There are many versions of the pod coffee machine, but they are not all created equal. They are created fairly similar on the whole, admittedly, but knowing your pods is important if you want to buy the best pod coffee machine for you. And although it is the market leader in terms of sales by a very, very long way, you should not necessarily be targeting the best Nespresso machine.
Now, there are many ways to make a coffee – pour over filter, percolator, press, instant, if you must.. For the ultimate kick up the jacksy, few coffee styles beat the espresso system, however. This uses high pressure to force steamy water through finely ground coffee that’s been spooned into a portafilter and the results are, in most instances, utterly sublime.
The main characteristic of espresso coffee is rich, full-bodied flavour that packs huge punch, almost as if a full mug’s worth of coffee has been condensed into a single mouthful. It’s rich, strong, bitter and full of aromatic flavour, and it’s the only method that creates a thick, creamy topping called crema. Espresso can sometimes be so strong that many Italian cafés serve their’s with a small glass of water to help prime the stomach for what’s to come.
Now, when it comes to making espresso you have three methods at your disposal. The most obvious is a traditional espresso machine like you find in cafés the world over – or at any rate a scaled-down, domestic version. Your other option? A bean to cup coffee machine or, yes, you can go capsule and get decent espresso.
For while a standard espresso machine is the purist’s favourite method for obvious reasons, the preparation can be time consuming if done by the book and a bit messy to boot.
Bean to cup reduces most of the hassle by grinding the beans, dispensing the grinds in a hidden portafilter and extracting the espresso all in one go. However, most bean-to-cup machines cost a fortune. Many of them produce insipid coffee too, although our recent Delonghi PrimaDonna Soul review and Jura E8 review offer hope for lovers of 'real' coffee who want bean-to-cup convenience.
So that leaves one remaining method – the humble and hugely popular capsule. Coffee pods are arguably the cleanest method next to bean-to-cup, and the machines that use them aren’t too expensive to buy (sometimes less than £80). Capsule machines also produce consistent results that are notoriously difficult to attain using standard espresso machines and most bean-to-cup models.
With a capsule machine you simply load in the pod, hit the button and out comes a stream of crema-topped espresso every bit as good as the last one.
Choose your pods wisely
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The trouble is that, like TV streaming services that tend to have different TV programmes and films on their rosters, so it is with coffee capsule machines. In a nutshell, you can’t drop a pod from one system into another. Hence, when you purchase a capsule coffee machine you’re essentially buying into a particular brand of coffee too. This is certainly the case with Lavazza A Modo Mio and Illy Iperespresso though not so much Nespresso which uses a variety of blends, including many third-party artisan brands.
The upshot is that you will first need to decide on which type of coffee you like and then opt for the machine system that extracts it. So, if you always head to a café with a Lavazza sign outside, then that may be the system for you. Likewise Illy, which produces one of the finest commercial blends you can drink. Nespresso is a little bit different because there are so many different strengths and blends in its roster to choose from (37 and counting) and it’s the only system other than, say, the less popular ESE that has opened the door to a bunch of third-party artisan blenders.
Another important element to consider is the amount of actual coffee in each different pod since this can affect how strong or weak the coffee will be, irrespective of the strength of the specific blend. Lavazza, Iperespresso and ESE capsules all contain around 7 grams of ground coffee, Tassimo around 6g, standard Nespresso around 5g and Nespresso Vertuo between 5.5g and 9.5g.
Some coffee capsule systems go much further than just extracting espressos. The Nespresso Vertuo system can extract a variety of coffee sizes from single-shot espresso to extra large Alto. The Tassimo system goes even further by producing an even wider variety of coffees, from standard espresso to lattes that use powdered milk and other weird concoctions that are rarely appealing.
Can coffee capsules be recycled
Contrary to popular belief, the answer to this is 'Yes'.
Coffee capsules have rightly come in for a lot of stick because they’ve been accused of filling up landfill sites with loads of plastic. However, the manufacturers are now addressing this by either offering recycling programs (Nespresso, Iperespresso and Tassimo) or producing pods that are compostable (Lavazza a Modo Mio and ESE).
Now you know the basics, let’s take a look at the different systems available and see which two machines perform best for each type of coffee pod.
