A quiet revolution has been taking place in the coffee world over the past few years, with pod (or capsule) coffee machines increasingly appearing on the nation’s kitchen countertops, alongside the ubiquitous kettle and toaster.
When high street coffee shops shuttered during the pandemic, sales of these machines soared, as people discovered that they could still get their favourite drinks at the touch of a button or the flick of a switch, without having to wrestle with bean grinders, espresso extractors, steamers and frothers.
The advantage of pods is that the coffee is precisely ground, measured, and tamped so there is very little room for error, leaving you with consistent espresso every time.
The capsules themselves cost between 18p and 62p, but when compared with the cost of a takeaway coffee, you always know that you’re going to come out ahead, plus you’re doing your bit for the environment by always having your own cup to hand.
On the subject of sustainability, we looked at how environmentally friendly the capsules are, as there has been some concern over the impact the pods have on the planet.
Recyclable or compostable pods are becoming increasingly available and even when this isn’t an option, some interesting research from the University of Bath has suggested that when you take into account the entire life cycle of the pod and the coffee in it (from farming the beans to brewing them), the capsule has a smaller environmental footprint than filter and espresso bought elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, convenience is the main selling point of the machines, so we looked at how easy the machines made it to make the range of drinks on offer and then, of course, the quality of the coffee produced, using our favourite barista brews as a benchmark.
Each machine was judged on its espresso merits, so we were left with a range of machines that excelled at taking the grind out of making great coffee.
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illy X1 iperespresso anniversary 1935 machine
The one thing that traditional espresso machines usually have over pod machines is good looks, but you’d have no hesitation putting the X1 in pride of place in your kitchen with its simple styling and classic lines. The simplicity continues with a user-friendly interface that is so straightforward you could use it blindfold – if extreme coffee-making is your thing!
The machine takes illy’s iperespresso capsules, which are made from highly recyclable material, and produces wonderfully smooth and rich espressos with a silky crema that was robust enough to remain as we drank the last drops of the espresso. The machine can also provide an aromatic cup of drip coffee, depending on preference.
The X1 extracts the flavour of each coffee in the capsule range superbly and there’s a very efficient steam wand to froth milk for a latte, cappuccino or other milk-based drinks.
Buy now £555.00, illy
This feature-heavy machine uses the brand’s own eco-friendly, compostable capsules to produce some excellent shots of espresso at different lengths, as well as latte, cappuccino and macchiato. The rich crema indicated that the capsule contains quality, well-ground coffee and that the machine’s extraction process is extremely efficient.
The deséa takes all the hassle out of frothing the milk. The one-touch system allows you to simply fill up the handled mug (that comes with the machine) with the desired level of milk and leave it to froth while the espresso is being prepared.
Some machines did struggle to get the temperature of the coffee right, but this one allows you to tailor it with a boost button as well as adding more foam, if required.
Buy now £199.00, Lavazza
If you’re not a creature of habit when it comes to your coffee and you like different styles and quantities of brew, then this Nespresso machine can provide you with everything from a single espresso to a longer drink, as well as everything in between. Incredibly easy to use, simply make sure you’ve got the right-sized coffee cup for the drink that it’s making and then press a button. The machine even neatly dispatches the used pod into a waiting container at the back of the machine.
A lovely smooth crema wasn’t just confined to the single and double espresso but was even waiting for us atop the huge (414ml) alto drink that the machine produced. It will only serve black coffee, so if you’re a milk and froth fanatic you’ll need to have some on standby to mix in with your drink – but Nespresso does have its own aeroccino machine (Nespresso, £50) available to buy separately.
Buy now £199.00, Nespresso
Dualit espress-auto coffee and tea machine
This stylish machine takes a range of capsules from Dualit’s own to Nespresso’s, and the machine does a very good job of extracting the coffee from the pods and filling the cup with a hot, aromatic brew. It is very easy to use, with a single button for a single espresso and another for doubles. Milk can be added by using the built-in steamer wand, which worked well to produce smooth lattes, cappuccinos and macchiato.
Buy now £224.99, Dualit
De’Longhi dolce gusto genio s
An intuitive interface means that all you have to do is use the scrolling wheel to match the bars on the lid of the particular pod you’re using to the bars on the display, push the button and you’ll be rewarded with a freshly pulled shot.
De’Longhi’s recyclable pods cover the whole gamut of coffees, from americano to caramel macchiato, and include a branded Starbucks range. For milk-based drinks, you’ll need two pods – one for the espresso and one for the milk, but the machine accommodates both to simplify the process. There is also an energy-saving mode, meaning it will turn itself off after it’s been inactive for a minute.
Buy now £67.99, Amazon
This is a good-looking machine that is perfect for smaller kitchens or even to have sitting on an office desk, thanks to its very modest footprint. It fits a lot of tech into a very small space, producing espresso and coffee at the touch of a button and extracting delicious, bold espresso topped with a crema that gives a long flavour after tasting, something coffee aficionados will love.
Buy now £82.00, illy
Bosch tassimo happy
If you’re looking to brighten up your kitchen, this one’s for you as it comes in two vibrant colours – wild purple and a very striking red and white. A good choice for the occasional coffee drinker because it combines a modest price with a choice of over 40 drinks, including Costa’s own branded pods, which are barcoded to identify how much water needs to be dispensed by the machine. The machine produced consistently rich espresso with a lingering, sippable crema.
Buy now £105.99, Bosch
Nespresso Sage creatista plus coffee machine
With eight drink settings – ranging from black coffees to milk-based drinks, this machine produced a deep, rich espresso with luxurious tan-coloured foam. If you’re a fan of cappuccinos, lattes, macchiato and flat whites then you can rely on the highly customisable milk wand, which will give you 11 different milk temperatures and the choice to dial up or down how much froth you get in your cup. The machine was wonderfully easy to use and walks you through the preparation for your drink of choice, which we really liked because we could just get on and make our drink rather than spend time with a manual.
Buy now £449.95, Sage Appliances
Wacaco nanopresso ns adapter
Wouldn’t it be ideal if you could take the convenience of a pod coffee machine and distil it to a portable coffee cup for an instant espresso hit while on the go? Well, thanks to this nifty add-on to the already established and very popular Nanopresso portable espresso machine (Wacaco, £50.90) you can do just that. Simply put your favourite Nespresso pod in the adapter and it will add a dose of rich espresso to hot water or milk in the main chamber. It is a great option for camping, travelling or as a superior alternative to the instant coffee machines that populate garages and service stations.
Buy now £23.99, Amazon
As the name suggests, the tiny may be small but it packs a real punch in its ability to produce consistently superb espresso and luxurious crema. It only does espresso, although the free pour button means that you can make a longer drink if you want to prolong the experience – all you have to do is press a button to start the extraction and press it again when your cup of choice is full. If you’re considering a pod machine but you’re unsure on how much use you’ll get out of one, or how the coffee will compare to barista grade – this is a great place to start.
Buy now £59.00, Lavazza
The verdict: Pod coffee machines
If you’re a coffee addict, you really need the illy x1 iperespresso anniversary 1935 in your caffeine corner. It occupies the sweet spot between the classic styling and sleek lines of traditional espresso machines and the technology needed to brew barista-quality espresso each and every time you turn it on – and all this with minimal cleaning and fuss. For pure versatility and ease of use, the Lavazza desea is a must, especially for those who love a latte or similar milk-based drink.
Searching for a guilt-free brew? Our review of the best eco-friendly coffee pods and capsules is on hand to help