Capsule coffee machines are a little like inkjet printers: the hardware is cheap, and the real money is in selling refills – six or seven grams of coffee at 80 cents a shot sounds like nothing until you do the maths and find you're paying $140 a kilo.
Non-genuine pods are an option, although their appeal is mostly cost rather than quality. Nescafe has taken (and withdrawn) legal action against companies who manufacture Nespresso-compatible pods; the Swiss giant's main copy-protection mechanism now is the brand loyalty engendered by George Clooney in flip-flops.
Last year Keurig, the US manufacturer of K-Cup, fitted their pods with a recognition tag to stop people using cheaper pods: the system was hacked in no time, with smart coffee drinkers cutting the tags off used K-Cup capsules and taping them over the machine's sensor.
The Sydney-based roaster Vittoria has taken another tack, launching its own system. The Espressotoria is based on the Swiss Mocoffee machine, designed by the inventor of Nespresso, Eric Favre, though Vittoria has made some modifications to the capsule piercing mechanism. It takes only Vittoria capsules and the associated nonna-and-nonno brands Chicco D'Oro and Caffe Aurora, all now roasted and packed in Australia to ensure freshness, says Vittoria's Les Schirato.
The $99 Espressotoria Capino is a solid-feeling machine with two functions: short black or long.
The Vittoria-branded capsules include a 100 per cent arabica espresso, a Mountain Grown espresso (also 100 per cent arabica), a Swiss Water decaf and a certified organic. The capsules cost $8.39 for a pack of 12.
In short mode, once I'd reprogrammed it, the Capino extracted 33 grams of coffee in 15 seconds (too fast for a "real" espresso of 30 grams in 30 seconds. "At the end of the day, you can't get the extraction that a good barista can get with a commercial espresso machine," says Schirato).
The resulting cup had a pale crema and a nutty, chocolatey aroma. The flavour is of pleasant, clean arabica espresso, tending to sour fruit rather than bright, with a mild, ashy finish, and, like all capsule coffee, was a little thin in the mouth.
The Mountain Grown capsules taste richer and cleaner in acidity, while the organic had unusual sweet marzipan nuttiness.
The long black mode extracted 100 grams in 30 seconds, and was pretty flavour-free. But as Les Schirato points out, the way to make a long black is to pull a single shot into hot water.
Capsule machines like the Capino are a big step up for coffee drinkers who've been on instant, and ensure the kind of consistency that many people struggle for with home espresso machines, with some compromise in flavour and mouthfeel.
And with 100,000 Espressotoria machines sold, the business sense is clear: as Schirato points out, "Pure coffee is five times bigger than capsules in sales volume, but capsules are already half our market in dollars."