Journal no. 3

You Can Now Put the World’s Best Coffee in Your Nespresso Machine

But it’ll cost you $100 for 24 capsules – and a plane ticket to 
Cape Town.

Here’s what you’re supposed to do when you’ve come into possession of the world’s best coffee beans:

  1. Consume them as soon as possible—ground freshly for every cup.
  2. Prepare them with fancy equipment that requires a filter, a timer, and makes you feel like a proper hipster, be it a Chemex or Aeropress.
  3. Heat your water just to boiling, then wait thirty seconds so it doesn’t scald your precious grinds.
  4. Wait another five minutes and fifteen seconds after you’ve poured your water (ideally in rhythmic, circular motions if you’re making a pour-over).
  5. Avoid over-caffeination.

Or … you can just pop them into your Nespresso machine and push a button.

That’s the big idea behind the new café and coffee capsule company Coco Safar, which was conceived by a Cape Town-based branding expert after Nespresso’s capsule patent expired in 2011.

“Nespresso is one of the top performers for one of the biggest food companies in the world,” said Coco Safar co-founder Wilhelm Liebenberg. “They generate 69 million rand [$4.9 million] per store in South Africa—they’re one of the biggest retail drivers in the country.” Then he added a confident assertion: “In the next 12 months, I can see us surpassing them on a store-to-store level in South Africa.”

Ambitious? Sure. But his strategy is simple: Fill the capsules with coffee bearing the rare Cup of Excellence distinction—it’s like an Oscar for bean growers—and sell them in a café with an alluring, Hemingway-meets-Balthazar vibe, where everything from the pastries to the hand-brewed coffee is made with the utmost attention to detail. “The best coffee is still hand-pulled,” Liebenberg conceded, “But when customers see the level of execution that we have with coffee in general, they suddenly open their minds to the capsules.”

The Coffee Vibe

Creating a full experience is the only way Liebenberg can persuade savvy South Africans that his capsule coffee is worth taking (almost) as seriously as a dinner at the Test Kitchen, the globally-acclaimed restaurant down the street from his production facility. So he serves “game-changing,” cold-brewed Rooibos tea and frothy Rooibos flat whites—made with the only top-grade, single-origin Rooibos tea leaves in the world. He outfits his baristas in linen suits. And he’s commissioned Kees van der Westen, a barista favorite for high-end brewing equipment, to create an exclusive espresso machine with a cutting-edge compression system—so that each cappuccino and macchiato is nothing short of perfect.
A whopping 80 percent of the customers who taste the capsule coffee, he says, end up making a purchase—and they’re spending as much as $100 on a box of 24 pods of single-origin Brazilian “café de caractère.” We tried it, and it handily beats out the standard Nespresso stuff: Each shot is ultra-smooth, with a limey acidity and notes of stone fruit and honey.

Also popular are capsules with the aforementioned South African red tea, the first of their kind. Add in a more affordable line of blended coffee capsules, each named for a different city, and Liebenberg raked in nearly a quarter-million dollars in his first three months of operation—with hopes to grow the business to roughly $500,000 in monthly sales per flagship store next year.

The revolution is just beginning. Liebenberg’s first retail shop opened in August in a less-than-ideal location: in a mall in Cavendish Square, a suburb of Cape Town. Despite its lack of obvious foot traffic, it’s already seeing lines out the door; Liebenberg is eyeing an expansion in the coming months. E-commerce will launch in South Africa early in 2017. A coffee machine to rival Nespresso’s will follow—so that the company isn’t permanently beholden to its competitor. He hopes a flagship store will open in Johannesburg before the next holiday season rolls around. Not long after that, Coco Safar will expand to Los Angeles, a step towards global e-commerce and future openings in New York, Miami, Tokyo, and Mexico City.

For now, those Cup of Excellence capsules are available only for purchase in his brick-and-mortar shop. But competitors are cropping up.

Posh Pods Around the Globe

Cap’Mundo has cornered the Nespresso-obsessed French market with its “artisan espresso” capsules, sold in gourmet and concept shops throughout Paris. Its pods are more affordable than Coco Safar’s entry-level City Roasts, at less than $4 for a box of 10; they include such single-origin picks as a floral, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe and a chocolatey, decaffeinated Dabema. We found at least one Parisian retailer that also was selling the pods online, here. But Cap’Mundo has yet to introduce a Cup of Excellence coffee into its mix.

Even the most established coffee experts are on board with the trend, including one of North America’s 561 licensed Q-graders (think of them as the master sommeliers of the coffee world) who commented anonymously as his company supplies coffee to Nespresso. You can absolutely get premium coffee out of an average home machine, he said, so long as every part of the supply chain—from farmer to miller to roaster—does their part to control quality. What Coco Safar is doing, he explained, is making better-than-ever premium coffees available to consumers who prioritize convenience and accessibility.

Whether you can be among them, though, depends on how soon you’ll get to Cape Town—or how quickly Coco Safar embarks on global expansion. As for the price tag, you’ll just have to decide whether you’d rather spend your daily fiver on a Starbucks venti white chocolate mocha or a single shot of concentrated, Cup of Excellence goodness.