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Another Dutch specialty: the not-so-easy art of making espresso pods.

Take an exact dose of fresh roasted coffee, blended and ground to particular specifications; take the purest and finest filter paper--a food-standard fiber produced by only three paper companies; take the pod making machines themselves, which are a specialty product of their own: to these ingredients add years of experience in trial and error, a professional staff plus a considerable investment in vacuum packaging--and then, yes, you may have in hand a strand of nicely shaped, look-alike paper filter pods that can repeatedly deliver a good cup of espresso coffee. Then again, you may have a mess.

This account is by Ben Houben, a man who knows a lot about espresso pods as his factory has been turning them out by the thousands, and with growing success, ever since 1974. Houben turns a pod in his hand, "They look so innocent and simple," he remarks. "Who would guess that these espresso pods which make life so much easier for the workers at bars and restaurants, and too give people around the world a good quick espresso that can always be counted on cup after cup, could be such devilish little things to make."

According to Houben, some of the variables to consider in production are running time of pods--individual pods behave differently from pods on strands of tapes--and the demands of differing blends, blend weights, and grind profiles. There are a number of factors that can have impact, even to atmospheric conditions during production.

Houben's production plant is located in the old town of Tilburg, in the Netherlands. Actually, the location is headquarters for a small group of companies with various coffee-related businesses. What they all have in common is Ben Houben.

Production of pods on tapes (continuous strands of filter paper carrying the doses of coffee), which accounts for the majority of the production, is handled by two pod-forming machines. For each machine a running supply of fresh roasted coffee is stored in bins over the forming apparatus and reels of paper. At forming stage, the machine deposits an exact dose of coffee, like a small cake, into a shallow pressed well in the reel of paper.

The uniformly spaced pods are then sandwiched between the tape papers, and heat sealed (no glue).

Complimenting the machines for tapes is a single, smaller unit for fashioning individual pods. The pod forming machines, for pod tapes and individual units, are the creation of Cyrus Melikian, whose company in the U.S. is ABCD Inc. The machines used by Houben, and still running well he notes, are among the earliest such machines made by Melikian.

Each and every espresso pod so produced is of the same circumference, 6.2 centimeters. This is so as to assure one of the most important attributes of the pods, universality--they'll fit into all espresso making machine dosing heads. Pod weight varies, however, from 7.8 gm of coffee per unit on the tapes to 7.5 gm for an individual pod. Actually, Houben's operation is complex enough that he limits it to pod forming and packaging. He does not roast himself, but is supplied under contract. His coffee is a classic espresso-style blend.

One particularly important factor is that the pods are available in both regular and decaffeinated versions. The decaf style is gaining in popularity, up now to about 7% of Houben's sales, due to the ease the pods afford in switching bar service to decaf while also guaranteeing to consumers that they are indeed getting a genuine, decaffeinated drink. This is becoming an important market consideration in France, for example.

In the final phase of production, the tapes and single-unit pods are vacuum packed in alumInized bags to preserve freshness and aroma, and then boxed. Units of 1 to 300 pods (on a single tape!) can be vacuumized and gas flushed on the new Swissvac unit.

This operation is actually but one activity of a small group of coffee-related companies that Houben manages from his offices in Tilburg. In addition to espresso pod production and sales, the businesses relate to the following: supplying and servicing vending equipment-as Dutch agent for Futurema vending machines, importing, selling and servicing fresh-brewed coffee making machines from the U.S., serving as exclusive Dutch agent for Brasilia, the Italian manufacturer of table top and professional espresso machines and accessories, and as importer/assembler of the Brasband line of pod tape-running coffee machines. The Brasband machines are either assembled in Tilburg from parts made in Italy or are imported pre-assembled. Houben markets the machines in the Benelux region, Germany and in certain parts of the U.K.

These interests span the realm of out-of-home coffee service from small offices to factories and the busiest bars and cares. Due to his long and close relationship with Brasilia, Houben is supplying espresso pods and tapes on an exclusive basis to Brasilia agents around the world as part of the Brasilia Kiss system. Houben's subsidiary for this is the L.A. Van Bergh company. The company responsible for producing the pods and for international sales to non-Brasilia clients is Triborgh B.V.

Houben's house brand in coffee pods is 'Le Grand Care.' He also blends to order as clients so desire. Some clients send him their own roasted whole bean blends which are then ground by Triborgh and packed to order. The pods can fetch about 10-11 U.S. cents per unit in the Netherlands.

In sum, Houben's pod operation serves upwards to 400 offices in the Netherlands and packs for about 30 clients in the Netherlands and abroad. Clients range from very small companies to some of the largest coffee companies. Pod markets are beginning to develop around the world, but the more developed markets to date are in Europe and North America. Houben is exporting his espresso pods to Canada, U.K., Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Iceland, and Belgium.
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Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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