Attack of the Coffeepods

A comprehensive rundown on NEXT, lovely Aarhus, and the superfriendly folks at Innovationlab coming soon, quite possibly later on today – I just need to get this next spiel off my chest before I even begin to think about framing anything sensitive.

The source of my present irritation is the various podbased coffee machines that have rapidly become universal in the European hospitality industry, and are making clear inroads on this side of the Atlantic.

People complain that Starbucks is hegemonic, but in fact you do generally have a choice of caffeine providers, whether you’re in Regent Street, on the Boul’ Mich, or stumbling into the merciless light of another Kreuzberg day. Stay in a hotel in any of those cities, though, and what you’re likely to be confronted with upon making your way down to breakfast is one of these disgruntling units.

I thoroughly decry & bewail them. I’m not blind to the economies involved, nor to the burden of prep and cleaning and general mess-surveillance lifted from the shoulders of staff, as if by magic, when you choose to deploy one of these beasties. But let’s face it: have you ever had even a halfway-decent cup of coffee out of these things?

What they pump is invariably a kind of weak ersatz, a coffee analogue with distinct wartime-austerity notes that might strike me as eminently satisfying if I’d been, say, huddled in a stinking, freezing Sarajevo basement for three months, under intermittent sniper fire, but certainly not under any other conceivable circumstances.

Surprising as it may seem, I’m not just ranting for the toothsome pleasure of it. There’s a clear user-experience lesson here. Because both portion control and process are so obsessively pre-calibrated – one might say seamless – there’s just no hinge or fold in the flow of things, no place for the user to reach into the experience and tune it to their liking. You can neither increase the dosage of grounds submitted to the brewing process nor reduce the amount of water pumped through them. Nor, of course, can you monkey with any of the other variables so critical to finding one’s own pleasure in the coffee experience, like timing and temperature. And for me, anyway, the result is inevitably a nice big cup of FAIL.

The question for hospitality providers is this: is the undeniable convenience of pod-brewed coffee sufficient justification for delivering a substandard experience to your guests? I would hope that there would be different answers to this question depending on whether the establishment in question is a youth hostel or a spendy boutique hotel. (And top marks to the Hotel Guldsmeden for serving bottomless pots of the real deal – in Erik Magnussen’s iconic Stelton jug, of course.)

Let this deeply unsatisfactory technology propagate through the world for a few more years, too, in domestic environments as well as institutional, and I can easily enough imagine that there will be those who have only ever been exposed to podsourced “coffee,” who simply won’t have a frame of reference for the richness and raw power they’re missing out on. Until that black (or not-nearly-black-enough) day dawns, though, some of us still know the difference.

3 responses to “Attack of the Coffeepods”

  1. john allsopp says :

    Adam,

    as a lover of (and addict to) espresso coffee, I can only concur. I investigated all kinds of pod systems some time ago, out of curiosity, but my ultimate objection, was being locked into a single coffee vendor (or being required to hack the devices to create my own pods – tempting from a geek point of view, but…)

    Seems to me that these devices are the consoles of coffee – an integrated, turnkey stack of hardware and software.

    I suspect folks like us are the UNIX admins of espresso – happy to fiddle with grind settings, and other variables.

    So, what other analogues with computer OSs can we find?

    Are automatic machines the Mac of espresso? They just work out of the box, and foam your milk, as well as clean themselves, while also giving you customization options nicely hidden out of the way.

    And Windows? At the risk of sounding harsh

    http://www.nescafe.com/nescafe/My+favourite+Nescafe.htm

    Afterall, what’s instant coffee’s market share?

    john

  2. martian77 says :

    Amen to that.

    Although our coffee machines at work are imperfect and the coffee produced still pretty miserable, they do at least allow for changing the strength of the drink. If you understand whether increasing to the left is increasing the strength, or increasing to the right. Poor UI design.

  3. Chris says :

    They had one at my previous job that was really very good when it wasn’t broken.
    It had a choice of 3 “sizes” of water, and the choice of pod determined the strength. I was able to get a decent blast out of it.
    I don’t think the idea itself is flawed, providing there is reasonable control given as you indicated.

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