If you’ve considered purchasing a Nespresso single-serving coffee maker even for a moment, surely the most critical question you’ve asked is “does Nespresso actually make good espresso coffee?”
Since the whole point of a Nespresso machine is to get great quality espresso without the time and hassle required to pull a traditional espresso shot, it makes sense that your primary concern with Nespresso would be the quality of the brew it produces.
So, before we drill down into all the particulars, let’s try and get a decent, basic answer to this question at the outset. Well, perhaps a couple of basic answers, depending on your preferences and tastes.
If you are a true espresso connoisseur, someone who has experience with different coffee origins, roast levels, brewing methods, and the like, then Nespresso’s mimicry of traditional espresso will probably disappoint you.
On the other hand, if you love coffee, can tell the difference between really bad and really good espresso, but perhaps don’t have quite the refined palette of our espresso aficionado mentioned above, then the convenience, consistent quality, and variety of Nespresso capsules will likely make a Nespresso machine a good investment for you.
Finally, if you don’t like coffee, espresso, or any of the things we’ve mentioned thus far…well, this article probably won’t do you much good either way.
In this article, we’ll dig into the similarities and differences between Nespresso coffee and traditional espresso, considering their respective extraction methods, flavor profiles, and other topics that will give you a better understanding of these two brewing options.
Is Nespresso Real Espresso?
An obvious place to start our conversation about the quality of espresso you can get from a Nespresso machine is to consider whether Nespresso coffee is actually real espresso in the first place! But before we can even get that far, we should clear up some misconceptions about what traditional espresso is and isn’t.
What Is Espresso?
Before we get into the details of what espresso really is, we should first take a look at the word itself: espresso. Like most coffee-related terminology, the word espresso is Italian in origin. While there’s no direct translation in English, espresso essentially means something like “express.” There are differing views on why this word was chosen for this particular coffee beverage, but the most common one suggests that the “express” idea refers to the fact that espresso shots are always “pulled” and then immediately served to the patron. Thus, it’s a quick, “express” service (source).
But that doesn’t do much to explain what it actually is, does it? So, let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
What Are the Components of a True Espresso?
If we really want to get a firm grasp on what traditional espresso is, though, we have to return to the beautiful Italian language. In fact, there is a clever mnemonic device in Italian that lays out all of the necessary parts, ingredients, equipment, and skills to produce a shot of true espresso coffee: the ‘Four Ms’. Let’s look at each ‘M’ in a bit of detail.
1. Miscela – “The Blend”
The first, and possibly most important, factor when it comes to making espresso coffee is the coffee you’re using to make it! While it is a misconception that you need “espresso roast” coffee to make true espresso, it is still crucial that you get quality beans for your cup. Indeed, any kind of coffee bean will work for espresso, it’s often better to use a blend of beans from different origins in order to maximize the complexity of the espresso shot (source).
2. Macinazione – “The Grind”
Once you have your coffee blend sorted out, then comes another absolutely essential step to get right: the proper espresso grind. In order to extract the coffee fully and effectively, you must ensure you use a rather fine grind size—almost to the level of a powder. The settings and adequate grind will vary from grinder to grinder and espresso machine to machine, so this often takes a bit of experimentation when you have new equipment or are simply inexperienced (source).
3. Macchina – “The Machine”
After grinding the coffee and tamping it down in the portafilter, you then insert the portafilter into the machine to begin the extraction process. This extraction process is really what makes espresso the drink it is. A standard double espresso is typically extracted as the machine forces hot water through the packed coffee in the portafilter at about 9.5 atmospheres of pressure. The process should take about 25-28 seconds, total (source).
4. Mano – “The Hand”
The final element has less to do with the process of pulling espresso shots and more to do with the art. The “hand” in question is that of the skilled barista, who has the skills and experience to pull the perfect shot (source).
The result of all these factors is a rich, robust, almost syrup-like beverage with a strong aroma and a powerful flavor.
So, what about Nespresso, then? How does it stack up?
How Does Nespresso’s Brewing Method Compare?
Nespresso brewers (specifically, OriginalLine brewers) use a proprietary design to mimic the coffee extraction process of traditional espresso machines, but with some crucial differences. Most obviously, while a standard espresso maker requires the use of a portafilter to hold the coffee and bring it into contact with the hot water, a Nespresso machine uses capsules with pre-ground, pre-dosed coffee.
Once you insert the capsule into the Nespresso machine’s chamber and close the lid, a group of needles puncture the capsule, allowing pressurized water to be forced through the ground coffee, extracting your espresso shot.
Flavor and Texture Comparison: Espresso vs. Nespresso
There’s just no way around it: while a shot of espresso from your Nespresso machine is going to be satisfying and delicious, it simply can’t quite measure up to the intense, complex, and multi-faceted flavors of a traditionally-pulled shot of espresso.
Why would this be?
More than any other factor, the freshness of the coffee itself is to blame. Despite the valiant efforts of Nespresso and other coffee capsule producers, there is just no way to lock in coffee’s freshness after it has been ground. In order to really get the most out of any kind of coffee, you must use the freshly-ground beans immediately, as the freshness and flavor profile diminishes rapidly.
Nespresso capsules may use high quality grind and the pressure of the brew may be up to the standard required for espresso but the freshness of the grind leaves a lot of room for improvement in the taste department and I even think the staleness of the grind inside the capsules negatively effects the crema produced as well.
See this for more on what makes good crema in espresso.
So, while you can certainly get a top-notch shot of “espresso” from a Nespresso machine, it will always fall short of the silky and eye-opening complexity of freshly-ground, freshly-extracted espresso made in the traditional mode.
Nespresso vs. Espresso: Which Is Better?
Now, this question is actually a bit more complicated. We’ve already argued that traditionally-extracted espresso is going to give you more robust and multi-faceted shot, but does that necessarily mean traditional espresso is better than Nespresso coffee?
Well, as you might expect, the answer comes down to your personal tastes, preferences, and budget.
If you really want the full espresso experience, there’s simply no other way to get it besides investing in a quality espresso machine, a burr grinder, and top-notch coffee beans. Nespresso machines make a great cup, but it will pale in comparison to true espresso.
On the other hand, if it’s convenience you’re after, there’s no beating a Nespresso machine. As far as we know, there is no more convenient alternative available that can match Nespresso’s quality. It doesn’t get much easier than popping a capsule into a machine and pressing a button for on-demand espresso. When you compare that process to the detailed and often cumbersome and time-consuming process of pulling a traditional espresso shot, the winner in the convenience competition is clear: Nespresso gets the job done quickly and effortlessly.
Here again, Nespresso is the clear winner. While some Nespresso machines come at a premium price, there are many more affordable options available. And even the high-end Nespresso machines won’t set you back as much as a quality espresso machine. With traditional espresso, you’ll also have to factor in the cost of a capable burr grinder. Ultimately, Nespresso machines, as pricey as they can be, are still going to be far less expensive than the upfront costs of an espresso set up.
To Sum Up…
It’s true that Nespresso makes excellent quality espresso-like coffee beverages. Indeed, most people will be supremely satisfied with the coffee they get out of their Nespresso machines. And yet, if you are a truly hardcore espresso fiend, do yourself a favor and invest in the real thing. If you want to take your coffee game to the next level, a top-notch espresso machine is the obvious next step. Better yet, if you have the budget, why not get both and have the best of both worlds?