The cult of Nespresso: Could it really be the best cup of coffee money can buy?

It's a marketing man's dream, a business worth £500m a year. It's been described as the best coffee around and some of our finest restaurants now serve it as standard. But is Nespresso the real deal? Rob Sharp discovers the secrets of Nestlé's best-selling brew

Here's a thing. If you go to Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray, which is widely regarded as Britain's finest restaurant, and where the 12-course tasting menu (with wine) costs almost £300, the coffee served at the end of your meal will have been mass-produced by the international food giant Nestlé, otherwise known as the maker of that kitchen staple, Nescafé.

Here's another thing. If you visit Sketch in Mayfair, one of London's most glamorous party venues, where the Michelin-starred Library restaurant offers à la carte main courses for upwards of £50, and boasts of offering an experience "at the very top of food", the £7 coffee they produce with your petits fours will also (though your waiter may not admit it) be a product of the same Nestlé brand.

That brand goes by a gloriously naff name: Nespresso. Its products taste perfectly acceptable. At The Fat Duck or Sketch, you may even find them to be memorable. Granted, they were not sourced from a top-end, luxury supplier, but in the exacting environment of a well-renowned restaurant, Nestlé's mass-market product will certainly pass muster.

Away from the rarefied surroundings of Britain's leading eateries, a Nespresso revolution is sending shockwaves through the multibillion pound global coffee industry. It is changing the way millions around the world start the day and round off their evening meals. And its effects are being felt in homes, offices, and coffee farms across the globe.

Time was, if you wanted a proper cup of coffee, a really top-notch cappuccino, you'd need to get in the car, and find a café with a machine the size the size of a Nissan Micra, operated by a man (or woman) who could trace their genes back to Renaissance Florence.

It was a problem that came to tax the brightest minds at Nestlé, the world's biggest food company. Why, they asked, could it not be possible to make authentic espresso, quickly, in your own kitchen? From an affordable, compact machine that worked every time? Without covering every surface in discarded coffee grounds, and ending up with half an hour's worth of washing-up?

So the company set out to create the perfect cup of coffee and place it within reach of everyone. The Nespresso concept – simple, efficient, heavily branded machines, fuelled by sleek metal coffee capsules (or "pods") – was born. The idea grew and grew. It conquered North America and Europe, even taking off in Italy, spiritual home of luxury coffee. Then, a couple of years back, the brand reached Britain. And today, Nespresso is Nestlé's fastest-growing division. It would be fair to say that business is booming.

Global revenues topped £500m for the first time last year, and more than one million machines were sold (as well as more than 2.5 million coffee capsules). The brand's annual growth rate has been 30 per cent year on year since 2001, and it is the coffee industry's market leader in Europe.

More than three million people are now signed up as members of the Nespresso "club". It allows them to visit the firm's internet site, and in the click of a mouse order-up fresh "pods" – small, metal capsules filled with coffee of various strengths that can be popped neatly into the brand's machines before (seconds after a button is pressed) their cup is filled.

Not only that, but Nespresso is glamorous, too. George Clooney is its first "brand ambassador", and the star of a global advertising campaign that features in just about any publication you care to open. In Nespresso's TV commercials, the kohl-eyed heart-throb fufils a role similar to the swarthy male member of the Gold Blend couple of the 1980s and 1990s.

Sophie Marceau loves it, as does Elizabeth Hurley. Elle Macpherson has a machine. They have been featured in a glossy magazine, trumpeting the brand, which is sent monthly to members of the "club". The marketing onslaught became even more intense this month when Nespresso launched its latest machine, the Latissima, which can deliver a textbook macchiato in seconds, at the touch of a single button. Put simply, Nespresso is the biggest thing in coffee and one of the biggest things in food; and, behind the scenes, its may also be one of the most controversial.

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On the face of it, it's easy to see why Nestlé's superficially naff product has become such a roaring success. The Latissima produces the kind of neat espresso, latte and cappuccino one would expect to find in a Neapolitan backstreet. A seductive aroma seeps from the sleek machinery and hits you shortly before the taste.

Like all Nespresso machines, you can fuel the Latissima with capsules filled by 12 different blends of coffee, graded from one to 10 in strength, including "hints" of Central African robusta in the (five-strength) capsule Capriccio or the "mildly toasted woody notes" in Roma (six).

The capsules are at the centre of the brand's technical success. They were invented by the research and development department at Nestlé as a means "to extract the freshly ground coffee it contains under high pressure". Once inserted into a machine, they are pierced and processed. Water is forced up against a heating element at high pressure, meaning that only the quantity of coffee needed for a single cup is warmed.

Current machines vary from the £99 Slate, which delivers two sizes of espresso, right up to a swanky version worth £699 and designed by Porsche. This gadget, perhaps superfluously, includes a "volume control". Other innovations in the pipeline include touch-screen technology and the delivery of espressos instantly. Nespresso has been in discussions with Ferrari; the brand it seems, is more Italian than the Italians.

Driving the exponential growth of business has been its slick marketing operation. While it was first test-marketed in Japan in 1986, and it was rolled out in Switzerland, France, Italy and Japan the same year, the product was not launched in the UK until 2000, first to consumers, then businesses.

