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Why Sarah Hampson isn’t buying the coffee-pod revolution

I will admit that there have been times when I've endured a cup of lukewarm dishwater coffee and enjoyed it for some perverse reason. It's a nostalgia thing, I figure.

You find yourself at some lousy joint just off the highway during a summer road trip, served by a bored waitress in an ill-fitting uniform, and the taste of bad coffee is a trip down the cultural memory lane.

It reminds you of the Time Before Coffee Became an Artform, Fashion Statement and Branded Lifestyle. In case you haven't noticed, we're in the midst of another big shift in how we consume our coffee. Not so long ago, there was the rise of the café, with Starbucks at the fore – a trend that's still going strong in Canada, with 14 per cent of coffee drinkers consuming the beverage away from home, according to a report from the NPD Group, a leading market-research company. Now, the latest big news is the at-home single-serve coffee-pod revolution.

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Using an innovative high-pressure brewing machine from a brand such as Tassimo, Keurig or Nespresso that delivers consistent, high-quality beverages is more convenient and less expensive than going out for coffee, explains Robert Carter, executive director of foodservice at the NPD Group. No more messy coffee grounds to measure and no more waiting while your machine heats up. Unlike traditional coffeemakers, the new systems, which use pods to make each cup fresh, are like summoning a Starbucks barista to your kitchen with the touch of a button. More than a quarter of Canadian coffee drinkers indulged their habit at home more often than they did the year before, reports the 2012 NPD survey.

The global single-serve coffee market is growing so quickly, in fact, that it is expected to hit $12-billion this year, a market analyst told The Wall Street Journal last month. And, while coffee pods are huge in Europe, they are only now becoming ubiquitous in North America. In the past nine months, both Starbucks and Tim Hortons have introduced products to capitalize on the changing consumption pattern and hold onto their customers. Last fall, Starbucks introduced its Verismo system at the same time as Tim Hortons and Kraft Foods announced an agreement to sell single-serve pods for "Canada's favourite coffee" with Kraft's Tassimo brewing machine.

Perhaps they knew that Nespresso, which has been called "the Apple of pod-machine coffee," was gearing up its plans to expand in Canada. Part of Nestlé, Nespresso is a Swiss-based high-end brand that introduced the first singleserve capsule coffee machine in 1986. Now, it is shrewdly packaging European culture and sophisticated coffee appreciation in those little plastic pods. There has always been something about the way the French "prennent un café" that makes it seem as effortlessly chic as knowing how to expertly tie a scarf.

Nespresso unabashedly promotes its brand like a fashion item, casting George Clooney and Penelope Cruz in its ads. Its stores, called "boutique bars," are always located in fashionable neighbourhoods: Madison Avenue in New York and Regent Street in London. Staff members are dressed in sleek suits. Music plays. They manage to make coffee beans look like a form of slow-motion seduction on the flat-screen monitors.

Nespresso's first Canadian store opened in 2007 on Montreal's Crescent Street, followed by small outlets in some major Hudson's Bay stores in Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. This fall, the company will open its first Canadian flagship boutique in Toronto's Yorkville area, Laurence Corthay, head of marketing for Nespresso Canada, explained in an e-mail interview.

Nespresso's mystique is built, in part, through its use of a directto– customer model, selling pods, machines and accessories over the phone, online and at its boutiques. Customers become "club members," a marketing strategy that emphasizes the idea of a privileged lifestyle. When you sign up, Nespresso gives you a little leather square with its "N" logo for your keychain. A chip embedded into it allows employees to immediately identify you when you enter the boutique to order.

There is also a glossy, sleekly designed magazine, called N, published biannually out of Zurich that is free to club members ($5 for everyone else). It showcases design, architecture, food, travel and, of course, coffee connoisseurship.

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Nespresso "is very much a lifestyle that our customers are dedicated to and celebrate," Corthay said. Yup – now any rube can become a European sophisticate with a sip of coffee. (Just don't drink it with your pinky in the air.)

I tried a cup of Nespresso recently at a Williams-Sonoma store, which also sells the machines. The salesperson gave me the Nespresso "experience" with a bright smile. She held out a big, flat box that looked like it might contain cigars, revealing an assortment of shiny, coloured pods. I picked one and she popped it into the machine, pressed a button and passed me a sample of ashy, watery coffee.

It was like discovering that you have bought a perfume not for the scent, which you quickly grow to hate, but because you were seduced by the dreamy imagery in its commercials.

The next time I want something to transport me to Europe, I think I'll just get on a plane.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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