We’re currently testing new capsule espresso systems for July’s featured article. There are three: the Starbucks Verismo, the Keurig Rivo (with coffee capsules produced by Lavazza), and a dark horse, the Singolo, with machine and capsules produced in Italy and imported by a Canadian company with distribution in the United States. We are benchmarking these three systems against the dominating diva of the category, the well-established and very successful Nespresso system.
One of the major difficulties faced whenever one tries to review proprietary coffee systems is how to maintain a level playing field when evaluating coffees produced by different machines and systems. The most dramatic example of that difficulty among this month’s three systems resided in the milk heating and frothing functions.
And, in the case of the Starbucks Verismo system, the identity of the milk, since the Verismo comes with its own proprietary milk capsules. I am sure that in Starbucks meeting rooms far above the folk who know something about coffee, the idea of selling proprietary milk as well as coffee (We can sell the milk too! Holy cow [sorry], that way we can sell twice, no, three times, no four times as much product!) was a persuasive bottom-line argument, bolstered by the idea that milk capsules remove the guesswork element from the beverage production. And, indeed, the photocopied “Reviewer’s Guide” to the Starbucks system was a superb model of clear, engaging communication.
But the milk! It is beyond bad; basically, it is no exaggeration to report it tastes like detergent and old sponge, and utterly ruined any potential positive characteristics imparted to it by the Starbucks espresso capsules.
Turning to milk delivery with the other two tested systems, the Keurig/Lavazza Rivo comes with a click-in milk-frothing jug that lets you choose your own milk, and which performs very well, almost as well as the stand-alone milk frother for the Nespresso system. In cappuccino mode it produced an impressively dense micro-froth.
And the Singolo? Hey, you’re on your own when it comes to milk, friend, because this is an Italian machine and from an Italian perspective drinking espresso with hot frothed milk is a habit mainly limited to children and Americans.
So, when we came to evaluating the espressos delivered with these machines in the “With Milk” category, what were we to do? On one hand, we could accept the milk option presented by each of the systems. Use the Starbucks milk capsules with the Starbucks espresso capsules, whole milk in the Rivo milk frothing jug with the Rivo/Lavazza capsules, and for the Singolo … what? Heat three parts milk to 150F as we usually do, using the steam wand on our La Marzocco, I suppose.
My colleague Jason Sarley argued that this approach would not be fair, because the Starbucks coffees would labor under a huge disadvantage and because they would constitute exceptions to our general testing protocols. On the other hand, I argued that scores arrived at using whole milk properly steamed would mislead beginning consumers tempted to buy the Verismo system.
I ended agreeing with Jason, though we decided to insert a caveat at the beginning of each review of a Verismo capsule warning consumers that using the Starbucks milk capsule reduced the overall rating by a minimum of two to three points. This is a number we arrived at through testing, by the way, in which the same coffee prepared with steamed whole milk consistently scored 6 to 7 for the With Milk category, but 4 when we used the Starbucks milk.