The coffee pod revolution might seem like a recent phenomenon: in 2005, a mere 1% of US homes had a single-cup coffee machine; by 2020, four out of every 10 homes had a single-cup brewer—most of them pod brewers, those easy-to-use coffee machines that seem to work like magic: insert a small, sealed cup of ground coffee, fill the tank with water, and press a button. And just like that, coffee appears.
But Nespresso (an operating branch of the larger Nestlé corporation that deals with all things coffee) has been at the pod coffee brewing game for a long time—since 1976, to be precise. And even with the proliferation of other competitors, they continue to be the leader in this market. The word “Nespresso” feels like it’s becoming synonymous with single-cup pod brewers, much as brands products from like Band-Aid and Kleenex have entered the generic lexicon.
However, just because something has been around for a while—and has become ubiquitous within the at-home coffee brewing market—doesn’t mean it’s good. So we decided to test one of Nespresso’s most popular models, the Vertuo Plus Deluxe, and see if it’s worth your hard-earned money.
How Do Nespresso Machines Work?
Nestlé, a Swiss company that is one of the largest food purveyors in the world, has been working on pod-based brewers since 1976. It’s kind of a wild story: “In 1975, a young engineer named Eric Favre took a trip to Rome that would change the history of coffee,” writes Ed Cumming for The Guardian. Favre, who worked for Nestlé, noticed a crowd of people at a particular coffee shop in the city, and realized that the baristas were pumping the piston of their espresso machine repeatedly (this was likely with a lever machine, where baristas have to pull down a lever to pressurize the brewing water and force it through a puck of coffee).
“This meant they forced more water and air into the ground beans, which meant greater oxidization, which drew out more flavor from the beans and produced more of a crema,” Cumming writes. “In the history of at-home premium coffee, this is perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to a eureka moment.”
Farve used the observation in the cafe to develop the brand’s first single-serve coffee brewer. All pod brewers work slightly differently, but their technology is based on relatively the same idea: Coffee grounds are preserved in a sealed container usually made of aluminum. A small needle is inserted into the capsule, pressurized hot water is added, and out comes espresso.
Nestlé took ten years developing their first machine, creating the Nespresso sub-branch in 1986. In 2012, a number of Nespresso patents expired—specifically, their patent for the actual pods themselves, the little aluminum canisters filled with coffee. That allowed other brands to make pods compatible with Nespresso machines and helped usher in a new era of at-home coffee brewing. Now, pod-based brewers are as important an amenity in hotels and AirBnBs as running water and WiFi.
In 2014, Nespresso launched the Vertuo line—and it’s got some weird stuff. One of the reasons Nespresso made the Vertuo was to appeal to American coffee preferences by offering larger-sized drinks as opposed to just traditional, espresso-style beverages, but they also included a bunch of new technology, perhaps feeling the sting of losing so much of their intellectual property just years ago. Coffee YouTube creator James Hoffmann did a deep dive into the patents on the Vertuo and the machine’s new features, most notably their redesigned pods: instead of thimble-shaped capsule, Nespresso made these dome-shaped pods that come in three different sizes: the smallest for single espressos (the Vertuo box says these drinks are about 40 milliliters), the medium for double (80 milliliters) and “lungo” (150 milliliters) espressos, and the large for “coffee drinks” (230 milliliters).
From what I can tell, there’s not much difference between the coffees in the pods themselves. Hoffmann opens up each pod and measures the amount of coffee in each, and predictably, the smallest pod has the least amount of coffee (7.5 grams) while the largest pod has the most (13 grams) and the middle is, you guessed it, in the middle (10.6 grams).
