A little over two years ago, we lamented the state of populist retail home espresso by reviewing what we thought was one of the better options at the time, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube: The Home Espresso Machine Blues: Rating today’s state of consumer espresso machines. Besides having a name that sounded regrettably familiar to Renault’s Le Car of the late 1970s, we found the Le Cube to be typical of superautomated, pod-based home espresso machines at the time: the overpackaged, overpriced convenience of consistently stale coffee.

Since then we’ve had a whopper of a global recession — and all the mathematically-precise/psychologically-ignorant cost-savings come-ons for home brewing that have followed. With the Fall 2009 release of Nespresso’s new product line, the CitiZ, we wanted to test if the populist retail home espresso situation had changed through all of that.

In case of earthquake, do not stand near the massive towers of Nespresso branding... CitiZ & Milk - our competitor from Nespresso

It’s not an espresso machine, it’s a lifestyle

We first wrote about the new CitiZ line a few months ago in a critique of Nestlé’s recent environmental chest-beating: Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing. If Nestlé’s primary product line goals were to deliberately maximize materials extraction, manufacturing production, and waste by-products with each coffee serving, it’s hard to imagine the Nespresso coming out much differently than it appears today.

As with the Le Cube, we approached one of these new Nespresso beasts in its native habitat: a mainstream kitchenware retailer. Upon entering the Sur La Table, we were accosted with the massive marketing expense of what looked like a cardboard Playland promoting the new CitiZ line. Nestlé is clearly wheeling up dump trucks full of money for their consumer retail marketing campaign. This flash of cash seems like Nespresso’s attempt to convince consumers of its “upscale” ambitions.

Choose your weapon: Nespresso continues to market coffee like Jelly Bellys The CitiZ starts off looking decent...

Heading to the back of the store, we opted to test with a Nespresso CitiZ & Milk — which sports a built-in milk frother that we had no intention of using. In case you’re not familiar, Nespresso takes a Jelly-Belly-style approach to the coffee varieties in its capsules. Some of these coffee capsules brandish Nespresso’s new, lofty “Grand Cru” designation. However, for consistency, we opted to stick with the scary “flavor” concept known as a Ristretto capsule.

We inserted the capsule and pushed the “espresso” button (represented with an icon of the smaller of two cups). The extraction started out promising enough: a laminar flow of medium-to-dark brown crema from the get-go. We were honestly impressed at first — maybe things have gotten better?

But then the pour kept coming. And coming. And as it did, the richer brown crema turned into a more turbulent flow of what looked like a milky, splotchy hot chocolate with uneven bubbles. Not exactly appetizing. In just several seconds, the shot rapidly turned into the meager espresso we experienced with our 2007 review of the Le Cube.

The CitiZ is now producing a more sickly, pale beverage with large bubbles it calls a 'ristretto' The final espresso product from a CitiZ: far from appetizing

The Taste Test

Tasting the shot, it had a much frothier and greater amount of crema than we experienced with the Le Cube. But the crema quality was a bit suspect in taste as well as appearance: thin, one-dimensional, and lacking any flavor richness nor depth. The shot was also too large, resulting in a thinner body and making us wonder what diluted mess the Nespresso would have produced if we pushed the “lungo” button.

The espresso itself had a tepid flavor still on par with an average Starbucks and not much better than a McDonald’s. Like most espresso shots made from stale, pre-ground beans packed for weeks in sealed capsules, it has a narrow flavor profile consisting primarily of some mild spices and pepper. And universally, it tastes like it is “missing something” when compared with the real thing. The company and its advocates like to point out the supposed “high-tech” vacuum-sealed freshness of these capsules, but vacuum-sealing ground coffee is a standard practice the likes of Sanka and Maxwell House have been performing since the 1980s.

Our verdict: more crema, but otherwise very little has changed from the last generation of Nespresso machines we tested. At a 5.80 coffee rating, it’s pretty much even with our C180 Le Cube review (a 5.90). We suppose something can be said for consistency. In the meantime, populist retail home espresso still seems stuck in the McDonald’s Dark Ages. (And here the McDonald’s comparison is actually a bit flattering, given that they at least grind to order.)

Read the review of the Nespresso CitiZ & Milk.