How the world’s best restaurants make espresso

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Apparently I have completely bullshitted Santa into thinking I've been good this year because he brought me something on my Christmas list. Sucker!!

Behold, my newest caffeine delivery device, the Nespresso Pixie:

I'm pretty much obsessed with coffee, and have always deeply loved espresso.

What's espresso? Cue Wikipedia:

Espresso is coffee brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans. Espresso is generally thicker than coffee brewed by other methods, has a higher concentration of suspended and dissolved solids, and has crema on top (a foam with a creamy consistency).

When you're in a coffee shop and there's lots of hissing and banging going on behind the counter? That's the espresso machine and the barista at work. The machines in those coffee shops cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars - like this one on Amazon! (And if you're the kind of person that clicks "Add to cart" for something over 10 Gs, I salute you).

I had long believed that expensive machines were utterly essential to the production of fine espresso.

Then I read this article from GrubStreet, where I learned:

At hundreds of Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, what you'll actually get is coffee that comes from a metallic pod. In fact, Nespresso is increasingly common at high-end restaurants, and the group is pushing hard to make sure use of its machines becomes even more ubiquitous. And discerning chefs are more than happy with the arrangement.

WHAAAAT??? Some of the finest restaurants in the world use POD COFFEE? This, to put it mildly, was a shock. I hold (held) a very low opinion of pod coffee, including the ubiquitous Keurig K-cups. To quote Chuck Wendig at on the K-Cup:

Those were invented for people whose tastebuds were destroyed in the war. You know what’s in a K-Cup? Coffee from the Soviet era. Limestone driveway gravel. Pubes from raccoons who died in housefires. If you’re going to drink coffee from K-Cups, you might as well eat grass-fed beef out of a dirty gym sock, or drink Lagavulin whisky after it’s first been passed through the intestinal tract of a sickly flamingo. It’s gross.

Well put.

But what if pods are not all bad? What if some pods in fact make great coffee? Apparently it has to be, since nearly a third of Michelin-starred restaurants use Nespresso makers to serve their diners. Unless a third of the Michelin reviews are wrong, Nespresso must be excellent. Right?

Well, smack my ass and call me Judy, those Michelin-starred restaurants are right!

I had the chance to experience a Nespresso maker and found the results to be excellent. As an added bonus, their machines are teeny-tiny, so they fit easily in small kitchens (like mine). Superior espresso at the touch of the button? Yes please.

 Espresso by @ultrakml on Flickr

Espresso by @ultrakml on Flickr

So I asked, and Santa delivered.

I put the Nespresso Pixie on my list because I had experience with it, it has one of the smallest footprints of the Nespresso machines (and there are many to choose from), and it's a bit fancier. Incidentally, I've also used the Essenza and it works great too.

The Pixie came with an assortment of capsules to try (as do other machines), so within a few minutes after a quick set up, I had ingested enough caffeine to kill a small horse. The inclusion of capsules was a great bonus because there are more than twenty different varieties to chose from. Not all of them were included with the machine, so I later purchased those not included and now have tried them all. I would encourage you to do the same because there's a wide spread in flavor and quality among their offerings.

Personally, my favorites were the "Pure Origin" varieties. In hindsight, this isn't a surprise. The Nespresso Pure Origin line are their high-end coffees. Sold a slight premium, I find them well worth the added expense.

I have not tried any of the refillable capsules for Nespresso. The idea is essentially to make your own pods from the coffee of your choosing. I imagine the quality (provided the devices work as advertised) would be superior to the Pure Origin line, but the process of individually packing each pod sounds like a pain the ass. I already make my own pour-over in the mornings, which enough of a pain as it is. I'll stick with the pre-filled Nespresso pods, thank you very much.

While I prefer my coffee black (and have been known to order Red Eyes at coffee shops), I know lots of people like frothed milk with their espresso. Lack of a pressurized steam, milk-frothing function is one of the things that keeps the Nespresso units so small. Thus, if you like frothed milk, you need another device. Probably the most convenient if you have frothed milk every day is the Capresso frothPRO. I've used it and it works great, although it is on the expensive side. For the rare occasion I want some frothy milk, I keep a handheld milk frother on hand. They look like tiny hand blenders (and work similarly). There are many options to choose from, but this one gets great reviews.

Finally, is the Nespresso espresso as good as you can get from a high-end coffee shop like Intelligentsia or Blue Bottle? No. It's probably impossible to beat a pull from a premium roaster and professional barista.

But it's damn close...which is really incredible when you think about it.