Lungo (110ml)
Using one capsule for a much longer extraction.The Nespresso took 1 minute 32 seconds to extract, the Mitaca took even longer (I didn't time it). Unfortunately I let the Mitaca run a bit too long (got distracted), leading to a slightly larger volume, which may affect the results, but I doubt by much:
- Nespresso had significantly more crema, smooth but light in colour
- Nespresso had a slightly bitter but richer taste
- Mitaca took significantly longer for the extraction, the coffee tasted watered-down - more like a long-black than an espresso. Very little crema.
Test 3: Full espresso cup (~60ml)
Based on the Lungo results, I decided to try re-programming the Nespresso to run the extraction a bit longer for the single espresso. This is as simple as holding down the single-espresso button and releasing it at the desired volume. It then remembers this for future extractions. The results:
- Nespresso extraction time was 34 seconds.
- Nespresso coffee was bitter and weaker. This espresso needed sugar.
- In contrast, the Micata delivered the same volume with less crema, but far more flavour and no bitter taste.
- Capsule weight: Nespresso 6g, Mitaca 10g
- Coffee amount: Nespresso ~5g, Mitaca ~7g
- Mitaca machine and capsules only seem to be available from Dion Wired. My machine will be useless if they stop selling the capsules. I queried other sources with the Illy online store, but they have not responded.
- Mitaca capsules are available in two "flavours" (that I could find) - regular or decaf.
- Nespresso capsules can only be bought online, or at a boutique shop in Sandton.
- Nespresso have about 16 flavours of capsules, although when have you ever heard a barista ask you what flavour you want when you order an espresso?
- Nespresso can pre-heat a cup easily by running it without a capsule.
Conclusions and the winner:
As you can see from above, it's not easy to call a winner here. On price, they are about even, on cofee taste, the Mitaca has the edge (and this is purely my opinion, others may disagree), but then there are all the other facts to consider. If all you care about is getting a great-tasting single espresso, the Mitaca wins. However, factor in the aesthetic beauty of the Nespresso machines, the aesthetic beauty of the capsules (they look so good you don't want to use them!), the ability to order capsules online (although I do like that I can go to any Dion Wired and pick up Mitaca capsules), the additional flavours to keep you interested, and finally, but most importantly, the aesthetic beauty of the machines (also, did I mention the aesthetic beauty of the machines?), Nespresso is the clear winner.
So here it is, I am calling two winners:
Winner for most people: Nespresso
Winner for people who like espresso: Mitaca (but you should consider buying a Rancilio Silvia and making espressos manually)