CRAIG SIMON USUALLY PREFERS his coffee freshly roasted and ground - not surprising, as the Melbourne barista is a former national champion. So how would the current crop of ultra-convenient capsule-coffee machines fare when pitted against his highly tuned palate?
The capsule-coffee market is booming, with sales of these machines, which offer no-fuss, no-mess coffee, rocketing. You could argue they make your morning coffee even simpler than using instant granules: turn them on, wait a few seconds for the water to heat up, pop in your capsule of choice, push a button and there's your espresso shot.
We tested four of the machines on the market (a fifth that was sent for testing didn't work on the day), sampling both espresso shots and lattes. The highest possible score from this comparison was 24, using a scale similar to that applied by professional judges of coffee competitions, with some tweaks. So, while the taste and tactile (mouthfeel, body) scores out of six were judged in the same way as in a competition, the other scores were appropriate to the product: ease of use and appearance.
This approach for taste and tactility may appear harsh when looking at capsule machines, which have fewer bells, whistles and options than top-of-the-line machines, but the compromise is their much lower price point and the fact that users need no prior knowledge of making coffee to operate them.
''These offer the ability for me to go to a friend's house and accept a coffee that is better than instant,'' Simon says.
In most cases, capsules are designed to be used only with a particular brand of machine. However, the Caffitaly System used by Map is shared by other brands, including Woolworths and Gloria Jean's, meaning capsules from any Caffitaly machine are interchangeable.
Taste: How the coffee tastes.
Tactile: The coffee's mouthfeel and body.
Ease of use: For home operation.
Appearance: How visually appealing the machine is.
The capsule machines come with a variety of automatic milk frothers that fall into two categories. Nespresso's Aeroccino and the units that come with the Expressi and Bella heat and froth the milk from the bottom or base. The Electrolux comes with one that froths with a wand from above. The latter produces by far the better milk with a more consistent quality.
Expressi, RRP $89
Ease of use: 5.5
For the Aldi supermarket chain's machine, you can choose from 11 different Aldi Expressi-brand capsules.
"Thin and watery. Nothing complex, no great flavour - it's just an inoffensive cup of coffee."
Nespresso U, RRP $299
Ease of use: 6
The best-looking of the machines and also the simplest to use. In fact, out of the box, it will pretty much make your first coffee before you even know what you've done. It also comes with the widest range of blends of all the machines tested.
"Actually quite a rounded coffee - easily up there with some of the automatics. The flavour suggests a better quality of coffee has been used."
Map Bella, RRP $149
Ease of use: 5.5
South Melbourne's Map uses Caffitaly technology in its capsules. They contain more coffee than most - eight grams - and come in four coffee varieties (including decaf), as well as a hot chocolate.
"The extraction is OK and there's better body, but the bitterness is higher. The coffee doesn't taste high quality."
Electrolux Lavazza A Modo Mio Premium, RRP $249
Ease of use: 5.5
A machine made in partnership with Lavazza coffee, this also comes in a "Premium Milk" version with integrated milk frother. It has a steam wand, which Simon says is "like a sports exhaust button on a Daewoo Matiz" - in other words, if you're buying a capsule machine you want simplicity, not effort. There are eight varieties of capsule available, including a decaf. We tested two.
"Very good body and by far the best espresso [in terms of tactile quality] - not that I like the flavour. Had the most promise if the coffee was better quality."
A combination of the Electrolux's extraction and the Nespresso's coffee quality would be the ideal, with the Nespresso getting the nod. The capsules give better bang for your buck than some of the pricier automatic machines, Simon says. Testing suggested the quality of the espresso shot gained from the better capsule machines is close to or better than some automatic machines. However, most serious coffee aficionados will choose to invest in a manual machine, a decent grinder and some training, to give them maximum control over the quality of their coffee. If you just want better-than-instant coffee and convenience - and you can live with the waste generated by used capsules - then capsule machines are worth considering.