I’ve written both here and elsewhere on how the state of home espresso has both improved and become worse at the same time. While home espresso is mostly out of the Krups Dark Ages, its future is uncertain:

  • super-expensive, super-disappointing super-automatics are now de rigeur for high-end home kitchen designs
  • as a new format, coffee pods are struggling somewhere between the dismal failure of disc cameras and the resounding success of digital cameras
  • café chains continue to expand all over the world, making tolerable espresso ever more convenient… just as
  • more and more new home espresso enthusiasts discover that the promise of cheaper, more convenient, and better espresso drinks at home has been an exaggeration — if not an outright lie.

Looking at things from the supply end, I spent some of this past Memorial Day weekend surveying the state of home espresso retail sales where most layman consumers in the Bay Area would naturally look: SF’s metrosexual retail capital of Union Square. This is my report.

Williams-Sonoma is all Jura, Nespresso, and Breville Sur La Table lives by Jura, Nespresso, Francis Francis, Krups, and Keurig

Coulda been contenders

I checked out the appliance offerings at two major retailers that consumers equate with finer home cuisine: the Williams-Sonoma flagship store and the Maiden Lane Sur La Table. I also checked out the nearby Crate & Barrel and The Sharper Image outlets for yuks. Williams-Sonoma carried just three espresso machine models: Nespresso, Jura, and Breville, all ranging from a modest $229 to a bank-busting $3,249 Jura (excluding a lone La Pavoni, perhaps best of the lot, that was essentially hidden). Sur La Table added Francis Francis, Keurig, and a couple of token Krups machines. (Crate & Barrel carried Krups and De’Longhi exclusively, and The Sharper Image had only Keurig and Flavia.)

A few weeks ago at the Carmel-by-the-Sea Sur La Table, I was inspired to do a taste comparison for myself (and was thus inspired to write this article). So in SF it was time for a run-off election. After sampling espresso made from a number of their floor model machines (and a serious caffeine overdose), I disliked the Nespresso espresso the least of the bunch. Of the lot of them, the Nespresso seemed to have the most potent flavor and generated some of the best crema.

This was a bit surprising on a few levels. For one — unlike the stale, pre-ground coffee packed in mail-order capsules that are required for the $299 Nespresso machine — the $2,400 Jura I sampled could use fresh, whole beans. Perhaps Sur La Table’s bean supplies were that old (likely) or the Jura machine itself did unholy things during the grinding and brewing process (also likely). But no consumer should pay $2,400 for an espresso machine that makes $150-machine espresso.

You could argue that unlike the Nespresso, yes, the Jura can actually froth milk. But for the $2,000 price tag difference, you could literally buy your own dairy cow. You could also attempt to argue that the Swiss-made Jura, while made mostly of cheap plastic, offers unparalleled robotic convenience. But for that price difference, that robot better be shooting lasers out of its eyes at unsuspecting burglars and cockroaches. Especially if it can’t make a decent cup of coffee.

A Williams-Sonoma sales associate will assist you shortlySaddle up to a Jura -- it costs more than a dairy cow

The Nespresso C180 Le Cube — as good as it gets?!

I’ve always advocated that the truly best home machines aren’t sold at these “gourmet” retailers. You typically have to go to specialty coffee retailers on the Internet to find even a basic Rancilio Silvia — for the past decade, the gold standard by which all home espresso machines should be measured. But middle America isn’t buying Silvias. They are shopping at these retailers.

While the Jura most closely represents the style and quality of home espresso machine that the latest high-end kitchens are featuring as built-in appliances, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube won the bake-off. Which, if you’ve done any research on the reviews of home espresso machines, should not be surprising after all. The Nespresso has earned accolades from Consumer Reports, praise from various knock-off gadget blogs, and even highly favorable ratings on the respectable CoffeeGeek.com.

Yet despite all its praise — and the jazz music soundtrack and luxury car TV advert polish on the device’s Web site — I’ve always felt the Nespresso to be woefully inadequate as a home espresso machine. It is one step forward in convenience (self-contained, push-button), but two steps backwards in quality (stale, pre-ground beans in mail-order capsules).

So I had to question myself: did I just not get it? Did I carry some irrational, resentful bias against the device’s encroachment on the handmade craft of artisan espresso through automated coffee technology? But then I surely don’t feel that way about roasters. Am I missing something transcendent that dozens of Coffee Geeks clearly experienced? It was time for a patented CoffeeRatings.com test.

Which one of these Nespresso pellets is 'coffee' flavored again? The Nespresso starts out with a lot of crema, even if it's a bit sickly looking

CoffeeRatings.com tests the Nespresso Cube

So, at the Maiden Lane Sur La Table just as the one in Carmel, I applied the same techniques to the espresso made with the Nespresso C180 Le Cube as I would to any other café. Always using the black Ristretto capsule (always beware when the names of espresso drinks become “flavors”), my repeat tests confirmed my bewilderment in what the fuss was all about. Which leads me to ask: have we become so conditioned to expect so little from home espresso that this is what we’ve come to regard as “quality”?

The pour starts out with a full crema right away — which is impressive until you notice how sickly pale, mottled, and bubbly it looks. I actually found it downright unappetizing. Compare the color and texture of the espresso crema in the photos below of the Nespresso Ristretto shot and a typical shot I made at home. While a good, healthy looking crema isn’t a guarantee of a great espresso, I’ve almost never had a good espresso with a sickly or absent crema. But, unlike the Krups Dark Ages, I suppose that a crema even exists at all is a step up.

The cup has a decent aroma, though its body is a touch thin (yet nowhere near as thin as the body I had from espresso made from the second-mortgage Jura machines). While there are some hints of brightness in the cup, and the flavor is neither diluted nor watery, its flavor clearly lacks the robustness that comes with fresh coffee. Though there are some pleasant spice elements, the flavor profile is undeniably flat from age and lacking multiple elements of a typical espresso flavor spectrum.

Although the Nespresso’s 5.90 coffee rating compares well with most Starbucks, the most disheartening part is that the Nespresso ensures that this is as good as your espresso will ever get — by design, since the system was developed with the ultimate consistency in mind. So if you want milk or the chance of a better espresso, you’re much better off shelling out another $300 to get a Rancilio Silvia and a decent burr grinder. Otherwise, I’d prefer a much cheaper Moka pot/stovetop coffee made with fresh beans — even without the crema.

Read the review of the Nespresso C180 Le Cube.

Finished as it started: the Nespresso with a mottled, lighter brown crema with large bubbles Contrast the crema color and consistency with a basic home espresso