I’d be lying if I said I’ve never taken the easy way out, and with brewing espresso it’s no exception. The unique thing about brewing espresso however is that nowadays there is a plethora of options for someone looking to avoid the effort that goes into traditional brewing. Certainly Single-Serve and Super-Automatic espresso machines may seem similar in that both will brew you a shot of espresso with the push of a button, but in most cases, that is one of a very few things the two categories have in common.
An even bigger issue is, just how much will you be paying for the coffee you’re drinking? For your convenience, I’ve put together a chart that answers that exact question.
As you can see, super-automatics excel in the cost/cup department and clearly produce the cheapest cup of coffee.
The most limiting factor for any single-serve owner is that their machine will only be able to utilize one method of brewing. Keurig machines can only brew with K-Cups, Nespresso machines only with Nespresso capsules, etc. While there is competition between the manufacturers of the machines, there is little competition with regards to the coffee. If you’re a Keurig owner and you’re unhappy with your coffee, it’s not like you can suddenly start buying Tassimo T-Discs for your machine instead, not without plunking down $100 or more into a new machine. When you’ve bought a single-serve machine you’ve dedicated yourself to using the coffee compatible with that particular brand.
With a super-automatic machine, oftentimes the only inhibiting factor in the coffee you can use is the fact that especially oily beans (Starbucks for example) sometimes create problems for the machines' internal components. Aside from that there’s really nothing preventing you from using whatever kind of coffee you like, whether it be whole bean or pre-ground. Additionally, super-automatic machines allow for adjustments to be made to factors such as grind fineness, coffee dosage, temperature, and pre-infusion granting a vastly larger degree of control over the coffee your machine produces and many can be programmed to your exact specifications. Single-serve machines offer very little control in this respect with the coffee being pre-measured and ground to a specific fineness. If your coffee is unsatisfactory, for the most part, all you can do is try a different variety and hope for the best.
With regards to customizability and control, another category where single-serve machines have a tendency to come up short against their super-automatic counterparts is milk frothing. Milk can be one of the touchiest factors when preparing a coffee based drink for yourself and fortunately, we live in a time when automatic milk frothing solutions are abundant.There are very, VERY, few super-automatic espresso machines in modern times that do not feature a means to froth or steam milk for lattes and cappuccinos and some super-automatics can do it with the push of a button. With that being said, certain brands of single-serve espresso machines sport milk frothing features of their own such as the FrancisFrancis! machines designed for use with Illy’s IperEspresso capsules, or select Nespresso machines. Often though, a single-serve owner will either have to buy a peripheral frothing device, or make due with the alternative frothing solution exclusive to single-serve machines, powdered milk.
There are several brands of single-serve espresso machines that make use of powdered milk as an alternative to frothing systems, Tassimo and the new Starbucks Verismo machines being two that come to mind. Say you prefer soy milk, or whole milk, well, looks like you’re out of luck. And I’ve never heard of powdered microfoam. Powdered milk is a solution, albeit an immensely limited one, requiring that you buy special packages that include the milk discs, which in turn means you get less coffee. For example, the standard Starbucks Verismo coffee pods come 12 per box for $11.95. The box the pairs coffee pods and milk pods gives you 8 of each for $12.95, when a person with a super-automatic with milk frothing could pick up a gallon of milk for about $3.50, make a great drink, and still have milk left over for the kids. Certainly the Verismo owner could buy milk too, but it’s not gonna froth itself is it? Well, looks like they’ll have to buy a peripheral milk frothing system, but wait, wasn’t this machine supposed to do it all? This of course raises the point that maybe you just need to pick the right one and you’ll be all set.