Coffee is one of the staples of my diet, but on a journalist's salary, the costs of café coffee quickly becomes prohibitive. Instant coffee will do when I just need a caffeine fix, but it's never very good. Aldi's Expressi line of pod-based coffees is meant to solve that issue affordably, providing good quality coffee at a cheap price. But does it?
The Expressi unit sits in the same pod-or-capsule-based coffee space as more premium-priced units such as Nescafe's Nespresso pods or Philips' Senseo coffee pads. It's certainly possible to get cheap Nespresso machines -- Kogan's Ez-Press comes to mind -- but you're still stuck within the Nespresso system. Aldi's pitch for the Expressi is that it's not just cheaper for the base coffee machine, which Aldi sells for $79, but also for the pods. Like many things Aldi-specific, it's a case of re-branding; in this instance it's an Aldi-badged K-Fee coffee system.
There is a catch here, however. Like Aldi's other in-house ranges, the Expressi coffee machine itself isn't always available. At the time of writing it doesn't appear on Aldi's web site, although I have seen it in some stores. Mine happened to be a post-holiday gift from my in-laws that surprised me when I returned home a month or so ago.
Aldi is still heavily promoting the coffee pods it uses, which is a good thing, as they're not the same dimensions as Nespresso ones. Internet research suggests that the system that Officeworks sells may be compatible -- I've not tested for that -- or that you may be able to force Nespresso pods into the shells of the Aldi ones. Quite why you'd do that escapes me. A 16 pack of any of Aldi's nine coffee blends will set you back $5.99, making each cup just shy of 36c to produce, not including electricity and water costs.
The entire premise behind any coffee pod machine is that things should be simple and the coffee should be good. Actually running the Expressi is quite simple; you power it up, make sure the rear water tank has plenty of water, and run a cleaning cycle before choosing your coffee pod. Drop a pod in the top, push the handle down and then select your coffee size with a cup placed below. This video (not mine; it was shot by Victorian Adam Thomas Shaw) shows the Expressi in action:
It's certainly quite easy to do, and I have taken to using it most mornings before heading in to work, simply because it's easier to press a few buttons while checking other things than run through the process of making proper coffee, or for that matter forgetting that I've boiled the jug for instant. Coffee quality is generally fair, but that's about as good as it gets; I'd never call it café quality, but it's still a fair step above instant coffee, and that's surely the kind of market this is pitched at. If you've got the time and inclination to make proper coffee, you will get better results without a doubt. The simple fact is that there's a large part of the market that's not so fussed about that.
So, has Aldi cracked the perfect budget coffee machine? No, not quite. There are still a few things that could be improved. The holding mechanism for the pods involves a drop-down arm that pierces the pods, but every once in a while you'll find the pod just drops instead, at which point you've got to retrieve it from the dead ones that collect inside the mostly hollow Expressi machine body.
It's also got a slight tendency to leak; while at first I thought this was just a matter of removing the dead pods and drip tray more frequently, even doing so I've spotted some water coming out of it. My ad-hoc solution for this has been nothing more sophisticated than putting the whole thing on a tea towel and changing that regularly.
The unit itself is made of glossy plastic, which means that it picks up dust and grime at an astonishing rate. For the purposes of photography I gave my unit a serious dusting, but within minutes of finishing shooting, it was back to looking a bit seedy again.
There's also the issue of waste, although this is hardly unique to Aldi. Any pod-based machine requires a lot of plastic for each pod, and they're not designed to be re-usable. Having said there, where there's a will, there's a way -- and once again there's video (also from Adam Thomas Shaw) showing you how this can be done. I like the idea of being able to use my own coffee to suit my own tastes within pods, but there's not a small amount of work involved here. You could make actual coffee in less time, and equally I do wonder about the effects of hot water on all that clingfilm:
If you spend a lot of money in coffee shops there could be some genuine economy in the Aldi Expressi, but as with many cheaper alternatives, it's not without some concessions.