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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 15, 2012 at 9:44 AM

Review: Starbucks Verismo espresso machine

Get ready for another Seattle-born, high-tech gadget that may be used by millions of people around the world.

Along with the Kindle, the Xbox and the carbon-fiber jetliner we now have the Verismo, a new automated espresso machine from Starbucks.

The Verismo — which starts at $200 and appears in Starbucks stores beginning Tuesday — uses plastic capsules filled with pre-ground coffee or powdered milk.

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You drop a “pod” into the machine, press a button and out comes an espresso beverage made with one of Starbucks’ signature blends.

To make a latte you use two pods and press two buttons. One gives you a shot of steamed milk and the second adds a shot of espresso.

This isn’t the first coffee maker to come out of Seattle, which has become the Little Italy of the espresso-machine industry. In addition to the commercial machines developed in the area, Starbucks has offered traditional, manual espresso machines in the past.

Nor is it a new concept. Other companies have been making “single serve” espresso machines for years, using their own capsule designs.

But it’s all about timing, and Starbucks believes the single-serve business is finally taking off. A spokeswoman said the market has grown 147 percent year over year in the U.S. and is now an $8 billion market globally.

I’ve been using the entry-level Verismo 580 for several weeks now at home and at work.

I should confess that I’m a big fan of the competing Nespresso system from Nestle, which pioneered the pod coffee business. Almost every column I’ve written has been fueled by Nespresso shots.

I’ve also used a Starbucks manual espresso machine — which the company no longer sells in stores — for more than a decade.

I’ve tried other single-serve systems but haven’t found one that makes straight shots of espresso as well as the Nespresso. The Verismo is the first one that has come close.

Shots of Starbucks Espresso Blend from the Verismo taste just about like a solo shot you’d get at a Starbucks store and it’s quicker. It’s also slightly cheaper; the pods cost $1 apiece, while a solo shot is $1.75 at the store.

Nespresso machines start at $129, pods cost 60 cents and more varieties of espresso are available. But you have to order the coffee online, unless you’re in a city like New York or Paris that has a Nespresso boutique.

Where Verismo has an edge over the Nespresso is in the variety of beverages that can be produced with the Verismo machine. Like Starbucks stores, the Verismo produces a range of drinks that appeal particularly to Americans.

In addition to espresso, the Verismo produces a 10-ounce drip coffee, a 10-ounce Americano and an 8 ounce latte. The first two cost $1; the latte is $2 since it takes both a coffee pod and milk pod. (If you buy combo packs with eight coffee and eight milk pods the latte price comes down to $1.62, a spokeswoman noted.)

Figuring out how to make an acceptable latte from a pod is perhaps the biggest innovation in the Verismo. Starbucks worked with the manufacturer in Germany to tune the system so it would “brew” the milk at a lower temperature than the coffee. Lots of work also went into the milk, which is powdered and produces a “standard” 2 percent latte.

Starbucks really had to get the latte right, said Paul Camera, director of research and development at the Seattle headquarters.

“Our signature beverage is a latte, right?” he told me. “This is really a feature that the consumer is going to say, ‘Ah, finally, here is a machine that does all of this stuff.'”

The Verismo latte is pretty good. It has a distinct taste of powdered milk, which some may dislike, but the drink is rich and fresh-tasting, with some caramel flavors of the coffee coming through.

Verismo drip coffee tastes comparable to drip coffee in its stores. My only gripe with this — besides the cost — is that on the entry-level Verismo you have to remove the standard cup platform to fit a 4-inch-tall mug under the spout.

It’s not a huge deal but you shouldn’t have to do this, especially on a relatively tall machine. The Verismo 580 is about 11 inches tall, 11 inches deep and 5.5 inches wide.

The machine also “ate” about one in 10 pods, dropping them into its internal discard pile before I pulled the shot. I could fish out the unused capsules but it’s a little messy and infuriating when you’re paying $1 per pod.

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Pods are available with different roasts, including House Blend, Pike Place Roast, Veranda Blend and Caffe Verona. More pod varieties are planned; the pod coffees are roasted by Starbucks in Amsterdam and packaged in Europe, where there’s more single-serve production expertise.

Americanos are made with an espresso pod followed by a shot of hot water from the Verismo. But I found an alternative method that I preferred.

On the drip coffee pods there’s a foil tab that you’re supposed to remove before use. I didn’t read the instructions at first and left the tabs on, which forced the machine to use more pressure. The result was a richer 10-ounce beverage with a nice crema. Camera said I was making a sort of lungo shot and my trick shouldn’t damage the machine.

With the taste of a Verismo cup approaching that of drinks from a Starbucks store, cost and convenience are the factors to consider.

Asked about the pod price, Camera said Starbucks pays a premium to get the world’s best coffee.

“You’re getting the same high-quality coffee that you get in our stores. It’s identical to that,” he said, adding that “everything we do is about quality and not about lowest cost.”

Some attribute the rise of single-serve coffee machines to frugality among post-recession consumers who want a cheaper alternative to the coffee shop but don’t want to give up their favorite beverages. Yet $2 for a small latte isn’t a huge savings and the per-pound cost of the actual coffee is astronomical with pods.

We’ll see if consumers agree that the Verismo’s convenience is worth the cost. The pod price seems too high to me.

The coffee snob in me also objects to the idea of coffee pods. Making a great espresso requires more than just a high-pressure machine. It takes practice and good coffee. Every cup’s a little different and another chance to attempt the perfect shot.

Really, though, I don’t have time to fire up the manual machine every morning. It’s a little messy and takes fussing to prime and clean.

It’s even less convenient to manually make espresso at work. I’ve seen primo espresso machines at a number of Seattle software companies, but they usually look almost untouched compared with dispenser-type machines.

The Verismo may be a more convenient option for small offices that want in-house espresso.

Even Starbucks is using automated machines now in its stores, to produce espresso drinks fast and with consistent quality.

But it wouldn’t be cost effective for Starbucks to use pods, which is something to keep in mind if you’re a big coffee drinker.

Comments | More in Reviews | Topics: coffee pods, espresso, food


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