What makes this seem like a ploy to make consumers use only Nespresso pods are the barcodes: if you flip each of the pods over, the outer rim has a barcode the machine reads so it knows what pod is in there. No one designs pods shaped like Nespresso’s new domes (that I know of), but I also don’t think that would matter because of the barcode. You can override the barcode if, say, you want to make a coffee-sized drink with an espresso pod, but I’m pretty sure your only option for brewing is Nespresso-made pods—I did see a TikTok video on my ‘For You’ page where a person reused their Nespresso pods by washing out spent pods and resealing them with aluminum stickers, so there are ways to get around repurchasing new ones.
Another proprietary piece of technology is their “centrifusion” technique, a portmanteau of “centrifugal” and “infusion.” I have to admit: I don’t fully understand how this works. I’ve read dozens of articles on this process, most of which seem to get as far as, “oh, this is cool!” without further explanation. Basically, the machine forces water through a puncture point in the center of the capsule, and then starts rotating really fast—something like 7,000 rotations per minute. This pushes the grounds and water to the edges of the capsule, and water out through a dozen smaller puncture points that form a circle around the capsule. You can see this when you look at a spent capsule.
This “centrifusion” technique seems designed to extract coffee evenly, or ensure that all of the grounds are in contact with water for about the same amount of time. In his video, Hoffmann mentions that one of the goals of the Vertuo is to extract coffee without building up pressure, so perhaps that’s what the centrifusion does.
What’s particularly confusing about this, however, is how Nespresso achieves “crema” in their drinks. Traditionally, crema is trapped carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules—CO2 is produced during roasting, but dissipates over time so the fresher the coffee, the more CO2; you generally don’t see crema on coffee unless it’s brewed using a pressurized brew method like espresso (most of the CO2 is released when brewing with a pour over set up when water hits the brew bed—that’s why you’ll see bubbles pop out during the first initial pour, particularly for fresh coffee).
But the Nespresso pods are not fresh and yet, every single drink, from their single espressos to their coffee-sized sippers, has crema. The coffee was ground who knows when, and when you try actually brewing them—like, ripping the pods open and using the ground coffee on a pourover brewer—there’s no crema. I have to imagine this centrifusion has something to do with the resulting crema, but I’m not sure.
The machine also comes with a milk frother, the Aeroccino 3. I evaluated the Aeroccino during my review of milk frothers, and found that, though a little finicky (I had to watch a YouTube video to understand the machine’s functions) it works well and froths milk consistently. What’s wild is that I nixed the Aeroccino from my top milk frothers because of its price—alone, it retails for about $90, but the Vertuo and the Aeroccino together retailed for $154 at the time of publication. I guess it pays to bundle things?
To evaluate the Vertuo, I brewed every pod in the provided sampler pack and one of each of the coffees from this variety pack. I tasted and timed each brew, evaluating each on its roast level, flavor intensity, and bitterness.
In writing this review, I wanted to address a gap that exists between coffee consumers and coffee people like myself: I think it’d be easy to dismiss this machine, especially from a company I have been critical of in the past (more on that below). But I keep coming back to the statistic stated above: four in 10 people have some sort of single-cup brewer, and the majority of them have something like a Nespresso. I really wanted to understand why these machines are appealing and hope my assessments and observations give potential consumers good information to think about.
Pros of the Nespresso
If making coffee with a pourover setup or on a manual espresso machine is like making toast by baking bread from scratch, then using a Nespresso is like buying a loaf of pre-sliced bread and throwing a few pieces in the toaster; there’s absolutely no “craft” to the process: all you do is select your pod, pop in into the machine, and press go.
I write the above sentence with absolutely no disdain. Sometimes you’ve got all weekend to make a dough, simmer a sauce, and lovingly put together a homemade pizza. Other times, you want to throw something frozen in the oven and have dinner ready in 20 minutes. If your main objective is to simply get coffee delivered to you hot, quickly, and consistently, then the Nespresso is a pretty good investment.
