Printer cartridges and safety razor blades, move over: this year’s Ramsey pricing award winner is the Nespresso coffee system…and these guys don’t even have the good grace to give you a break on the initial purchase that puts the tapeworm’s head in your wallet.
Making espresso-family drinks at home has always been something of a nuisance. If you want a really nice cup of Giuseppe in this mode, you need to grind beans, fill a little cup with a porous bottom and attach it to a machine, wait while hot water is squooshed through it, and steam some milk (with a nozzle on the same machine) if you aren’t taking it neat. For the next cup, you knock the grounds out of the cup and start again…pretty much the same sequence you see at your neighborhood bar, but you don’t have the automatic grinder/tamper they have that makes the process quick and repeatable, nor the grounds bin with a rubber bar for knocking out the basket. We had one of these machines for several years and didn’t use it much after a while, because it was just too much bother for one or two cups, and the jouer-avec entertainment faded quickly.
Now you can get a more automated espresso machine that represents real progress. It holds a largish tank of water and a hopper of beans. Push one button, and it grinds the beans, brews a cup, and empties the brewing basket. To steam your milk, you still have to stick a nozzle into it and open a steam valve (but as my dad used to say, “what do you expect with a bowl of soup, a ham?”). We have a Saeco that originally cost $300 as an impulse-purchased open-box item at Fry’s that has been trouble-free for four years, making about a thousand cups a year; this model costs $1200 now, but Amazon offers a DeLonghi with similar functionality for about $600. Peet’s $13/lb Italian roast comes out to about 10c per serving for this system, plus 16c for a latte’s worth of milk. As the cycle takes about 30-60 seconds and the machine is 1200w, maybe half a cent for electricity, less without the milk.
What I’m working up to is truly a wonder of modern enterprise. The corresponding Nespresso machine costs about $550 (these are all on-line prices) and you don’t pour beans into a hopper every twenty cups. Instead, you drop a little aluminum “pod” into it for every one cup, close a lid, push a button, and voila! a cup of espresso. The aluminum cup – I just dumped one out and weighed the contents - contains 4g of coffee that was ground heaven knows when and sealed in its little cup to age in a warehouse (g means grams, gentle reader; a gram is about 1/30 of an ounce). These pods cost about $1 each on-line, though the sales clerk at Sur la Table, where I came upon this system today, told me that while they don’t sell them, they are available for $.55. Even at the lower price, which I can’t find on the web, this coffee costs $66/lb, and no, you cannot use the machine with anything else; not someone else’s pods, and certainly not ground coffee. Nestlé pods, pal; it’s a lifetime relationship. That $500 machine is a down payment on a 400-900% tax on every cup of coffee you make with it: three cups a day and you pay for the machine again, or more, every year you own it. Next, a frying pan customized to work only with a single brand of eggs, yup.
What I can’t understand is how these geniuses were so dumb as to market a machine that uses tap water. How hard could it be to design a sealed aluminum non-refillable $15 water pod, filled with one of several different gourmet waters matched to the coffee blends (the coffee pods come in about twenty different color-coded blends), like, say, Milano da rubinetto, Pioggia pura romana da mattina, Nestlé’s own Poland Spring (in 3 elastic modulus grades) already in pods, Amazona prima colheita do verão, Flaque Boulevard St. Germain, Fiji-Dasani custom coffee blend (also approved for Mercedes engine cooling systems), Gelbschnee fondé puro (Nestlé’s local house brand), and so on. People who will pay five to ten times extra for stale coffee grounds will certainly pay through the nose for water with a name on it.
Forget the flu-impregnated monogrammed hankies, the baby python, and the exploding cigars; imperfect as the Nespresso realization is so far, it’s still this year’s best gift idea for your worst enemy. And you can do something nice for the folks who have had so much trouble understanding why every baby in the world shouldn’t drink formula, almost as good as breast milk for the child and so much nicer for the suits in Vevey – not to mention their determination to cover the world in empty plastic water bottles.