A coffee pod is the coffee making equivalent of the teabag: a pre-portioned serving of coffee wrapped in a paper filter, ready to be infused with water. ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) is the worldwide industry standard for coffee pods. Any pod that meets the ESE standard can be used in any espresso machine that is ESE compatible.
An ESE pod contains between 6.5-7.5 grams of coffee, packed into a tight circular puck. The pod is placed in a special pod filter (usually supplied with your espresso machine) that fits inside the portafilter.
History of ESE pods
Coffee pod machines were originally designed for use in the Italian workplace, to make it quicker and cleaner for workers to make and enjoy espresso in the office. Later on, these machines were adapted for use in restaurants to negate the need for anyone to be trained in using a traditional espresso machine.
The use of espresso pod machines in the home did not become popular until Illy created the ESE standard in 1998. With the launch of this standard, Illy made a concerted effort to mass market these machines as convenient way to enjoy espresso in the home.
ESE pods vs. Traditional Preparation
The key selling point of ESE pods is convenience. The traditional preparation method for espresso requires skill and creates a lot of mess. Grinders have to be calibrated to achieve the correct flow rate; the coffee needs to be dosed and tamped correctly; and afterward coffee grounds have to be cleaned off all the equipment, the work surface and usually the floor too. With an ESE pod there is none of this. The pods are already pre-dosed and pre-tamped and the coffee grounds stay contained in the paper filter. Once finished with, the pod can be discarded like a teabag
However, the convenience of ESE pods comes at a price: the taste of a traditionally prepared espresso (done correctly) is superior to that of an ESE espresso. In comparison to the traditional method, ESE espresso lacks depth of flavour and liveliness in the mouth. The reason for this is ESE pods are not as fresh as the coffee used in the traditional method, and with pods the brewing time is too quick to extract the fullest flavour.
When making espresso using the traditional method, the coffee is ground immediately before use to preserve freshness. This is because the actual grinding process releases aromatics from the coffee which are lost from the end cup if not used quickly. Ground coffee also has a much larger surface area than that of a whole bean, leaving it more vulnerable to air. However, ESE pods are far from stale. Once ground, coffee is quickly tamped into a tight puck which, although essential to making espresso, also serves to reduce the surface area of the coffee. Most manufacturers also seal their pods in individual foil packages to further preserve their flavour.
The flow rate of an ESE espresso is quicker than that of the traditional method. In the traditional method the aim is to produce an espresso of around 1.25oz in volume within 25-30 seconds, as this is the optimum time to extract as much flavour as possible before releasing bitter compounds and excessive caffeine into the drink. With an ESE pod it can take less than half that time to produce the equivalent volume. ESE pods are designed to have a quicker flow rate to improve consistency from shot to shot. However, the quicker flow rate is caused by less resistance to the water during the brewing process and this in turn leads to a lower brewing pressure, resulting in a flatter extraction. As there is no way to control the flow-rate with an ESE pod, it would be impossible to make espresso variations such as a ristretto or lungo.
The fact that ESE pods are pre-ground negates the need for a coffee grinder, which can be a substantial saving. A good grinder for espresso making will cost over £100. However, the cost of ESE pods is considerably more than coffee beans. Expect to pay three times as much for an ESE pod than you would for the equivalent weight in beans. On the positive side, unlike beans, no coffee is wasted with ESE pods.
ESE pods vs. Other Coffee Capsules
There are many different types of coffee capsules available on the market other than ESE pods, such as Nespresso, and Senso. In terms of price and taste, there is little difference between ESE pods and capsules. However, the major problem with these other capsules is that, at present, they are exclusively made by one manufacturer: Nespresso is made by Nestle, and Senso by Douwe Egberts. So, for example, if you choose a Nespresso compatible machine you are limited to Nestle coffee. On the other hand, ESE pods are made to an industry wide standard and are consequently available from all the main Italian roasters, such as Illy and Lavazza, and many other roasters too. So with an ESE compatible espresso machine, you have a much wider selection of coffee. Not only that, but with most ESE compatible machines you have the option of making espresso the traditional way too.