Barista Battle : Tassimo vs Dolce Gusto
In what sounds like an Italian wrestling match, we take a look in this review at 2 of the single-serve coffee machines on the market currently, the Bosch Tassimo system and the Nescafe Dolce Gusto (the Keurig system is the other primary brand of single-serve brewer, but isn’t reviewed here).
Single-serve coffee brewing systems have gained some steam, so to speak, over the past few years, due in part to their ability to pump out just enough coffee for one person, ensuring that the coffee you get is freshly brewed and hasn’t been sitting in a pot all day long. It also allows for people with different tastes to satisfy their preferences without stepping on the toes of their fellow coffee drinkers, making them especially popular in offices and other places where multiple coffee drinkers are prone to be gathered.
The Tassimo and Nescafe systems are similar in that both can produce a wide range of coffee drinks, from your basic morning cup of coffee to foo-foo fancy lattes, espressos, and cappuccinos (the Keurig is mostly limited to straight coffee brewing). Both use a “pod” system…meaning that the coffee and/or milk or other beverage is pre-packed into each company’s preferred pod package with enough product to deliver 1 serving. Nescafe’s pods sort of look like a larger version of a coffee creamer package, while Tassimo’s pod…called a T-disc…is larger in diameter but much more shallow. Each is popped in to the respective machine, and, when instructed to do so, the machine pierces the pod, injects it with water, and forces it out and in to the waiting cup below.
How each machine produces the drink is a bit different, resulting in different results in the cup, and that’s where we start to see where each machine shines or lacks.
First up…the Dolce Gusto Piccolo.
The first machine I tried was the Dolce Gusto Piccolo. It is the most basic variety offered by Nescafe, and it sells at Wal-Mart for $89.
The Dolce Gusto (DG) claims to have a pump inside that is able to deliver 15 bars of pressure, which helps it to fully extract all of the tasty goodness out of the coffee that it brews. Now, I’m not coffee expert…just someone who likes a good espresso…and so I was first drawn to the DG machine because of this claim. I’ve tried other counter top espresso machines before, and you basically end up with a cup of dark coffee…not the tasty Nectar of the Gods that can be found in coffee shops.
When deciding on the DG machine, the one thing I saw as a potential problem was the fact that the only coffee pods available for the machines are the ones made by Nescafe, and that selection is somewhat limited in the US at the moment. Basically, there is 1 type of espresso, a few types of lattes and cappuccinos, a couple of American style basic coffees, hot chocolate, and peach tea. You can see the full selection here. The machine and pretty much the full line of coffee pods is available at Wal-Mart, so that makes it pretty convenient when it comes to finding the pods.
Nescafe hints that there will be more varieties available going forward, and other varieties are indeed available on their sites outside the US, but as for now, what you see is what you get. And that ended up being a problem for me. You see, I primarily wanted the machine for espresso, and while I was concerned about the fact that they only offered 1 variety, I figured hey…if it is GOOD…1 is all you need! Turns out…the 1 they offer was NOT so good. I found it to be a bit on the “sour” side and lacking in the nice richness and mouth-feel that you get from a coffee house espresso. It did have a VERY nice crema on top of the cup, but outside of that, it just was not to my liking.
The cappuccino and latte pods produced a more acceptable drink, with each producing just the right amount of very decent foam on the drinks. The milk-based drinks are packaged with 2 pods…1 for the coffee and 1 for the milk. The process for these types of drinks are that the milk pod is placed in the machine first and allowed to pump the heated and frothy milk into your cup. Next, you insert the coffee pod and it pumps in the espresso or coffee shot. I thought that both of these were pretty good and at least as good as what I’ve had from McDonald’s, but still just not quite what I was wanting.
The machine does offer you the flexibility of making your drinks stronger or weaker, with relative ease, which some folks will enjoy. For me, however, it still didn’t prove to make the drinks I made any better than before. Plus, I don’t always want to stand there monitoring the water output for just the exact amount to make my drink. I’ve already been a barista…now I just want to push a button and get my coffee!
Feeling disappointed, I decided to take it back to Wal-Mart and give the Tassimo machine a try. Boy, am I glad I did.
And now…the Tassimo T20.
As I mentioned earlier, the allure of 15 bars of pressure is what originally made me choose the DG machine over the Tassimo, but the variety of T-discs available for the Tassimo was VERY tempting, with offerings from Starbucks and Seattle’s Best among the choices.
The DG machine offerings from Nescafe aren’t new, but they’ve recently redesigned and reintroduced them in the US, so finding good reviews comparing them against the other single-serve machines proved very difficult. Also, while I did find reviews saying that the Tassimo was a good machine, I could never pin down whether or not they made a passable espresso, given that they only claim to be able to deliver 3.3 bars of pressure.
However, after the DG machine came up short, I figured I should at least give it a shot. The T20 is the model carried at Wal-Mart, and it sells there for $99. While Wal-Mart’s selection of drinks for the DG machine was pretty much complete, the same cannot be said about their T-disc selection. They even have a fairly wide range of offerings for the Keurig machines, but when it comes to the Tassimo, it was pretty basic. They had a few varieties from Maxwell House, along with a Starbucks Cappuccino. Since I was interested in testing the quality of the espresso above all else, i opted to go with the Starbucks cappuccino package.
