ESE pod reviews: Illy decaf, Arabica Express

Recently I’ve been infatuated with espresso-type brewing, and have been on a quixotic quest to get the perfect decaf shot. In doing so, I bought a bottomless portafilter for my Gaggia Classic Pro, which very quickly revealed that the biggest problem in my brewing is that my Baratza Encore simply isn’t up to the task, even with the modifications I made to it; all of my shots were channeling and making a mess, regardless of grind size or tamp pressure. The only fix was to grind ultra-fine and tamp ultra-hard, and this led to an overly-slow, over-extracted shot.

As part of my process that led to this decision, I bought some ESE pods in order to have a baseline brewing experience. While ESE pods aren’t ideal for my taste in espresso (I prefer longer shots from a large dose, on the order of 20 in, 40 out) and also don’t satisfy my whole “espresso is an experiment in tweaking and fussiness” impulses, the experience was good enough that I decided to see if ESE Pods on their own were worthwhile.

The very first time I ever had espresso was actually from an ESE pod; I’d had a summer job at a local tech company, and they were very proud to have just obtained a fancy espresso machine. This was in the mid-90s, and espresso wasn’t nearly as well-known in the United States as it is today. So it was just a given that espresso came from these little paper pods, and that the only thing to think about was how long you let it brew for. Anyway, I got very good at brewing what I thought of as a perfect shot, and this began my lifelong infatuation with coffee.

Anyway, this is all just background information for why I’m trying out ESE pods on their own merits, especially now that I have a better-developed palate for espresso and a lot more disposable income to try it with. Also, I’m still waiting for my new grinder to arrive.

Illy Decaf Classico

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting a lot out of this coffee; I only bought it because it was cheap (at the time, on sale for $4 for a pack of 18) and I was only interested in diagnosing my channeling problem and nothing else. But it’s a fairly well-respected1 brand that’s been around for nearly a century, and they have their manufacturing processes down pat. So it seemed like a good starting point for trying out ESE pods.

And what I expected is pretty much what I got. The pod smells like coffee; nothing phenomenal, nothing bad, but nothing amazing. I’ve brewed it to a few different strengths; being a 7g pod the appropriate ratio would be no more than 14g out for a standard shot, which tastes okay, but at such a small dose size I figured I’d try a lungo at 20g out, which tends a bit on the bitter side. And, just for the sake of experimentation I also pulled a shot to 30g, which I absolutely would not recommend.

Okay texture, okay flavor, decent amount of crema.

All in all, it’s a pretty okay, consistent, but non-amazing shot of decaf espresso.

Arabica Express Italian roast decaf

The pod’s smell is absolutely amazing; very rich and vibrant, with lovely chocolatey tones to it.

The brewing process didn’t go quite as well as with Illy; there was a tiny amount of channeling, although it’s possible I didn’t have the pod quite centered in the basket. I never had trouble centering the Illy pod, however, and the pod itself also feels a lot softer than the Illy, so I suspect their tamp isn’t as thorough.

As an 8g pod my first shot went to 20g, putting it somewhere between a standard shot and a lungo. The flavor was pretty good overall, although there were some pretty strong bitter notes (possibly due to the channeling). Decent crema, and an okay texture, although it was still a bit thin. I didn’t detect a lot of sweetness.

For my second shot I limited it to 17g (I attempted 16 but I overshot), and the texture was better, but there were still some pretty strong bitter notes. There was also still a bit of channeling (although not nearly as bad as on the first shot), even though I took extra care to ensure the pod was centered in the basket.

I suspect this espresso would do better in a pressurized basket, although I don’t have a pressurized basket which is ESE-compatible, and also I can’t fit my scale under a cup when using my standard portafilter (which is required for pressurized shots on the Gaggia) so controlling the shot would be much more difficult. I do know from experience on my Encore-ground coffee that pressurized shots don’t help at all with the bitterness though (not to mention it ends up frothing up the crema to an unpleasant level) so that doesn’t seem like a useful path forward.

Anyway, Arabica Express definitely has some potential, although given the pod being labeled as “up to 6 fl. oz” I suspect it’s really intended to be brewed as coffee and not espresso. I neither have nor want an ESE-compatible single-cup coffee brewer, though. I’m not even sure if those exist; I’ve used a similar system while staying at a fancy hotel in NYC, but from research it seems those were the similar CPS standard, rather than ESE. But maybe the “spro-over” technique would be worth investigating.

Update: Based on the above as well as the subsequent Bristot decaf review I decided to try pulling an ultra-long 138-gram “shot” (a whopping 17:1 ratio, in line with typical pourover brewing), basically brewing coffee instead of espresso. It tastes… like coffee. Pretty darn good coffee, for that matter. So that seems to be the best use for these particular pods.


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