First off, the Vertuo is fast. Like, scary fast. When I brewed one of the smaller pods—the ones meant for espresso-style drinks—it took one-minute and three seconds for the coffee to brew. That’s wild considering that the water in the brewing tank is about room temperature, so the machine is able to get water to around 200°F absurdly fast. Coffees brewed with the larger pods didn’t take much more time than that: every drink was done within two minutes of pressing the brew button.
The Vertuo is a well-designed machine. The brew tank is fully detachable and adjustable, so you can finagle it to fit whenever you’d like on your counter. The brewing tank makes a really satisfying clicking sound when it’s fully attached (I attribute that to the influence of Breville, another coffee brewing company that occasionally partners with Nespresso and is known for its user-friendly designs). Operating the brewer is also straightforward: all you do is press a lever (which is wild—I thought you’d have to click it open and the opening was controlled by a spring or something, but it’s literally touch-operated and wouldn’t work unless the machine was plugged in), put a pod in, and press go. Once you open the lever again, the pod automatically slides into a disposal chute located behind the brewer. Honestly, these design touches feel a little excessive, but also fancy, like you’re working with a high-tech piece of equipment.
Lastly, the brewer offers a variety of coffee styles (my Vertuo came with 12 different coffees—four of each “size,” but all from different regions or blends) so you can easily shake things up if you wanted to try something new. Most brewers can be divided into two categories: they either make espresso or they make drip coffee, but the Vertuo seamlessly jumps between both. You don’t need to change any of the parameters on the brewer to pull a shot of espresso in the AM and a cup of filter coffee to round out your afternoon.
Cons of the Nespresso
So let’s start with the obvious: the coffee from the Nespresso is weird. And it’s weird for a few reasons.
First, the dose. For filter coffee, the 13-gram dose is actually pretty appropriate since you’re getting about 230 milliliters in coffee. A quick ratio I use for brewing filter or drip coffee is to take the dose of the coffee you want to use and multiply that by 16. The sum will get you the amount of water you need for brewing. In this case, that gets you to 208, which is a little low, but not out of the ballpark.
But when you look at the espresso doses, the amount of coffee in each pod feels really, really low. Espresso is usually a concentrated beverage, and most baristas at most coffee shops are pulling shots of espresso with anywhere between a 1:1 to 1:4 ratio of coffee to water, but they’re usually landing somewhere around 1:2 to 1:3. When I dial in a new coffee I’ve never tried before, I usually aim for a 1:2 ratio, usually 18 grams of coffee to around 36 grams of water for a double shot of espresso.
The small capsules have 7.5 grams of coffee and give drinkers a 40-milliliter beverage. So the dose isn’t quite right for an espresso, and the resulting beverage has whispers of an espresso, but not quite. Same with the medium-sized capsules, which have 10.6 grams of coffee and put out an 80 mL or 150 mL drink (I’m not really sure what to classify this as—it’s like a very short Americano maybe?).
This is all fine and good on its own—I don’t really care about there being a “right” and “wrong” ratio of coffee to water. What matters is being able to find the ratio that’s right for you: if users were able to adjust these ratios more (I mentioned there’s a way to override some of the sizes, but it can get complicated quickly), then the pod sizes wouldn’t bother me, but the whole point of the Vertuo is for the barcodes to tell the machine the precise and ideal way to brew, and I’m not convinced that Nespresso’s ratios are the ideal way to enjoy their coffee, nor that they need to be so didactic about how to enjoy coffee in general.
Now let’s talk about coffee. It is very, very darkly roasted. Each pod gives you a range of roast levels from one to 10. The lowest level I had in my variety box (the Vertuo came with 12 different pods to try out, and we also ordered three other coffees which came in sets of 10) was rated a four, and it tasted very bitter and weird in the finish. Most of the coffees had that bitter, roasty finish at the end that blew out my palate and made it difficult to taste anything nuanced or different in each coffee—no matter what pod I tasted, they all tasted the same.
