By Ben Bowers
on 7.8.09

illy-espresso-iper-capsules

Recently here on Gear Patrol, we’ve had a great dialogue about one of man’s favorite drinks, coffee; we’ve collectively debated the various ways the brew can be prepared and consumed. Some of us seem hell-bent on using a french press as the only way of doing the brackish ambrosia justice, while others in the business environment have lauded the quality and convenience of K-Cup systems such as the Keurig Mini. So seeing that this was such a hot topic, I decided to evaluate a popular program that’s out there focused on yet another interpretation of the coffee bean – one that was previously left unscathed in the debate: espresso. Yes, I’m talking about the stronger-flavored, highly-caffeinated preparation method created and consumed intravenously by the Italians that now serves as a staple for coffee houses the world over.

Though the recent trendiness of the drink has created many well-known brands in this refined niche of the java universe, none have a history like Illy. Founded in 1933 by Francesco Illy (who is credited with inventing the first automatic coffee machine which substituted compressed air for steam), for over 70 years Illy has held a reputation for selling high quality espresso and espresso machines.

That’s why I was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see the company announce a new proprietary Illy capsule-based system named iperEspresso. A company like Illy falling victim to America’s convenience economy just seemed wrong and out character. Other brands were supposed to cater to the pre-packaged whims of the coffee masses, not them. However, in typical Gear Patrol fashion, I decided to reserve my judgment and simultaneously satisfy my curiosity by conducting a review. Check it out, after the jump.

The Machine:

francis_francis_x7When the Francis Francis X7 iperEspresso (pictured above & right) finally arrived at the office, I was immediately impressed by the unit’s design. Its gleaming, metallic, half-hammerhead front presented a striking appearance that closely resembled its Francis Francis predecessors like the X1, while still adding a modern flare. The presence of a portafilter and group handle, though smaller than their typical versions, cleverly disguised the fact that the machine operated solely off iperEspresso capsules. This was a refreshing departure from the trash compacter-like designs of competing systems, and admittedly helped dampen my guilt about having a capsule-only machine resting on my counter.

With the unboxing complete, I found that setting up the Illy was a snap and I never felt the need to reference the machine’s instruction manual. Using it to make espresso was a similar experience. Pulling a cup simply involved pressing the large power button on the left front of the X7, followed by a wait of roughly a minute during which I stared transfixed by the attractive blue lighting around the center dial that signifed the machine was heating up. Once 80 degrees was attained, the center coffee cup icon lit up to alert me it was caffeine go-time. All that was left to do was to insert a capsule into handle a press a button.

It was shockingly simple. No need for tamping grounds. No need for thinking of when to stop the percolation. Just press and drink. Speaking of drink, the resulting cup of espresso (while somewhat on the small side), was absolutely delicious, and, personally, I’d be challenged to distinguish it from cup pulled by an expert barista… that’s saying something as I’m a real cynic.

The Capsules:

illy_iperespresso_capsulesThough I don’t hold a Ph.D. in espresso production, according to Illy, the design of the iperEspresso capsule enables two unique things to happen. Unlike conventional one-stage systems, the iperEspresso method uses an innovative, patented two-stage process of percolation and extraction. This enables the process to sap the most flavor from the seven grams of tamped 100% Arabica Illy coffee inside the pod, while reducing mess since the coffee and machine never come in contact. In terms of roasts, 4 are currently available including medium, dark, lungo (for longer shots), and decaffeinated.

While this is all really convenient, a major concern with this proprietary type of system is always going to be cost per shot. Purchasing 42 capsules costs $32 dollars, which comes out to a cost of 76 cents per shot. Naturally, buying more in one order reduces this slightly to a floor of 71 cents per shot when you buy 126 capsules. Though I can’t claim these capsules are on par costwise with ground and bagged espresso, I will say it’s around the cost of similar competing capsule espresso systems that produce poorer tasting coffee.

One gripe I will make about them is that each capsule seems to involve an awful lot of plastic relative to their small size.This definitely made me think twice about the environmental impact these systems might have over the long haul, but I don’t really know enough of the specs to weight in heavily on that debate.

Illy Coffee Club Membership

Besides getting great tasting coffee, one of the best features of Illy as a brand revolves around their coffee club memberships. Similar to American cellphone plans, these clubs work by significantly subsidizing the upfront cost of purchasing an espresso machine, in exchange for your agreeing to purchase a set amount of coffee from Illy each month, typically over an extended period of time.

By backing out the math in the end, you might pay more than buying a machine outright and purchasing your coffee elsewhere, but Illy’s payment breakout does allow those who may not be able to afford a machine outright get into the game. You’ll also get great tasting coffee shipped right to your door without needing to bother with trips to the store. To find out more, check out Illy’s home delivery information here.

Conclusions:

illy_almodovar_box_480x420As big of a skeptic as I was over capsule-based espresso system, I must admit that my experience with the Illy iperEspresso system has really changed my mind. The espresso is the best I’ve had in the world of capsule coffee and it is indistinguishable from most professionally pulled shots. Though it may be more expensive in the long run compared to tamping bagged espresso roast, the mess-free ease of iperEspresso makes it an attractive luxury potentially worth the premium for those who can afford it.

Cost: Francis Francis X7: $595 $395 (On special, which includes 96 capsules of free coffee, a $96 value)

Investigate illy’s home delivery options for even better deals.