Compostable capsule coffee just got chic – illy ESE coffee maker review

 Illy ESE coffee maker in red on a beige background.
Illy ESE coffee maker in red on a beige background.

Single-serve coffee hasn't historically been associated with quality or eco-conscious credentials. illy has put a stop to that. With their compostable capsules and compact machine – single-serve coffee just got chic.

As a former barista, I'll be the first to admit that I'm a bit of a coffee snob. It took days of testing to compile a list of the best single-serve coffee makers on the market because I wanted them to stand up to the best espresso machines too.

illy is famous for its easy, speedy coffees and its latest, simple ESE espresso machine is no exception. It can brew flavorful coffee in a matter of seconds. The slightly retro, boxy design is undeniably eye-catching. I tested mine in tomato red, which screamed Italian-chic. Buy me a Vespa and I'll be living La Dolce Vita in no time.

Specifications

Illy ESE coffee maker on a white background
Illy ESE coffee maker on a white background

Unboxing

Illy ESE Coffee Maker unboxed on the countertop
Illy ESE Coffee Maker unboxed on the countertop

The illy takes simple, small single-serve coffee to a whole new level. I don't know how big I was expecting the box to be, but this comes close to being able to fit in a large letterbox.

The packaging was more than pared-back and consisted of a cardboard box and some plastic wrap. Even though that means that this isn't completely recyclable (unless you live in an area that recycles soft plastics), it won't take up much space in your garbage.

Setting up was simple. I plugged the machine in, filled the reservoir, and ran a rinse cycle. Thankfully, I didn't need to consult the instruction manual. This is simple to use and the basic instructions reflect that.

I love how this looked on the countertop. Some might say that the plastic design is a little cheap, but as I was using the machine, I was struck by just how robust the plastic shell is. Plus, steering clear of traditional stainless steel has meant that this is ultra-lightweight and easy to move around.

Who would it suit?

Illy ESE Coffee Maker in red on the countertop
Illy ESE Coffee Maker in red on the countertop

The illy is designed for those who are short on space and who need their coffee quicker than quickly. It's simple: the illy can brew you a single espresso and a Lungo: that's it. If you want a cappuccino or latte, you'll need to invest in a milk frother (luckily, illy makes one of the best milk frothers on the market).

illy's machine is exclusively compatible with their innovative compostable bags. You'll have to regularly invest in these specific illy compostable capsules, which aren't cheap. However, I think it's a worthy sacrifice for eco-conscious coffee consumers. Normally, pods are a lot of work to properly and sustainably dispose of anyway. These illy capsules can go straight into the food waste.

This is perfect for small homes with one or two coffee drinkers. It's close to silent too, so you can make a sneaky start to your morning without waking the whole home. However, as soon as you need to start making three or more coffees, you'll find yourself wishing for a machine with more capacity. There'll be queues around the countertop.

What is it like to use?

Illy ESE Coffee Maker open from the top, ready for coffee capsules
Illy ESE Coffee Maker open from the top, ready for coffee capsules

The beauty of simple coffee makers is that they're close to impossible to confuse yourself with. After turning the machine on and filling the reservoir, it was ready to go. Even though this is an 800-watt, low-power, energy-saving model, it pre-heated in an impressive 42 seconds. The machine was waiting for me to start making coffee rather than the other way around.

Once the water reservoir was full, I rinsed my machine by running it through a brewing cycle. That's all I needed to have this ready to go. There are just two buttons on the front: one for espresso and one for Lungo (a bigger espresso). It's really that simple.

Test 1: espresso

Illy ESE Coffee Maker making an espresso
Illy ESE Coffee Maker making an espresso

The first test we put any coffee maker through is making espressos. These are the base of all cups of coffee, so it's important that your machine can brew one with well-rounded flavors, at a drinkable temperature.

To insert my compostable pod, I needed to lift the top of my Illy up. I tentatively tried to lift it at first, but quickly gave up. It's a two-handed job. I had to hold the base of the machine with one hand and pull upwards (with quite some force) to open the capsule dispenser. I'd put this down to the seal, which needs to withstand 20 bars of pressure, but it could create problems for those with mobility problems.

Once my capsule was in, I closed the lid and pressed the espresso button. I sat my shot glass on the espresso shelf, which is closer to the brew head, minimizing splashes and preventing your espresso from coating your countertop.

The illy releases a small amount of water, which you might think is a feeble attempt at brewing an espresso. It's not. This is how the machine pre-infuses the capsule, giving a smoother flavor. Keep your cup underneath and a couple of seconds later the rest of the shot will get extracted.

After 21 seconds, the illy had brewed 1.25 oz of espresso at 201 degrees Fahrenheit. For a single-serve coffee, it was delicious. My shot was rich, dark, and syrupy. The crema was surprisingly distinct for a single-serve machine too. I really can't fault it.

Test 2: Lungo

Illy ESE Coffee Maker making a lungo
Illy ESE Coffee Maker making a lungo

The second and final test we put the illy through was brewing a bigger cup of coffee. I put my coffee cup on the lower drip tray, inserted my capsule, and let the machine brew. It was quick, extracting my coffee in just 43 seconds. The icon suggests the second function is a lungo, If you're expecting an Americano-sized coffee, you'll need to reevaluate. This measures at 3 oz, which is somewhere between a double shot and a proper Americano in size. If you want more coffee in your cup, hold down the button to keep the coffee pouring. You'll be switching up the intended ratios, and risking unbalancing the flavors, but we all like to drink our coffees differently.

