There's no doubt about it, robots still have tremendous intellectual appeal. Perhaps at no more enticing time than first thing in the morning, when you're desperately hoping someone else, anyone else, anything else, might make you your coffee. The growth of the pod-coffee segment of home brewing machines has been tremendous, and it's not just because people are lazy and they look cool. It's because they are capable of producing a surprisingly acceptable—sometimes even good!—cup of coffee.
At long last, Starbucks is throwing its hat in the ring. The company announced in September the arrival of the "Verismo" automated pod machine, a push-button single-cup espresso maker that offers the added functionality of brewing drip coffee and...wait for it...even steaming milk for you by using milk pods...all in one handy chute.
We spent some time with this machine both at home and at a Starbucks demo (at the latter, making lattes in between accepting mini-madelines from male models—Verismo is a high-roller.) Now, say what you will about pod and pre-ground coffee, but Starbucks' intention here is to replicate the cafe experience and flavors as best they can at home (and since Starbucks' own espresso machines are themselves super-automatic, this doesn't seem outside of the realm of possibility.) And the Verismo's finished product, that roasty, rich, consistent Starbucks espresso flavor profile, is right there. Even though we don't drink a lot of pod coffee around here, it's definitely a medium capable of reproducing all the familiar, comforting-to-many, notes of a Starbucks cafe espresso (though they actually do grind their coffee fresh in the shops).
Now what about Verismo's other tricks? It does drip coffee, too, which is interesting—the pods for drip coffee come specially engineered with a built-in poly-weave filter, meaning that instead of forcing all the coffee out through a pinhole (as is done for espresso) it's dispersed through the mini filter (and at less than 1 cm, it's the smallest coffee filter I've seen yet.)
And then there are the milk pods.
For those who didn't grow up drinking modernity-blinded fad beverages like powdered milk or Tang, let's begin at the beginning: powdered milk comes from real milk, essentially sprayed and dried, then gathered for reconstitution with moisture later on. Starbucks' milk engineers claim to have formulated this particularly "creamy" milk-mixture by "being gentle to the milk". The pods of milk do not require refrigeration, and work the in the same slot as the coffee pods, but are "brewed" at a lower temperature (around 160°F instead of the 195-198 degrees used for the coffee.)
It's definitely a psychological hurdle, but in lattes, it's fine enough, and still allows that tabula rasa upon which that assertively sturdy espresso, or perhaps your additional flavor syrups, can come vividly to life. We tried a cup of it plain, and it tastes eerily reminiscent of the stuff from those cappuccino vending machines—but at best it is bland, and it is certainly thick and foamy.
The pods are expensive, as all pods are, around $1 a drink or a little more if you're getting a milk pod combo. You can opt for Starbucks' "lighter" roasts, like Pike Place and Veranda, or you can stick with the sturdy house blend. At the end of the day, pod preparation is, in theory, neither good nor evil—though even with push-button simplicity it never really felt like I was saving any huge amount of time by not grinding and brewing coffee more traditionally, especially because every now and then a pod would fail to discharge correctly, or fall through undischarged, etc. (The waste factor bugs me far more than the coffee-snob factor: if we can find a way to recycle and compost these things I'll feel far less like I'm throwing batteries in a landfill when I accept a cup from a friend who simply prefers convenience.) But for those who want a Starbucks experience and the rush of gadgetry all combined into a few easy flicks of the wrist: you've got it now.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.
Sample for testing provided by Starbucks.