Lavazza A Modo Mio system
This is my personal favourite, and you really can’t go wrong with a Lavazza. After all, it’s the brand sign many folk are drawn towards when out on the streets and busting for an espresso hit. The Lavazza A Modo Mio system uses compostable Eco Caps that, according to Lavazza, you simply throw in the food bin whereupon it eventually ‘becomes nourishment for the soil’. We like that, it’s good.
There are just seven blends in the A Modo Mio line and they are all bloody brilliant. However, if you wanted it dialled down to just three recommended blends, then head straight for the Passionale, Intenso and Lungo Dolce. Even the caffeine-free Dek Cremeso is well worth a punt.
Best Lavazza A Modo Mio machine: Smeg Lavazza A Modo Mio
New on the block, this gorgeous kitchen hunk from the Italian house of Smeg is available in three stunning colours – red, black and cream – and is far and away the best looking capsule machine on the market. It doesn’t have a milk frother but, by jove, it extracts a joyously rich espresso (long or short) with the utmost of ease. It is, quite simply, elegance personified.
• Read our full Smeg A Modo Mio Lavazza review
Also consider: Lavazza A Modo Mio Jolie Plus
This keenly-priced micro podster is only the width of a coffee tin so it’s ideal for smaller kitchens and it can even be taken away on holiday. The Jolie Plus is available in two colours – red and silver – and it extracts both short and long espressos at the touch of a button. Great value, too.
Nespresso is unquestionably the most ubiquitous coffee capsule system on the planet. It’s easy to use and it has the widest variety of coffee blends available – 37 in Nespresso’s own roster and loads more from a tranche of artisan roasters. You can even buy empty pods to fill with your own favourite coffee blends.
Nespresso pods are smaller than others (5 grams of coffee per pod) so you may need to use two at a time unless you choose of the strongest blends like Kazaar. With so many blends to choose from – some horrible – it’s just as well that all Nespresso machines come with a variety pack to get you started.
Best Nespresso machine: Sage Creatista Uno
Coming in at second place in the beauty stakes, just behind the Lavazza Smeg, this Sage model is superbly built, with a reassuringly large amount of metal used in its construction. However, what impresses most is the typically Sage-like intuitive interface which allows for up to eight different coffee styles, from short-shot ristretto to cappuccino and latte macchiato. Classy but not cheap.
• Read our full Sage Creatista Uno review
Also consider: Krups Essenza Mini
This titchy entry-level Krups unit is just 8.4cm wide and perfect for even the smallest of kitchen worktops – or even a suitcase to take on your travels (I know I do). The keenly-priced Essenza Mini is a doddle to use and produces an excellent Nespresso replete with a decent dollop of crema.
• Read our full Krups Essenza Mini review
Nespresso Vertuo System
Nespresso’s Vertuo system uses five different sized pods to satisfy a wide range of coffee preferences, from espresso and Gran Lungo to mug and extra large Alto. Unlike standard espresso machines that use steamy water under pressure to extract the coffee flavour and accompanying crema, the Vertuo system uses centrifugal spinning technology (the pod spins at a phenomenal 7,000rpm) which creates the same strong flavour but with a much deeper crema. If you like espresso with a full-bodied hit or prefer to have a variety of coffees at your fingertips, then this version is a better bet than the standard Nespresso system.
Best Nespresso Vertuo machine: Magimix Vertuo Plus (aka VertuoPlus)
Swathed in shiny plastic (the kind that easily attracts dust) and available in either piano black or dark grey, the VertuoPlus is one of the most simplified coffee capsule machines on the market. It even features a motorised capsule loading system for faff-free coffee making. This model has one of the largest water tanks of any (1.8-litres) and definitely the largest spent pod container (10 to 15 at a time). If you’re planning on heading down the Vertuo route then make this model your first port of call.
• Read our full Magimix Vertuo Plus review
Also consider: Vertuo Next
Where the VertuoPlus above incorporates a brilliant motorised capsule lid that is a joy to use, this one uses a very basic latch and lift system that is nowhere near as tactile. In fact it’s quite stiff to use. Nevertheless, it’s available in three colours and it produces the exact same range of coffees. If you find a cheaper deal somewhere then go for it, otherwise stick with the better Plus version.
