Coffee Capsules - A Complete History

Coffee Capsules - A Complete History

Are you a coffee snob? I know I am in many ways. And I would guess that, if you are reading this, then to some degree, you are also a coffee snob. But is this a bad thing? To me, calling myself a coffee snob merely suggests I appreciate coffee's full potential. I am happy to put a bit of effort into making my coffee as delicious as possible. I know what good coffee tastes like and how to avoid bad coffee. If this makes me a coffee snob, well, so be it. But in the grand scheme of things, I'd hardly consider myself Lord Coffeewick III of Coffeeton. 


The depth to which one can "snob out" in coffee is monumental. But we have never been interested in these depths at FiXX. We don't call ourselves the grounded coffee company  for no reason. And today, I want to talk about something that brings out the coffee snob in most people. Coffee capsules. Because few things in coffee have attracted more snobbery. Those, both for and against them, have carried the ability to look down their nose at the other. But why? And is anyone justified? And before you pick a side, how much do you know about coffee capsules?


Read on to find out more. 



Beginnings of coffee capsules

Who Invented Coffee Capsules?

Our story begins in the 1970s in Vevey, Switzerland, where Eric Favre, a Swiss aerodynamics engineer, works for Nestlé. His wife, Anna-Maria, who was Italian, would often ridicule her husband about the standard of coffee enjoyed by the Swiss. And so Eric decided to do what few have been brave enough to try. To prove their wife wrong! 

In 1975 whilst visiting Rome, Eric and Anna-Maria noticed that, in an area full of cafes, one, in particular, had disproportionately large queues. What was it about this place (Sant'Eustachio Il Caffè) that made it so special? After spending the next few days frequenting the cafe, they befriended the baristas and got to ask them this question. And the answer had to do with how they operated their espresso machine.




Back then, all espresso machines were still lever-operated. Unlike today's devices with automated pressure gauges, lever machines require the barista to pump a lever, building the pressure manually before pushing the water through the ground coffee. But whereas most cafes would do one pump, at Sant'Eustachio Il Caffè, the baristas would pump repeatedly. This forced more air and water into the coffee puck, which meant greater oxidisation. Not only did it extract more flavour from the coffee, but it also resulted in a foamier, golden crema. This would be a eureka moment for Eric Favre. Although being Swiss, it was probably more like a cuckoo moment (sorry).  


When Eric returned to Switzerland, he set to work with a small team aiming to design a machine that could replicate this procedure at the touch of a button. They developed a capsule which could be sealed to house freshly ground coffee. The pod was then inserted into a device where a needle would pierce one end. Hot water would be pumped through this needle at high pressure, and then, as the pressure built, the foil lid would expand against a spiked plate piercing it, allowing the liquid coffee to flow out. The following year in 1976, Nestlé filed its first patent for a single-serve coffee system. This was the beginning of Nespresso. But it would be another ten years before that name or the idea began to take hold. 



 Lift off for coffee capsules

What Made Coffee Capsules so Popular?

Back in the 1980s, there were mainly two ways to make coffee at home. One was much as it is today. Buy fresh coffee, beans or ground, and brew them in a french press, as filter coffee or on a stovetop. This, as we know, requires a bit of effort and involves cleaning, but it can make fantastic coffee. The other option was simple, instant coffee, which required zero effort but tasted like 1980s instant coffee (for full snob disclosure, good instant coffee absolutely exists). Nestlé were already big players in the instant world with their product Nescafé. And so, there was very little appetite within Nestlé to fund and develop a product that would eat into an area in which they already had huge sales. But the gap in the market was there for something that could offer cafe-style coffee with the convenience of instant.



Who is Jean-Paul Gaillard?

They first pitched the machines aimed at office buildings, starting in Switzerland and Japan, with a few in Italy and France. But no one seemed keen on the idea. In 1988, a marketing expert named Jean-Paul Gaillard joined the Nespresso team. He was given the simple, albeit intimidating brief: turn this ship around, or it will be sank. And so, he completely changed the approach. Instead of selling it as a convenience item to offices, Gaillard wanted to make it chic and turn it into a luxury item. Desirable and extravagant. A way of life. A product George Clooney would use. For the snob who liked coffee, perhaps.

He outsourced the production of the machines and increased the cost of capsules by 50%. He created "Club Nespresso" or "Le Club", which made customers feel exclusive (whilst also giving Nespresso valuable customer information!). It made people think they belonged to a particular lifestyle available only to a few. Something for others to aim toward. And it worked. Sales took off. 



When Did the K-Cup Arrive on the Market?

Nespresso took business from traditional roast and ground coffee, instant coffee and tea. Coffee capsules became impossible to ignore, and many competitors entered the market. In America, Keurig released the K-cup in 1998, beating Nespresso to the American market. Favre and Gaillard had both left the company by now and were working on different, separate capsule products. Nespresso furiously litigated against any new competition, arguing that new competitors were infringing their patents. By 2006, Nespresso's revenue had passed €720m; by 2010, it was €3bn! But, in 2012, those patents began to expire, and that same year they lost many high-profile cases in Europe. The company had to accept they could no longer stop third-party capsules from being sold or used in their machines almost overnight.



The floodgates were now open. And it didn't take long for rival coffee companies like Starbucks and Costa to produce compatible capsules. Alternative devices began to pop up, too. Tea capsules. Hot chocolate capsules too. The impact capsules made was undeniable. And it didn't take long before the environmental impact became undeniable too. 



