An article published in yesterday’s The Wall Street Journal noted the growth of coffee pod use in the U.S. for both office and home: Wall Street Journal Notes Growth In Coffee Pod Sales @ Vending Market Watch News at AMonline.com.

Customized and convenient, coffee pods have been pushed by the industry as an alternative to the office Bunn warmer. Office workers get to choose among a wide variety of pre-packaged coffee “pellets” to individually suit their tastes — each can be a Kenyan roast, an espresso, a cinnamon latte, or anything else that can be flavored and hermetically sealed in a plastic cup. And these self-contained pods, and their brewing devices, minimize the clean-up needs typically associated with handling coffee. Restaurants are also getting in on the act — since they can’t seem to hire a decent barista to save their lives — so many big-machine manufacturers are accommodating with one or two-group lines for pod brewing.

But the coffee industry is also doing a full court press on the home market. Some of the notable home pod machine pushers include Philip’s and Douwe EgbertsSENSEO “concept”, the sick marriage between Braun shavers and Kraft Foods known as Tassimo (whose print ads make good coffee look like a diaper change) , and Big 4‘s own Nestlé and their Nespresso (which is experiencing quite handsome profit margins) . The marketingspeak for each inevitably states that they “produce the perfect cup of espresso, cappuccino or latte”. However, after tasting the resulting product from one of these, it’s clear that uttering such a statement confirms that these manufactures have never experienced a perfect cup of anything.

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That’s the major downside I see in these pods and their machines. For the common coffee consumer who is only casually interested in the beverage (whom makes up the great majority), you could argue that they are raising the standards bar compared to the Bunn warmer. But in many other ways, the standards are being lowered — much in a similar way that the super-automated espresso machines that infiltrated Starbucks in recent years essentially installed a glass ceiling on their beverage quality. The big tradeoff of these pods is that you can’t vary the strength of the shot, and most of all that the resulting shot is always — as Luigi di Ruocco of Mr. Espresso put it to me last year — “missing something”.

And since this is all about better access to better coffee, pods represent both a step forward and a step backwards. They’re a home run for convenience and flexibility. But for flavor, they’re a one-hop ground out to short. While the coffee grades are better these days, vacuum-sealed, pre-ground coffee has inherent limits — making pods little more than a packaging convenience over your dad’s can of Folgers. (Nespresso, as an example, produces a flavor called “Ristretto”!)

Until the pod people can create a beverage out of these contraptions that doesn’t sacrifice flavor, this new coffee format will remain a diversion for creating more of the ever-more-ubiquitous “adequate” coffee. The results are even less encouraging with respect to the “espresso” word.

Senseo: Just like they'd spit out in Rio!