• Read our full Nespresso Vertuo Next review
Illy Iperespresso System
Any discerning coffee aficionado will agree that Illy makes one of the best widely available coffee blends on the market. Like Lavazza, it’s a well-trusted brand that you can rely on when out and about and in search of a decent caffeine hit. Yes, a barista bar will always be the best option but there’s nothing wrong with a quick neck of Illy. The Iperespresso system uses overly convoluted pods that seem to have more plastic in them than other capsule types. However, there is a recycling system in place for those concerned about impact on the environment.
Best Iperespresso machine: Illy Iperespresso Y3.3
This Illy-branded model is available in the four colours – black, white, red and pale blue – and at just 8cm in width, it’s one of the slimmest coffee capsule machines you can buy. The Y3.3 uses a unique two-stage extraction process and the coffee it dispenses is rich and rewarding. If full-bodied flavour and a strong, palette-smacking kick are your prerequisites to a good espresso then most certainly consider this model.
Also consider: FrancisFrancis Iperespresso X7.1
This classically-styled chromium machine boasts an excellent Pannarello steam wand for frothing milk, a large one-litre water reservoir and an old-fashioned portafilter that takes plastic Iperespresso capsules instead of coffee grounds. With its wide range of temperature settings, this model is a great choice for aficionados who’d like at least a modicum of manual functionality out of their coffee machine.
Tassimo is the most widely available brand in UK supermarkets. It’s also the least desirable brand. Coffee connoisseurs wouldn’t be seen dead drinking a Toffee Nut Latte that’s been made using powdered milk.
For those who are not so fussy about their coffee quality, the Tassimo system is capable of whipping up an enormous variety of other hot drinks, including hot chocolate to tea. It's essentially a hot beverage dispenser, not a coffee maker per se. Costa Coffee makes branded pods for it, and I guess Kenco is also a brand name many are familiar with. If I were to be as blunt as a screwdriver, I’d say that Tassimo is for people who think they like coffee but really they don’t. Nevertheless, you cannot knock its popularity, which is why it’s in this list.
Best Tassimo machine: Bosch Vivy 2
Bosch’s cheap-and-cheerful Vivy 2 is a fairly petite 21cm in width so it doesn’t take up too much worktop space. It’s also a doddle to use because it has only one button. Simply load a ‘T Disc’ (Tassimo’s proprietary capsule design) and tap the aforementioned button. Unlike other capsule machines, you have to remove the spent capsule yourself instead of it being ejected into a bin.
Also consider: Bosch Happy
If you fancy cheering up the other kitchen appliances, treat them to Happy, a curvier alternative to the Vivy 2 that’s available in five colours, including hideous puce pink. Like the Vivy 2, this machine is easy to use and remains happy all the time while it dispenses hot beverages to suit your requirements.
ESE stands for Easy Serving Espresso and it’s the oldest pod of them all. Created by Illy in the ‘70s, ESE is, in many respects, the most logical pod system of all because it’s simply 7 grams of finely ground coffee wrapped in a paper tea-bag type thing. And what’s more, it will fit in a number of standard espresso machines, especially those manufactured by De’Longhi and Gaggia. There aren’t as many coffee blends available for the ESE system but of those that are, Illy Classico, Lavazza Qualita Rossa and Pellini Arabica are top of the list.
Best ESE machine: Gaggia Classic
Gaggia pretty much invented the espresso and this industrial-looking machine is a top choice for both manual and ESE pod use. Despite the noise it makes, the Classic produces exquisite espressos and cappuccinos whether its loose grounds or an ESE pod. When it comes to coffee machines, you generally can’t go wrong with a Gaggia and this machine is a case in point.
Also consider: De’Longhi Dedica
While the name De’Longhi doesn’t exactly sound sexy, the Italian company is well at the forefront of espresso and bean-to-cup machine manufacture. The Dedica is one of its slimmest machines and a perfect choice for both manual and ESE espresso. It also whips up a mighty fine cappuccino. There's a matching grinder that's also very good, should you tire of pods.