The Value of Colonna Labs Compostable Pods

We were delighted to receive our pre-order of Colonna Labs Compostable Pods this week. They didn’t disappoint. Tasting the compostable Mi Benidicion, we get red juiciness, almond candy, and even more balanced acidity then with the regular non-compostable version of the same pods. In addition, the capsules produced a smooth and even flow from the machine.

Let’s get this out of the way with before we begin. Capsules are a valid brew method: an extremely efficient and consistent one. Colonna Coffee, headed by three-time barista champion Maxwell Colonna Dashwood, and known for their superb roasting, are focussed on the highest of qualities and ethical sourcing. Mi Benedicion, the coffee showcased in the first Colonna Labs compostable capsules, is a small farm in Honduras. This coffee is described by Colonna Labs as round and complex, showcasing a praline-like depth and soft spice, accompanied by juicy notes of red apple and honeysuckle. That is almost exactly how it tastes. Every single time. When it comes to the opportunity for customers to taste a variety of coffees and develop their own preferences and coffee knowledge, quality capsules are almost ideal.

It is exciting that the huge amount of work Colonna have put into the compostable model has been realised. Ever one to challenge the coffee world’s preconceptions, Colonna has realised that capsule technology suits achieving amazing results at home: there’s an oxygen-free chamber with a weighed and perfectly-ground dose of coffee ready to brew. This, combined with a machine calibrated to deliver an exact amount of pressure and water at the correct temperature, means that using Colonna capsules are able brew incredible coffees using home equipment.

Of course the compostable version of the capsules reduces the visible waste of single serve coffee. To achieve this was not a simple matter, making packaging that degrades, meets compostable accreditation specifications, functions perfectly in the machine and prevent the coffee from degrading in the meantime is a challenge. The materials must not impart any taste to the coffee. Being compostable means that the capsules age quicker than the standard plastic and aluminium ones and for this reason they arrive in sets of five in a nitrogen sealed bag (also compostable). Colonna advise using the five capsules inside within a week once the bag is opened.

To achieve this release, Colonna Labs first ran a limited run pre-order of compostable pods but they are now available from Colonna at prices working out at 60 pence per capsule. The design of the boxes themselves in very classy, with two bags each containing five capsules that are themselves very elegant. Packaging includes details subtly presented on the side of the box giving details of origin and tasting notes.

There is value in presenting simplicity to the market but Colonna presents quality and with quality, information - not overwhelmingly so but subtly present. We’ve tasted a wide variety of specialty capsules now and some roasters’ approach has been to develop pods, tweaking a darker roast model, to gently wean customers off Nespresso’s ashy roasts. Colonna have made no compromise on roasting style, producing a range of capsules with a range of juicy and balanced flavours and a range of coffees with their inherent qualities emphasised, in a similar way to how we have come to expect from Colonna’s filter and espresso roasts.

Capsule coffee remains a soft target to some: visible waste, automatic method, and association with a multinational at least historically. It is treated as an ‘outsider’, I’ve even heard some talk of capsule coffee removing the ritual of coffee. Surely, though it’s snobbish to denigrate a brew method because anyone can produce great results. Surely it’s a method that has huge potential. While the image of countless pods ending up in landfill or being incinerated is dramatic the bigger picture regarding waste production of different breed methods may be far more complex. Maxwell is currently cooperating with the University of Bath on scientific studies into the waste production and energy consumption of a variety of brewing methods. Whether it be espresso, filter, or capsule brewing, they all produce waste. A case could be made that the less visible waste of producing espresso or filter coffee might be greater than that of capsule coffee.

After reading the article by David Burrows in Caffeine, we contacted local council food waste and compost collection services. While it is true that at present, these services would not compost the pods, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The reason given by the council services was that compostable coffee capsules were too new a product, and that councils would take exactly the same approach with compostable cups and packaging. Surely, one positive value then of switching to compostable pods is that they will soon no longer be new. Other companies follow Colonna, Halo and Volcano’s lead and there will be a change of policy by council collection services. In addition, although our time spent digging around articles on landfill and incineration was inconclusive and often based on studies in the US, there is at least a strong possibility that compostable pods might break down more quickly depending on the method used for waste disposal. They are still going to break down eventually. The drive towards composability is part of a larger post-industrial movement and waste management services are quickly evolving.

Colonna Labs capsules are designed to be composted in domestic food waste, we just need to wait for the council services to catch up. Even if they currently are wary of collecting pods in their council compost collections - as compostable gradually becomes more common, this is bound to change. 

And anyway, to assume pods are bad, and to treat them to higher standards of sustainability then other methods is unfair. They are a scapegoat at times. As Maxwell says, “The truth is that speciality coffee needs to look at sustainability and become more efficient”. The likelihood that hand crafted coffee is even more wasteful has barely been considered. We await the results of the University of Bath study into the waste production of a range of different brew methods with interest.

We highly recommend Maxwell’s guide to getting the best out of the capsule brewing process.

Photo by Elliot Jay Stocks for Colonna

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