Waste problems of coffee capsules

Are Coffee Capsules Bad for the Planet?

It is estimated that capsules made up 1% of Germany and Switzerland's total landfill between 1998 and 2012. And the world's glare naturally focused on the two main culprits, Nespresso and Keruig, whose capsules were made of aluminium and plastic, respectively. In theory, both types of capsules are 100% recyclable. But that's 100%, with a massive asterisk. Firstly, all the spent coffee had to be removed from the capsules. Secondly, most municipal recycling plants aren't designed to work with such small objects. And unless there are specific systems in place, which is not the case in most areas, most capsules will end up in landfills. And I'm not even going to get into the fact that most of these capsules were made using a mixture of different materials. Making it harder, yet again, to recycle.


In 2018, 59 billion coffee capsules were made - 112,252 per minute globally. That mind-boggling number becomes nauseating when it is estimated that 95% of that number went to landfills. That is 56.05 billion plastic and aluminium capsules in 2018 alone. 



Recycling Programs?

Nespresso tried to mitigate the environmental concerns (and lousy PR) by adopting its own recycling program. They started collection services and opened drop-off points where the whole, used capsules would be taken and processed. Currently, there are over 100,000 collection points in over 59 countries worldwide. But offering recycling facilities and getting people to actually use them are two separate things. And Nespresso has been reluctant to share exact figures on what percentage actually gets recycled. Despite these concerns, the capsule market continues to grow, with predictions suggesting the market will be worth more than €50bn by 2027. But these concerns have led to the creation of better, environmentally friendly alternatives. One of which is the compostable coffee capsule.



Compostable coffee capsules

Eco-Friendly Coffee Capsules

Most people want to do what's best for the planet. But the message on how best to do this can be frustratingly difficult to get across. A recent survey in the UK found over 50% of people couldn't tell the difference between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. That's not really surprising. As mentioned before, some things that claim to be recyclable are, but it is incredibly difficult to do so. And as a result, seldom recycled. And although most people would consider the words biodegradable and compostable interchangeable, they're not. All compostable materials are biodegradable. However, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. This a somewhat head-scratching statement. But allow me to explain. 



Do Biodegrable and Composable Mean the Same Thing?

  • Biodegradable: Biodegradable means any material that will disintegrate in soil, compost heaps, air or water with the assistance of organisms like enzymes and bacteria, and heat. This happens over time, and the length of that time varies from material to material. It can be months, but it can also take decades. It also depends on which environment it is degrading in. For example, a biodegradable shopping bag may degrade quickly in a compost heap but very slowly in soil and water.
  • Compostable: Compostable means a biodegradable material that will disintegrate in a compost heap within a maximum of six months in an industrial setting (your food waste bin at home, brown bin if you're in Ireland) or twelve months in a homemade compost heap. And a compost heap, if you're not sure, is defined as a mound of decaying organic matter used to recycle garden and food waste into plant feed, soil improver, or mulch. 

And it is that last part that is the crucial detail. To be certified as compostable, the decomposed martial must help improve the nutrient levels and have zero adverse effects on the final compost. Materials that are simply biodegradable can sometimes leave behind microplastics. And although research on the impact of microplastics on humans is new, the initial results aren't fantastic. 



Are FiXX Coffee Capsules Compostable?

So I am happy to say our FiXX capsules, produced by Unit Nine Coffee in Dublin, are certified compostable with the certification standard TÜV AUSTRIA's OK Compost and Seedling. This means that our capsules can go straight into your brown bin at home. Or, if you have a home compost heap, they can go there too. To receive this certification means all materials, including inks or glues used, are also compostable. Thanks to these types of capsules, smaller coffee producers like ourselves can enter this market. Because an ecologically sustainable approach should be at the heart of all coffee producers' minds. I mean, it is a plant we're all enjoying here. 



One last thing about coffee capsules

In Conclusion

I'll finish with this. The one thing I have yet to mention and something that everyone will have an opinion on. The quality of the coffee in capsules. And the reason for this is simple. Coffee has been, and always will be, individualistic. The different flavours that can be extracted from coffee are immense. From light roast to dark roast. From single origin, small batch farms to large scale blends. Naturally processed coffees. Washed coffees. Honey processed and carbonic maceration coffees. Filter coffee, immersion coffee, espresso, capsules. It goes on and on. I have my preferences, as I'm sure you do too. And if whatever you drink makes you feel good? Well, power to you. 


Nespresso never tried to rival speciality coffee; they wanted it to have mass appeal. So if you had a problem with capsules because you didn't like the coffee they made, well, good news, we've FiXX'd that for you. And if you have a problem with the environmental concerns attached to capsules, good news again, we've FiXX'd that too. And I can't leave without mentioning that, yes, good reusable capsules exist too. But if you're buying coffee beans and freshly grinding them, wouldn't you just make a filter coffee instead? I know I would. But I would say that, wouldn't I? I am a coffee snob, after all.


Thanks for reading.





Nespresso® is a registered trade mark owned by Société des Produits Nestlé S.A. FiXX coffee is not connected or associated in any way to Nestlé  or Nespresso S.A


  • Kevin Acheson

Kevin has worked in and around the coffee industry for over 20 years in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia.