How to make perfect coffee at home

A food critic spends a few happy weeks with a new espresso maker and its tasting box
Jacob Richler

How to make perfect coffee at homeEarlier this year in Montreal a new café opened on Crescent Street near Sherbrooke Street. This in itself is not especially exciting news, but then the Nespresso Boutique Bar is no ordinary café—as you will know if you’ve ever dropped in on the two-storey six-salon Nespresso Club alongside the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées, or closer to home, the chic branch on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

If you have not, this is what you need to know. In 1970, the Nestlé company’s R & D division did for espresso coffee exactly what they had done in 1938 for regular café filtre: they rendered it instant and effortless, and while they were at it, dispensed with the messy pot, too. The trick of it was to vacuum-seal individual portions of coffee in special capsules designed for a purpose-specific machine. The system was patented in 1976, went to market in Europe a decade later, and now—just 20-odd years on—accounts for over 17 per cent of the espresso machines sold worldwide, and counting. And for all that the local onslaught is still recent. In Canada, the machines first went on sale in 2005; and the Nespresso Bar in Montreal is only the third location to open in North America, after New York and Boston.

The first time I came across a Nespresso machine on this continent was upon rolling out of bed for the first time at the splendid Auberge St-Antoine in Quebec City. Exploring the suite for the in-room coffee machine with a dread born of experience, I was shocked to find that in place of the usual cheap drip machine with its pouch of insipid grinds, there was instead a little espresso maker of the sort I had first encountered at a friend’s place in Monaco a decade previous. So I selected a capsule, pushed a button, and presto: a perfect, crema-laden espresso. Every good hotel should have them.

“The Relais strongly recommends them,” general manager David Mounteer, whose Auberge is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux, concurred. “The quality is undeniable. And the chambermaids love them—no mess.”

What works for the Relais usually works for me; and on this occasion, I’m onside with the chambermaids, too. For I have been living with a Nespresso Citiz (just $299) for a few happy weeks now, and have not had to wipe coffee grains or oily spills or anything at all from the counter around the machine once. My suddenly neglected coffee-silt-spewing Krups burr grinder and Breville espresso maker appear more and more anathema to me every passing day.

Of course, doing away with the mess would mean nothing if the coffee were not excellent, too. And the Nespresso does that and more, because—just as if, say, like me, you may prefer your 10-year-old Bruichladdich single malt in the afternoon, and relegate the 15- or 20-year to post-prandial duties—you can pop a different flavour in the machine any time you like.

Obviously I am not talking about “minty nectarine” and “peaches and cream” or whatever they’re peddling at Second Cup or Tim Hortons these days. Rather, I refer to the possibilities presented by your basic Nespresso tasting box: 13 proper espresso coffees (and three decaffeinated types if you’re into that sort of thing) rated by strength of flavour. I lean to the strongest types—like Ristretto (strength 10), which has some bitter notes, and my favourite, Arpeggio (9), which has none. But having dutifully sampled all, I can attest to uniform quality across the entire range.

Now, even if your home is equipped with a lovely $2,000 all-in-one automated espresso machine by Jura of Switzerland, you cannot flit about between flavours like that. Nor can you do so if you use your own burr grinder. The only way to manage it is to procure your coffee pre-ground, and load your machine from a different bag when the urge strikes—and hope that the mix has not gone stale since you last dipped in. And this virtue of flexibility, combined with the negligible capsule surcharge, is a huge factor in Nespresso’s success.

The online ordering club for the standard lineup of “grand cru” and a rotation of featured specials (like the current “singatoba,” sourced just in time from Sumatra) is nearly six million strong. You can sample the enticing possibilities along with their vintner’s-style tasting notes in a lovely setting at the Nespresso Boutique Bar in Montreal—or you can save yourself the trip, pick up a machine (the Bay sells them in Vancouver and Toronto), join the club, and make your own perfect coffee at home with roughly the same skill set as is required to make a nice piece of toast.