Coffee Pods vs Home Brewing
Written by Alex
In this blog, I want to weigh up some of the reasons that we prefer to use fresh, whole-bean coffee in the café and in our home brewing set-ups – looking at the implications of cost, taste, ease and expertise needed to perfect each method.
Many companies have attempted to condense the bespoke coffee shop experience into the commonly known coffee pod. These pods, typically made entirely from plastic – or aluminium lined with plastic – are not yet at home recyclable.
Most pods need to be sent to specialist recycling centres with some companies offering pickup services to customers. Generally, adoption is low for these services and most pods are sent to landfill or disrupt recycling streams.
We’ve been open in the past about our own plastic use, and how you can ethically and sustainably recycle our LDPE coffee bags. Similarly, the major coffee pod producers have teamed up to create Podback, a recycling scheme to reduce the number of coffee pods reaching landfill sites.
So, whether you grind from fresh or pull from a pod, both options come without a single-use plastic burden. But which tastes better? And how easy is it to make good, fresh coffee?
Lots of factors are at play when it comes to a flavour comparison between fresh and pod-made coffee, but it mostly depends on your experience with tasting coffees, and your preferences in the final cup.
Coffee pod companies are quickly teaming up with major brands such as Starbucks, Costa and even Cadburys; implying that they can mimic the coffee shop experience in your own home and match the expertise of a barista with a machine.
Typically, a box of coffee pods can be consumed over an entire year, but as pods contain ground coffee, they will deteriorate considerably over that time.
A bag of fresh beans can last around 3-6 months unopened, depending on how it’s been packed (although they can be frozen for up to 2 years).
If you’re looking for a sweet, milky, dark roasted coffee – coffee pods can deliver this pretty accurately and consistently between cups. But espresso and americano pods can’t stand up to the clean flavour of freshly-ground, home-brewed coffee.
We’ve spoken about the reasons that we like to bag our coffee as whole-beans before, because grinding to order is always going to produce the freshest tasting coffee. The longer coffee is left after grinding, the more compounds within the coffee are going to degrade and evaporate, meaning a flatter tasting cup.
I’ll go on to discuss the ways that you can brew your own fresh coffee at home, but in terms of flavour – I’m on team whole-bean for this one. Coffee pods are a great introduction to coffee, but they can’t yet stand up to the flavour of freshly roasted and brewed coffee, in my opinion.
Coffee pods have revolutionised the speed of coffee production – which is why it’s often a go-to method for the inexperienced brewer, as a world of coffee is at your fingertips with the literal press of a button. Down to the required volume of water, everything about this method is regulated for the user.
Clean-up is also a breeze when it comes to pod machines. All the in-use elements detach from the machine and are often dishwasher safe as well. As for the spent grounds, there’s no more need for intense scrubbing or facilitating a compost bin – as the pods can often be recycled in free, returnable postage bags. Despite this, most plastic pods still go to landfill.
With home-brewing methods, equipment tends to be a little more laborious to clean – think of the different sections of the filter in a cafetière. But some of our chosen options of at home brewing are much easier to clean, such as the Kalita Wave Brewer or the Aeropress. Anything with a paper filter will generally make your life easier.
Both options are easy to learn and easy to clean, with removable filter papers and grounds that can go straight into the bin (or better yet onto the compost) – sparing your drains. We also have brew guides to help you to get to grips with a new piece of equipment like this! At Cartwheel we offer our whole-bean coffee bags to be ground your way, and you can speak to any of our baristas in store about what grind setting might be best for your method of coffee brewing.
In terms of convenience, I have to hand it to the coffee pods. They succeed in what they’re designed for, making coffee that’s quick and easy. It’s certainly a compromise when it comes to flavour and your available options, but you can’t deny its ease of use.
Aside from convenience, this is perhaps the driving factor for many people looking to buy a coffee pod machine for their own home – the machines are relatively cheap, and the pods have appealingly low unit prices. But how does it compare to a bag of whole-beans?
Starting with the average cost of an espresso. For arguments sake, let's suggest a single espresso requires 8g of ground coffee. From a 250g bag of Misspent Youth from Cartwheel, costing £8.50, you could expect to pull 31 shots of espresso – at 27p per shot.
In an average box of coffee pods, containing 10 pods of espresso for £4.50, it would cost you 45p per shot; however, each pod only contains between 5 and 5.5g of coffee. Only a marginal difference at this stage, but one that adds up! On the one hand, the cost per KG for high quality speciality coffee here is £34 per kilo and the Nespresso pods come out at a shocking £81.82 per KG. That’s double the cost of brewing at home. And don’t forget, less coffee means less caffeine - which is going to leave you reaching for pods 2,3,4 and 8.
Not only this, but home brewing equipment can be anywhere between £10-25 at the entry level, where the cheapest coffee pod machines are starting at £100+. For that reason, I have to say that home-brewing is best for your buck!
Although, the true cost of most coffee pods is their environmental impact, with studies showing that 75% of capsules go to landfill. Pods can’t currently be put in plastic bag recycling and they also can’t be recycled at home as most pods are too small to be recycled.
Overall, it seems that both methods have their benefits and downfalls! Home brewing can be a challenging and exclusive market to get into – although we’re opening up our knowledge and hoping to help you improve your own skills, it can be daunting for the new brewer. The coffee pod market is hoping to lend a hand to those just getting started and looking for a fast, professional looking final product.
Unfortunately, it’s main downfall has to be the cup quality and the overall costs. Coffee pod machines will limit you to a few exclusive brands, and this also means it’s almost impossible to buy from independent roasters. The implications of this are that you can’t usually source traceable coffee, meaning you’ll be getting generic coffees from unknown sources. Another problem is that you can’t regulate the temperature of your water, unlike traditional methods, which may affect the quality of extraction.
If you're not yet ready to ditch the pods for your day-to-day brew, you could consider picking up a pack of reusable pods and filling them with ground coffee from your local roaster. Simply grind them finely for espresso.
At Cartwheel, we’re going to stick to what we know. We think a coffee tastes best when it’s freshly ground and brewed to order. When we’re not pulling an espresso through our machines – we’re using a Kalita to brew your pourover. We like the range of options this gives us, such as being able to source 50 new coffees per year from smallholding producers.