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Espresso Pods

by Shea Sturdivant Terracin

Let me start by making my preferences known: I like espresso pods. During my tenure as a gourmet coffee specialist with two large corporate firms specializing in foodservice accounts, pods were recommended for use in restaurants, and I personally use pods when preparing espresso at home.

Although the per pod cost is higher than a similar serving of whole bean espresso, my opinion is the labor, equipment, and waste cost of grinding, portioning, and packing the espresso in a portafilter makes the cost of whole bean espresso per serving approximately the same as a pod. In addition, quality control issues such as beverage consistency, freshness, and appropriate grind are much easier to control.

Allow me to state another opinion: I do not think espresso pods will ever replace whole bean espresso and the services of a well- trained barista. I do, however, think espresso pods are an underutilized resource in bringing a positive espresso experience to the fast paced world of foodservice.

Pods Designed for Foodservice Convenience
Cyrus Melikian’s of Automatic Brewers and Coffee Devices, Inc. (ABCD), states, “We as a company, always tried to think of how coffee could be a value-added beverage rather than a commodity.” With that idea in mind, ABCD designed and built America’s first coffee vending machine in 1948 and introduced pods for coffee in 1959.

ABCD packages roasted coffee into pods and offers several options in the number of pods it can package into a pouch. The norm in packaging espresso pods for foodservice is one pod per pouch. The single wrapped pods are then put into cases and the case size varies according to the needs of the customer.

According to Melikian, his company can package anywhere from one to six espresso pods to a pouch. He considers the larger number of pods per pouch to be an added convenience to the foodservice customer both in savings in packaging materials and a better quality espresso. He notes the preparation process is slowed down when a server is making several espresso drinks and must open a package containing a single pod for each beverage. By the time the last one is prepared, the first one has cooled down.

Once packed, several factors can effect the shelf life of espresso pods says Lilly Sturm, account manager at CanPod Espresso Pod Packaging. “The shelf life for our pods is 8 to 12 months.” Some of the factors include the type of paper used and if the package holding the pod is nitrogen flushed. Sturm explains, “Foil paper is the best way to go if you want a longer shelf life. Pods packaged in metalized paper will yield a shelf life of about 3 months, a big difference from foil, which gives an 8 to 12 month shelf life. Metalized paper is less expensive than foil and more readily available than foil paper. Foil paper is a specialty paper in North America but commonly used in Italy for coffee.” Although some companies guarantee a longer shelf life, Sturm’s opinion is the most realistic shelf life you’ll get is 8 to 12 months if the pod is packaged in foil and nitrogen flushed.

Pods are a special product, and Mr. Luigi and Mrs. Gigliola Russignan, owners of Torrefazione Barzula & Importing Ltd., shed some light on the process. “The pod is a disk of roasted, ground, measured, and compressed coffee, enclosed between two sheets of food-grade filter paper and sealed in a foil pouch that has been flushed with nitrogen, an inert gas. If these pods are not used in an espresso pod machine, an adapter would be required.” Their company produces pods in two sizes, 7 grams and 14 grams for 1 and 2 servings respectively.

The pod portafilter is shaped like a pod and holds the pod tightly against the head of the espresso machine. The purpose is to hold the pod, which is tightly packed with coffee, in place so water goes through the pod and not around it. Some companies make a soft espresso pod developed to eliminate the need for a special adapter or portafilter, but several industry specialists do not think the extraction is as good as with a tight pod.

The Evolution of the Expresso Pod

The technology of E.S.E. (Easy Serving Espresso) or pods was introduced by illycaffé more than 15 years ago according to Myra Fiori, public relations director, illycaffé North America, Inc. According to Fiori, the purpose was to “simplify espresso preparation, and guarantee a consistent level of quality.” Today the company has placed this technology at the disposal of the market, offering patent concessions free-of-charge to espresso machine manufacturers and coffee producers who agree to respect the industry standard, thereby ensuring the quality guaranteed by the E.S.E. trademark.

Fiori elaborates, “Independent controlling organizations ensure not only that the technical standards of the E.S.E. system are respected, but also that the quality of the prepared product, which must be taste-tested by a panel of experts, is consistently high. With the E.S.E. system, the four key elements required to transform a simple coffee into a superior espresso are present.” These key elements are a high quality coffee blend, a perfect grind, a clean and efficient machine and, most importamtly, its correct use.

