Easy Serve Espresso (ESE) pods are the espresso world’s equivalent of Nespresso or Keurig. They enable you to simply pop one into your machine to make an espresso drink without having to grind beans and tamp. Basically, they promise to save time without cutting corners when it comes to taste and flavor.
ESE was founded by Illy in the 1970s. They actually were the forerunners in the market which eventually developed in to the modern pod market we know today. No surprise then that Illy ESE pods are the most common ones found on the market and the ones we are testing here today on Stark Insider.
But are ESE pods any good? And are they worth using instead of doing all the work yourself?
Let’s find out.
What Is an ESE Pod?
An ESE pod contains about 7 grams of fine coffee grinds wrapped in a paper package. Here’s an example of an Illy medium roast pod:
Because they’re biodegradable these ESE pods are, perhaps, more environmentally friendly than competitive offerings from Keurig and Nespresso. I say perhaps as each comes wrapped in tin foil, so I wonder if that sort of negates the benefit?
In any case the pods are actual espresso-based pucks. Unlike others this is real espresso — not some sort of proprietary hybrid coffee/espresso blend. In theory it promises an espresso shot with crema just like you’d make if you were grinding beans and tamping.
How Do I Use an ESE Pod?
Using an ESE pod is as simple as it gets. Tear open the package and place the pod with the Illy logo face up into the portafilter and you’re ready to go.
One really important note: be sure to use the correct basket.
Most espresso machines include three basket types. A single. A double. And a pressurized basket (suitable for ground coffee and/or beginners learning how to grind and tamp).
The one to use with ESE is the single — not the pressurized! If you’re in doubt be sure to read the manual and verify (or just Google and fall into the Rabbit Hole that is Reddit espresso).
See below for an example of the types of filter baskets.
In the case of the Gaggia Classic Pro espresso machine you can see below in the manual that it does specify using the single basket with pods:
Note in the case of the Gaggia Classic Pro the machine ships from the factory with the pressurized filter basket (“Crema perfetta”) installed. Do not use this with an ESE pod unless you want to make a righteous mess.
If you’re checking out ESE pods on Amazon you may notice a fair amount of critical 1-star reviews. For instance many reviewers of the Illy Medium Roast pods complain about water shots (see photo below) — that the shot comes out mostly water with a faint bit of espresso.
Why that abysmal result?
The above section on baskets holds a clue I think!
I’m guessing close to 100% of these reviewers did not read the manual for their espresso machines and are simply using the wrong basket.
If you place an ESE pod into a pressurized basket (as pictured above next to other baskets) the water will easily flow around the pod following the path of least resistance as there’s too much space and the basket is simply too big. Again, these are for pre-ground coffee and/or someone just starting out and learning how to grind/tamp — the pressurized basket is more forgiving for imperfectly prepared pucks.
So, reminder: please be sure to use the correct basket if you want to get a correct espresso shot.
Does an ESE Pod Taste Good?
I went ahead and pulled a test shot of an Illy ESE pod on the Gaggia and you can see the result above. Looks quite good! There’s a nice layer of crema. Not too much, not too little. Overall I don’t see any issues, visually at least.
Note that this is about an ounce or so as the pod is only 7 grams, so you’re not going to get a long shot. This will probably be fine for espresso drinkers, but for milk-based options you’ll likely need to run the shot longer, or, better, just use two pods in a row to get a longer pour. If you don’t your milk drinks will taste pretty weak and milky — if you prefer that you can just use the single shot as this is all about personal preference.
Regarding taste: excellent.
Loni Stark and I did a blind taste test, comparing the ESE espresso shot to one made with tried-and-true grinding and tamping on a Bezzera Heat Exchanger machine. We both picked the Illy ESE pod as the smoother, better shot. (hint: I really need to work on my home barista skills!).
No doubt a really skilled barista will pull a better shot. Regardless, the convenience here is undeniable.
Also, these ESE pods are quite a good value. Whereas Nespresso pods can easily run $1 USD or more, these Illy Medium Roast pods you see tested in this article cost $8.49 for a pack of 18 pods. That works out to only $0.47 each. Check Costco for Keurig pricing and you’ll again see these ESE pods are quite competitive.
The Fun Part About ESE Pods
If you already own an espresso machine chances are these type of ESE pods will work so long as you use the right basket. That means pretty much everything from a Gaggia Classic Pro like the one we tested here, and almost anything, from a Rancilio Silvia, Breville or De’Longhi, to models from Rocket Espresso, Profitec/ECM and Lelit to even the high end stuff from La Spaziale and La Marzocco. Just be sure to double check compatibility first.
But why would you want to even consider using them? Convenience aside — which is a pretty big reason in itself of course — there’s other reasons why you might want to occasionally consider ESE as an option.
- For Decaf Shots — If the hopper on your grinder is full of caffeinated beans then using an ESE pod gives you an easy alternative to making an afternoon decaf shot (single-dosers needn’t worry about this as they can dose whatever bean they like).
- For Guests — Maybe a guest prefers a decaf or maybe a different style of espresso (say, Arabica vs Robusta). Having a variety of ESE pods on hand is a great way to offer variety.
- For Fun — Maybe you’re bored of your espresso flavor and want to try something new, but don’t want to commit to an entire (and expensive) bag of beans. ESE to the rescue!
- For Caffeinated Shots — This is opposite George. I drink mostly decaf. So my hopper is full of typical Third Wave stuff from the likes of Verve, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, etc. On days when I really do need a caffeine jolt I simply tear open an ESE pod and use that instead.
In then end these ESE pods in our tests did deliver on several counts:
- Flavor and taste
If you’re shopping for a pod system and are not interested in making your own espresso shots (grinding and tamping) you’ll want to look elsewhere. Better options abound from the likes of Nespresso and Keurig to fully super-automatic espresso machines from Philips and Jura. Those would be better bets for those interested in the convenience of pod only or a bean-to-cup system.
- In Espresso: Jura Z10 super-automatic machine unboxing, first impressions, drink test
- First Look: Is the Gaggia Classic Pro espresso machine still worth it in 2023?
- TIMEMORE Digital Scale: Can it help dial in your espresso workflow?
- Eureka Mignon Specialita Espresso Grinder: First look and test
- Can a Puck Screen help you make a better shot of espresso?
For those who own an espresso machine with a traditional workflow who sometimes don’t have the time to prepare their own espresso pucks manually, the ESE pod is a nice convenience to have. On a busy day just pop one into the portafilter. Start your shot. Wait 25-30 seconds. And you’re ready to go about your day without sacrificing any espresso quality. Then when you have more time on the weekend you can get back into home barista mode and do your thing.
Overall, we came away impressed with these ESE pods by Illy. There’s other options as well, but it seems like Illy is the dominant player and offers lots of choices on Amazon. Highly recommended.