A shortcut or a good idea?
Nespresso has just released two new 'grand cru' Columbian coffees for its capsule system. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Matt Holden

Nespresso has fired a shot across the bows of the specialty coffee movement, with Geir Kronbæck from Nespresso Norway taking issue with criticism by Norwegian specialty roaster Tim Wendelboe of the quality, freshness and flavour distinction of the coffee used in many capsule systems.

Wendelboe, whose name is usually invoked in reverent tones in specialty coffee circles, made the comments in a series of videos on brewing coffee at home.

In a reply published in Norway and quoted in Roast magazine's Daily Coffee News blog, Kronbæck says, "No matter how you prefer coffee to taste, no one can argue that Nespresso portioned coffee does not have the same quality as that found in various coffee shops around the world."

Given the quality of coffee at various coffee shops around the world, it is hard to argue with that.

Wendelboe, in reply, is quoted as saying, "I still maintain that the coffee in the capsules is not of the same quality as the coffees you can buy at the best coffee shops around the world … By quality, I mean not only the green unroasted coffee, but also the way it is roasted, how fresh it is and ultimately its taste. The flavour is most important, and it is influenced by many factors."

In Australia, Nespresso has just released two new "grand cru" Colombian coffees for its capsule system.

Grand cru is a term used for classification of vineyards and chateaux in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace. Nespresso draws an analogy between the selection of grapes and the selection of green coffee, but the use of grand cru for coffee is not regulated in the way it is for wine - if it's regulated at all.

The coffees are grown in two regions of Colombia - Cauca and Santander. Nespresso's marketing notes the distinctive "terroir" of these regions (another borrowed wine word): Cauca characterised by its fruity, winey aroma and Santander by notes of toasted bread and caramel. The company worked with about 16,000 farms in the two regions to produce the coffees.

Both capsules produce a short black with a head of frothy crema, which contributes most of the body in the cup. The flavours are predominantly of dark roast; the Santander produced a smoother cup than the Cauca, with a hint of nutty sweetness.

Like all of the Nespresso range, the capsules are pricey - $8.40 for 10. While that's only 84 cents a cup, it's also $140 a kilogram - certainly grand cru territory. But, Nespresso says, farmers are paid 30 to 40 per cent above the market price (the commodity price for May 2014 is about $5 a kilogram).

There's no doubt about the convenience and ease of use of capsules, but for my money you can brew tastier (and more economical) espresso-style coffee yourself by taking a little extra trouble with locally roasted beans.