The E.S.E. pod system sets the standard, but Philippe Godemert, new project director at 1, 2, 3 Spresso has created a second- generation pod. He considers his new and improved pod to be as easy to use as “one, two, three,” offering several major advantages. The 1, 2, 3 Spresso pod Godemert explains has an “exclusive, patented cardboard ring, [which] provides the rigidity to the pod, so we can use the gravity to eject the pot at each cup. [We use] 100% natural filterpaper, without any polyethylene to preserve the full, fresh coffee flavor. The cardboard ring functions as a disposable gasket inside the brewing chamber, avoiding a lot of serving problems, and the pod is biodegradable.” Malongo, coffee roasters since 1932 and part of the Rombouts Group, produce these new pods, packed singlely or in packs of ten.

Tom Martin is executive vice president and c.o.o. of Pod Pack International Ltd. He thinks “Pods are value-added. They have been pre-ground, pre-dosed and pre-tamped. This eliminates at least these three variables in the espresso preparation process.” He adds that restaurants are purchasing pods for $.30 to $.35 per single serving and 14 gram double pods for around $.50 each.

Martin further comments: “The restaurant, in turn, sells a drink for $1.50 to $3.50 depending on the size and whether the espresso is converted into a latte, cappuccino or other specialty drinks. There is definitely a significant margin here for the restaurant operator.” Pod Pack has prepared the following table showing the daily, monthly and yearly profits that can be achieved by the restaurant owner, depending on volume and pricing.

Mr. and Mrs. Russignan list just a few of what they consider the “advantages to be realized in using the espresso pod, which in the long run may result in a lower cost per serving”:

  • Eliminates the need for a coffee grinder.
  • Eliminates the need for the knock box.
  • Eliminates coffee waste.
  • Reduced the costly maintenance of the espresso machine as a result of loose grounds no longer being allowed to travel into the machine.
  • Eliminates brewing inconsistencies always resulting in a perfect cup of coffee.
  • Offers operators exact cost and inventory control, a key advantage.
Ara Minassian, export manager of La Maison du Café Trottet S.A., considers pods much better than whole bean espresso because they “stay fresh, taste good, and the machines are kept clean.”

Cyrus Melikian explains a bit more about the importance of freshness. “You open the pouch to brew and you have the best and freshest coffee.” He points out that is especially true in decaffeinated coffee. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to get a truly fresh decaffeinated espresso in the foodservice environment without using espresso pods. The foodservice operators’ first objective is to sell the best and freshest of ingredients. [Given that] coffee is the last impression of the foodservice establishment, it must be the best quality and fresh. That is worth everything of value to the foodservice operator.”

If you serve espresso and buy whole bean espresso, you need two grinders - one for the regular espresso and one for decaffeinated espresso. Grinding the coffee and adjusting the grinders to brew at the correct flow rate is not a simple task and trying to keep the grinder adjusted results in wasted coffee. Tom Martin points out other finite savings that offset the cost difference of espresso pods and roasted beans.

  • The restaurant owner does not have to purchase a grinder ($500 to $750 each) or two grinders, if the restaurant also sells decaffeinated coffee. If the cost of two grinders ($1,250) is amortized over 5,000 drinks, this equates to $.25 per serving.

  • Labor savings will be realized by using pods. Restaurant operators do not want to hire an expensive barista at each of its locations to make espresso the old fashioned way. The other option is to train the wait staff, which is virtually impossible and because of the high turnover rates, it can be a waste of time. Suppose you spend 100 hours per year training your wait staff. At $6.00 per hour and 2,500 drinks per year, then this could equate to $.24 per serving (100 x $6/2,500). Pods on the other hand, require little or no training to use them successfully.

Lilly Sturm definitely thinks use of espresso pods can increase sales of espresso beverages in restaurants. She thinks the wait staff “can be intimidated by the machine and will often tell the customer that the machine is broken, getting out of having to make an espresso or cappuccino. With pods, the end result is always consistent. You always get the same espresso.” She thinks with beans, there are many other factors effecting the taste of the espresso and unless a seasoned barista is making the beverage, it will be bitter. “I’m sure more waiters and waitresses would recommend an espresso or cappuccino if the machine they were making it with uses pods. Confidence and a great tasting product is the end result when using pods.”

Shea Sturdivant Terracin is a past officer of the Specialty Coffee Association, a partner in The Coffee Associates, an international consulting firm bringing coffee solutions to the marketplace, and on the Business Administration faculty at Bauder College in Atlanta, Georgia. You can contact her at coffeelady@mindspring.com.

Tea & Coffee - September/October 2000

Modern Process Equipment

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