I found this bitterness to be the least offensive in the biggest pods, the ones intended for coffee-sized drinks. But I still couldn’t taste anything inherent to the coffees themselves, which feels boring! I’ve brewed coffees on a Keurig system before, and with those brewers, I could get a sense that different pods would taste different from one another. But each Nespresso pod tasted the same with a bitter finish at the end.
Now is where we talk about the elephant(s) in the room.
Nestlé as a company has landed itself in hot water over the years. Former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has gone on record saying that water should be treated like any other foodstuff one would buy and sell and that NGOs claiming water is a human right is an “extreme solution.” In the 1970s, Nestlé was accused of encouraging women, particularly women in developing countries, to forgo breastfeeding their infants and switch to more expensive formula feeding. And just this year, when Nespresso obtained B-corp status, a certification program that seeks to distinguish socially and environmentally responsible companies, dozens of other previously certified B-corp companies penned an open letter condemning the choice to confer this status, writing: “Although Nespresso has achieved the minimum currently required for certification…Nespresso’s abysmal track record on human rights from child labor and wage theft to abuse of factory workers is well documented by the media and NGOs.”
But, let’s zoom in and look at the Vertuo itself and specifically, the pods. Coffee pods and their effect on the environment have enjoyed a long life in the cultural zeitgeist. I’m sure if you’re reading this, you remember some discussion about how many times a line of spent pods could circle the globe.
Nespresso claims that their pods are recyclable, and they are—but you have to drop the capsules off at one of their designated drop spots, give them to your mail person when they deliver your order, or bring them to a Nespresso store. Their pods say they’re recyclable, and while that isn’t a lie, it seems misleading and I imagine many people will either throw them into their home recycling or simply throw them in the trash. Just because something is technically recyclable doesn’t mean it will get recycled.
So, What Should You Do?
As a coffee pro, I think it’s easy for me to forget that many people simply want coffee as a caffeine delivery service, and that’s 100% acceptable! I can’t find any fault in the actual design and use of the Vertuo, and I’m kind of amazed by how quickly and consistently the brewer makes coffee. It literally couldn’t be any easier.
But if you’re here, I have to imagine you care a little bit about what your coffee tastes like, and I think there are a few options for single-cup coffee and quick brews. For example, many of your favorite coffee brands make instant or steeped coffee options from makers like Swift Coffee and Steeped.
I think the Vertuo is a better value for people interested in making espresso drinks at home (the instant options I listed above are, in my opinion, better for drip coffee), but we also wrote a review of the best home espresso machines with options that range in price from a few bucks to a couple hundred, and I tend to think those machines are better options. They do require a bit more work on the part of the user, so if that’s a dealbreaker, the Vertuo is a good option to consider.
But overall, do I recommend the Vertuo? I wouldn’t buy it for me, but for a person looking for a really simple and consistent brewing system? I think this would be a welcome addition to their kitchen setup.
Are Nespresso pods recyclable?
Yes, they are. But that’s maybe the wrong question. As noted above, Nespresso pods cannot be thrown into your home recycling, and must be taken to specific drop zones or given to your mail person when delivering a new order.
Is Nespresso better than Keurig?
I’m not sure you can say one is better than the other, but I’d be more excited to see a Keurig if, let’s say, I was in a hotel room or traveling somewhere. Because so many different coffee companies make Keurig pods, I’d be able to customize my experience a little more and find roasters whose coffee I’m more excited to drink (I don’t mean this is a bougie way—if I found pods of Dunkin coffee, I’d drink that 100 times over before I’d drink a Nespresso pod simply because they don’t roast their coffee as dark, which highlights the bitterness and lingering taste of coffee).
How much is a Nespresso Machine?
At the time of publication, the Nespresso Vertuo + Aeroccino was $202 on Amazon. My initial package came with 12 pods, and we also ordered three sets with ten pods each (30 in total), which retail on Amazon for $36. Most Nespresso machines range in price between $100-$300.
Ashley Rodriguez July 26, 2022 at 10:27PM