My cup brewed at 190 degrees, which is on the cooler side, but that meant that this was a very drinkable cup of coffee. The flavors were delicate and well-extracted. I felt that they were flatter when they were diluted in a larger cup of coffee, but I still enjoyed them. Compared to other single-serve machines, this was impressive.

Given that espressos and lungos were all that I could make, I made them again and again to check the consistency of both brewing types. I was impressed. You can make a reliable, repeatable cup of coffee in one of these.

Cleaning, storage, and maintenance

Cleaning the Illy ESE Coffee Maker - this is the pod bin and drip tray drying on the countertop
Cleaning the Illy ESE Coffee Maker - this is the pod bin and drip tray drying on the countertop

This small machine promises a minimalistic cleaning routine and easy storage. The capsule container makes a neat bin for compostable coffee. The used pods look like tea bags, so I would recommend disposing of these as soon as they've cooled. The capsule bin has enough capacity for at least ten ESE pods, but if you only drink one coffee a day, you'll probably find mold growing in your bin if it's left uncleaned.

Thanks to the adjustable cup height, your coffee won't splash up the back of the machine or backboard much. As long as you run a rinse cycle when you're finished with the coffee pods and give the whole machine a perfunctory wipe-down, it will stay stunning on your countertop. There's a descaling function integrated into the machine, but you'll have to judge when it's needed because this won't give you reminders or prompts to clean.

This is small enough to move around your kitchen. If you want to pack it into a cupboard after use, you easily could. If, instead, you want to keep it on the countertop, even in small, narrow kitchens, it won't demand much space. It's perfect.

How does it rate online?

Illy ESE Coffee Maker box
Illy ESE Coffee Maker box

One of my favorite reviews for the illy ESE describes it as 'chunky and funky'. I don't think anyone could have summarized this better. Plenty of other reviews echo this sentiment, praising the compact, chic aesthetics, which make this machine appealing for small-space dwellers.

Lots of people commented on the fact that the machine is energy-saving, B-corp certified and that the pods are compostable. It appeals to those who are environmentally conscious, shopping on a budget, and looking for easy ways to make a quick coffee.

I had to search hard for criticisms of the illy. Some people found that they needed to flush the machine three times before they felt that the Illy was brewing truly fresh coffee flavors, but that was the most scathing reviewers reached. Some people felt that, although this was good value, the ongoing cost of the capsules made this a relatively expensive machine. They're $13.99 for 18 pods, which, compared to your local coffee shop is a steal.

How does it compare?

Illy ESE Coffee Maker making an espresso
Illy ESE Coffee Maker making an espresso

Nespresso normally dominates the single-serve coffee maker market, so it seems only fair to compare illy to their compact model, the Nespresso Pop. This sits at a similar price point, is available in more of a range of colors, and will also require next-to-no space on the countertop.

Choosing between the two might sound tough, but it's actually really easy. If you want consistently flavored, compostable coffee, choose the Illy. This covers the basic flavors of an espresso excellently. If you're less concerned about waste and more keen to try the range of capsule flavors on offer, take a look at Nespresso. They often have caramel, cold brew, and flavor-enhanced capsules. They'll take more work to recycle, but you can mix up your coffee options much more easily.

The other deal-breaker could be the height of the Pop. It's shorter, so you'll struggle with taller, travel cups underneath it. Whilst the illy is far from tall, there's still enough space under the brew head for a travel cup.

Eco-conscious coffee drinkers might want to consider Cuisinart's Grind & Brew single-serve machine. This only makes small cups of filter coffee, so won't hit the espresso spot like illy and Nespresso. However, it has conical burr grinders and a bean hopper, so you can drink freshly ground filter coffee in a matter of minutes. The machine gives you more flexibility over the size of drinks you make (you can choose a 4, 8, 10, or 12 oz cup). It's more expensive, but worth it if you're looking for more versatility.

Should you buy it?

Illy ESE Coffee Maker buttons and controls
Illy ESE Coffee Maker buttons and controls

If you're environmentally conscious and you want a single-serve coffee maker, this is a really exciting machine. The illy itself is reasonably priced, scores top points for aesthetics, and, although the body is plastic, it feels relatively robust.

There are only two reasons that I wouldn't buy this: if you want milky coffee and you don't want to be limited in which capsules you can buy. In my opinion, compostable capsules are worth the hassle.

How we test

Illy ESE Coffee Maker side profile
Illy ESE Coffee Maker side profile

We put all of our coffee makers through rigorous rounds of testing, making notes on every aspect of a machine, from form to function, so that we can cover every aspect of a machine before you buy it.

The illy's simple functions made testing extremely straightforward. We tested their espresso setting and measured the extraction time, temperature, quantity, and flavors produced. To make sure that the machine was consistent, we ran a few of these (and, of course, drank each one).

The next test we carried out was on the Lungo setting. Again, we measured how long it took to brew, what temperature it brewed at, and what the flavors of the Lungo were like.

We explored some of the other features, such as the fact that you can hold down the button to get more water, but this is a very simple machine. Once we were satisfied that our team had tested every function, we cleaned the machine, looked into maintenance, and assessed how it stood on the countertop.

If there are any quirks, from unboxing to aesthetics, we let you know, so that you don't end up making coffee that's any less than perfect. If you want to find out more about the process, you can visit our dedicated page for how we test coffee makers.