The lovely thing about capsule coffee is the sheer simplicity of the format. Your morning coffee is ready in three easy steps: Turn the machine on, pop in a capsule, and press a button. And the past few years have been kind to the format. Well-sourced and well-roasted Specialty Coffee have made capsules less of a compromise, and more of a pleasant alternative to traditional, and often more complicated, ways of making coffee. Not everyone can put together a pourover coffee at 6 in the morning. Even less accessible from home is café-quality espresso, which requires more time and expensive equipment to effectively dial in. Today, however, is not about simplicity or convenience. Let’s open up some capsules and see if we can actually do better than our capsule machine!
What’s Actually Inside
Despite the “instant-ness” of the capsule format, allow us to preface by saying that these tiny sealed cups do not contain instant coffee, which are either spray or freeze-dried to be soluble in water. Capsules contain pure coffee, usually finely ground, to allow for efficient pressure-induced extraction of solubles in the grinds. To establish a baseline before the brewing experiments, we’ve opened up three capsules from four different roasters, representing a range of both Single Origin and blended coffee.
Yardstick Coffee’s Lemon Cherry Bar
What’s immediately apparent is the difference in colour of the grinds, reflecting different coffees and differences in roasting. We weighed the contents of each capsule, and they all fell between a range of 5 to 6 grams. What might not be as obvious in the picture are the differences in grind size. We used the rather unscientific way of feeling the particles between our fingers to rate the relative fineness of the grounds. From here, we assigned a brewing method to each capsule, to see if the coffee and the grind particle size could work for the intended application.
Experiment 1: Colonna Coffee brewed as an Espresso
Colonna’s offering felt like it was on the finer side, so we chose it for brewing on a commercial Espresso machine. We opened up four capsules to make 20g of coffee. The grounds were carefully dosed onto a portafilter, and distributed, tamped, and pulled. The goal was either a target of 40g of espresso, or a brew time of at least 25 seconds.
Espresso from a Colonna capsule pulled on a La Marzocco Linea
Result: We achieved neither. The shot flowed very quickly, yielding 70g in about 15 seconds – quicker than most capsule shots. The espresso did form a thin layer of crema, but the cup tasted thin and flat – a sign of under-extraction. Pulling this from a capsule machine, as intended, delivers a tastier cup.
Experiment 2: April Coffee brewed as a Pourover
While the other coffees felt like they were varying levels of fine, April Coffee’s El Salvador San Antonio felt significantly coarser. It was still finer than what we would use for pourover, but it felt like the best shot we had (pun intended). We opened up two capsules to give us 10 grams, going for less coffee to help the brewer fully drain all the water. The goal was a brew ratio of 1:15, and a total brew time of 2:30.
Grinds from an April Coffee capsule, brewed on a Kalita Wave
Result: Better than expected! The brewer did fully drain just a bit overtime, the wet grounds didn’t appear to be muddy, and the cup appears to have some clarity. A nice surprise was a small amount of bubbling on the first pour – typically a sign of fresh coffee. The capsule manufacturer must have done a good job preventing the pre-ground coffee from fully oxidising during the packing process. Our assumption about the grinds still being too fine for the method was accurate though – we experienced some hollowness and bitter flavours, a sure sign of over-extraction. A drinkable cup for sure, but we still prefer the brews direct from the capsule.
Experiment 3: TCA House Blend brewed via full immersion
Full immersion methods allow for the entire volume of water to brew the coffee all at once. The most common of these methods is a French Press, while another popular method is the Clever coffee dripper. The Clever resembles an oversized pourover cone, with a valve you can open to allow the brew to drip through. Similar to the second experiment, we tried both methods with a brew ratio of 1:15, and a total brew time of 4:00. We knew that none of the capsules had a grind particle size coarse enough for this method, but we wanted to be thorough!
Left: French Press, Right: Clever Coffee Dripper
Result: The grind particle size was indeed too fine. The french press had fine grinds in the cup, and the bottom was more sludgy than normal. The Clever had a hard time fully draining. Both cups were not very pleasant to drink.
Experiment 4: Yardstick Coffee Snack brewed on a Capsule Machine
As a bonus round, we decided to go back to the brewer that inspired this experiment. It seems that we can’t improve on the intended use of capsule coffee through other methods, so let’s focus on a variable that may improve our results instead. Earlier on, we noticed that majority of the capsules contained between 5 and 6 grams of coffee. What if we increase the dose? More coffee is better, right?
A reusable capsule packed with Yardstick’s Lemon Cherry Bar
We used an aftermarket reusable capsule for this experiment. To limit the effects of oxidation, we opened up the capsule and transferred the contents as quick as we could. It wasn’t easy, but after some tapping and tamping, we succeeded in filling the reusable capsule with 6.5 grams of the Yardstick coffee grounds – a full gram more than the original.
Left: Yardstick’s Snack Capsule, pulled on a capsule machine, Right: Reusable capsule containing a higher dose of the same grounds
The Result: The resulting shot from our experiment was very slow: about 10 grams of espresso in 25 seconds. The pump actually sounded like it was having a hard time, and we had to cut the shot prematurely. The shot had high intensity, but did not have balanced flavours. It was strong, sour, and quite salty. To compare, the standard Yardstick Snack Capsule pulls 30 grams of espresso in 25 seconds. We recommend sticking to the latter – it’s a brighter, sweeter, and fuller shot.
Conclusion: If it ain’t broke...
A traditional espresso might be more intense, and a freshly-made pourover, more aromatic. But coffee roasters have succeeded in preserving some of the origin and varietal characteristics of Specialty Coffee in a highly convenient format. This experiment may have failed to result in a tastier brew alternative to these pre-ground capsules, but it is telling of the importance of balancing coffee choice and roast profile, dose and grind particle size, and its synergy with existing technology that allows beautiful flavours to make it to your cup almost instantly. And that, we conclude, does not need fixing.
Have you tried another way of opening up and brewing capsules? Do you have another brew method or variable in mind that you want to have us try? Let us know in the comments below!
Words and Photos by: Jon Choi @theheadbean