Besides the shape of the pods, the first thing that you will notice is that the T-disc milk pods contain actual liquid milk. The Nescafe drinks are made from a powdered mix inside the pod. Now, a shelf-stable liquid milk isn’t exactly appetizing, but it at least seems better than a powdered form, right?
The Tassimo machine requires that you run it with only water for the first 5 cycles in order to properly clean it and get it ready to brew. This takes a little while, but is pretty straightforward. Once it finishes, you are ready to brew.
I decided to brew up only the espresso pod from the Starbucks kit and see how it tasted. There are several espresso-only pods available for the Tassimo, but none was available at Wal-Mart, so this was my best option. I popped the T-disc in, barcode side down, so that the machine can read what the disc is and adjust accordingly. You still have the ability to cut the brewing short, for a stronger drink, or add water at the end of the cycle to tame it down a bit, but for ease of use, you really can’t beat this setup. I closed the lid, punched the button, and waited.
The machine fired up, and I could hear it initially pumping water…or at least I assumed that was what was going on…but no coffee actually exited the spout right away. After injecting the water in to the disc, the machine went quiet for a few seconds, I imagine to let it extract all the goodness from the coffee before actually pumping it out. After a few seconds, it kicked on again, and the espresso started flowing in to the cup. Right away, I could SMELL the difference between it and the Nescafe coffee. The aroma was dark and sweet and just right. I was just hopeful that the taste would live up to the smell.
The Starbucks espresso pods pull for just a bit longer than others, or so I’ve read, producing about 3 ounces of espresso for their drinks, whereas most of the others, and most typical coffee houses, produce a 2 ounce shot. The crema produced on the espresso was very nice. It was not quite as good as the DG, but it was still impressive. I was prepared to be disappointed again in the taste, but much to my surprise, this one was excellent. Now, it isn’t exactly coffee house quality, but hey…it is a $99 machine…what do you want? In fact, it was better than some “professionally” made espressos that I’ve had. It was rich, nutty, silky, and had just that right bite to it…in other words, it hit the spot!
I immediately made a cappuccino for my wife to try, and she agreed with me that the results were far and away superior to those produced on the Nescafe machine. Now, the foam wasn’t quite as impressive as what the DG machine pumps out, but it wasn’t too shabby, either. The next morning before work, I made myself a double shot of espresso to take with me on my drive, and just loved it. In fact, when it was gone, I found myself longing for another one right away.
We ran through the Starbucks kit pretty fast, so I decided to pick up a Maxwell House cappuccino kit while waiting for some other T-disc varieties to arrive that I ordered online. The Maxwell House kit is around $4 cheaper than the Starbucks, and I figured it might be a let-down. However, though it was not quite the same quality as the Starbucks espresso, it wasn’t bad at all and was still better than the Nescafe variety!
The sheer number of choices available for this machine gives it an advantage over the Nescafe. If you don’t like one espresso or one brand or blend of coffee, simply pick out another one and give it a try. The chances you’ll find something you like are far greater than with the Nescafe product. Unfortunately, they are much harder to find in the stores, and not all varieties are available at all places. You do get 2 free packages just for registering your machine online, so that is a nice perk. Wal-Mart has a limited selection, but oddly enough, certain Lowe’s stores seem to have a pretty good range, according the store locator on the Tassimo site. Bed Bath & Beyond also has a good selection, and Amazon.com seems to have them at slightly reduced prices.
However, if you can’t find a variety at these places, pretty much all you have left is direct order from Tassimo, and that leaves something to be desired. The prices of the T-discs themselves is not all that bad. However, the shipping is almost $9. If you order over $50, it is free, but that’s a lot of coffee! Because of this, you are almost blackmailed into joining their “Tassimo Direct” club, which allows you to order your coffee and then have it scheduled to be delivered to you again at set intervals. With this service, as long as you order $30 worth of coffee, the shipping is free. I was a bit skeptical about it, but decided to give it a try. The program is set up to deliver your order to you every 4 weeks, which is WAY too soon for me, as I’m not exactly drinking it as fast as I can get my hands on it, but once you join, you see that you are able to suspend delivery or extend the time between deliveries without too much trouble at all. The other issue is that it seems to (according to folks in the Tassimo forums, and from Tassimo themselves) take about 2 weeks after you place your order before it arrives. Now, if you plan ahead, that should be fine…but if you are in a pinch and needing your favorite brews right away, things could get ugly.
And the winner is…
Well, as if you hadn’t figured it out by now, the Tassimo machine was my favorite, hands-down. It is easier to use, it offers more variety, and it produces a better drink in the cup.
It does take a hit in regards to the availability of their T-discs, but that problem can be overcome with a little planning. If you are a Starbucks fan, this is also currently the only single-serve machine that features their brands. However, there are some indications that Starbucks and Tassimo may part ways next Spring, so if you pick one up and favor their coffee above all others, you might have to stock up before that happens…if it does.
I am yet to try any straight good old American style coffee from this machine, but I can only imagine they’ll be of as high a quality as the espresso has been so far.
The Dolce Gusto is a fine machine, and as more varieties become available, it may be worth another look, but for now…the Tassimo wins the title…and is…for now…the Italian Stallion.