One can see the tail end of the growth of British aspirational drinking habits at Nespresso's flagship store on London's Beauchamp Place, close to Harrods. Here, a handful of Nespresso coffee-makers adorn the minimalist boutique's walls, bare apart from framed prints of Clooney, his beam on full pelt and silver-streaked barnet glistening.

Twenty years ago, the phrase: "I'm just popping out for a latte" was not in the British lexicon. Now, after Starbucks "happened" and dominated the high street, everyone, it seems, is au fait with complaining that their skinnycino was made with burnt milk. "If we go back 15 years, people thought a cappuccino was a luxury thing, and many would not know what they were," explains Nespresso UK's managing director, Brema Drohan. "Nowadays nine out of 10 people will know. As a culture we have gradually moved more and more to the coffee-drinking habits of people in Europe."

She describes the typical British Nespresso consumer as 30, obsessed by their gastronomy and more likely to entertain at home than splash out on restaurants. He or she is wowed by a coffee that does not disappoint. And it is high quality – enough to knock out a Kennedy (three shots of espresso); or Night Rider (cocoa mix, espresso in filter coffee with no milk).

At Sketch, they certainly like it. "We've tasted all coffee blends on the market," says general manager Sinead Mallozzi, "and Nespresso has been the consistent winner throughout. Hence why we sell only Nespresso."

Price-wise, the product isn't bad value. The price of a 10-pack (of environmentally unfriendly) capsules is around £2.30. A Starbucks regular espresso is £1.35. It may still be more expensive than a bag of coffee from your average retailer, but (or so the company claims) closer in quality to what you would buy in the average coffee shop.

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Nestlé's reputation has not always been as admired as its product. Over the years the company has come in for repeated criticism for the circumstances in which it had allegedly marketed baby milk in some of the world's poorer countries. A campaign for an international boycott of Nestlé products began in the late 1970s.

As you might expect, Nespresso follows suit in the controversy stakes. George Clooney clutched for his handbag when questioned at this year's Venice Film Festival about the apparent hypocrisy inherent in his appearing in Michael Clayton, a film about corruption in multinationals. "I'm not going to apologise to you for trying to make a living every once in a while," he blustered back. "I find that an irritating question."

The independent film Black Gold, released in the UK earlier this year, questions the ethics of charging 25 times as much for a cup of coffee as the coffee farmers receive from it.

"Nestlé is trying to sex up coffee, to make it seductive," says its director, Nick Francis. "But the fact of the matter is that the coffee farmer is being paid 2p out of every £2 cup of coffee. Nestlé has so much purchasing power. But the question is, how much money goes back to the farmers? It's quite staggering when you see the gap.

"Nespresso is another reminder of the difference between the owners and buyers in the industry. You can't rely on the likes of them, and the likes of Starbucks to tell the story of whether that happens."

Black Gold tells the story of Tadesse Meskela, head of an Ethiopian coffee workers' union, and his struggle to get a fair price for his 74,000 coffee farmers. Those behind the film hope it will, rather cutely, show that trade, not aid, is the solution to the problems faced by those struggling to survive. "We need to increase our negotiating power. This film will enable us to be paid more than the current price," Meskela told The Independent. He said that the current money that his farmers were receiving – and note that Nestlé and Nespresso use Ethiopian coffee, as do all of the world's major coffee companies – was still well short of the mark.

The development of Nespresso's machines has also been touched by controversy. Though the company took out a patent on the process in 1976, Alfred Yoakim, Nespresso research and development director, said that around this time, Nestlé was approached with a similar concept by an external technology firm, Batelle, based in Geneva.

Yoakim insists company executives took their incentive from a trip to Italy, where they observed the "effort and skill" with which the baristas prepared their wares. "It took a lot of time to get it right," he says. "We wanted to replicate that – a way of guaranteeing the best quality coffee in the shortest possible time."

And for all the Nestlé controversies, Fairtrade in the UK is full of praise for Nespresso. Ian Bretman, Fairtrade Foundation deputy director said: "From a UK perspective, Nestlé is the only major coffee brand that's actually using our label."

Nespresso has been at the vanguard of this, instituting its AAA Sustainable Quality Programme to maintain "environmental and social" standards for its growers. It pledges to provide farmers with 75 per cent of the export values of the coffee that it buys. And Nespresso aims to get half its coffee through these means by 2010.

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It is late September, back at Sketch restaurant in London's West End. Tim Kitchener-Smith, Britain's premier coffee sommelier, stands tall in the dining room, exhorting groups of men in Savile Row suits to drink deeply. He is hosting an invitation-only tasting, and the room is soon heaving with laughter. The venue, unashamedly exclusive, was set up to provide "the best of everything"; yet only now, it claims, does it have the kind of coffee that can sate the expensive appetites of such plutocratic punters.

For Nespresso, the future is world domination – as well as more coffee tasting experiences in the world's most exclusive locations. In Paris, it is set to launch a 1,000sq m flagship store on the Champs-Elysées in December, making it one of the most high-profile elite brands in the city, cosying up to Louis Vuitton's base in the capital.

Whether you like it or not, Clooney's street-spanning smile and favourite coffee machine are coming to a sideboard near you. Fast, under pressure, and piping hot.

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