If you were seeking out food tech at CES last week (and believe me, we were), you might have noticed an awful lot of one thing: pods. I was surprised by how many companies I saw demo-ing pod-based food or beverage system. Here are just a few:
Tucked into the Italy pavilion at Eureka Park I stumbled across Fresco, the maker of a “Keurig of Olive Oil.” Insert frozen pods of olive oil into the EVA device (which is about the size of a French Press), press a button, and in five minutes you can collect your cold-pressed olive oil. You can select different varietals of olive oil and even choose infused flavors, like chili or basil.
When I saw this I instantly flashed back to the Juicero debacle — do you really need a device to thaw pods of frozen olive oil? According to the reps at the booth, though, you kind of do. The EVA heats olive oil to its ideal temperature, between 20 to 25 °C (77 °F), where you can taste all of its flavors.
The machine costs €79 ($87) and each frozen pod is around €1 ($1.11). For now only Italians can order Fresco, but the company is trying to move into the U.S. While Italian cucinares (cooks) might shell out extra euros to get optimally extracted olive oil, I’m not sure American home cooks will have the same level of devotion. Especially when they could just buy fancy olive oil from their local co-op or farmers market.
You’ve probably heard of (or tasted) coffee pods, but nitro cold brew is a new entrant to the pod-based caffeine space. Korean company N2FALLS makes small cylindrical pods which, when inserted into the partner drink lid over a glass of water, expels compressed nitrogen-infused coffee concentrate. Voila — a nitro cold brew. Or if you do it over milk, a nitro latté! The company also makes pods for tea, juice and even booze-free wine.
Coffee prices vary by quantity but average to about $3 per capsule. For now N2FALLS is only available in Korea, but the company is in the midst of planning a U.S. expansion. Initially they’ll sell their pods in brick & mortar shops (the rep I spoke to named Amazon Go as a target) before selling online.
Argentinian startup Tigoût is a pod-based machine that bakes up wee single-serve desserts (think: Belgian chocolate cake or a white chocolate blondie). Insert a pre-prepped frozen pod (or two) into the machine, press start, and in a couple of minutes you’ll have a piping-hot sweet treat. Tigoût has a connected app so you can monitor your bake remotely and reorder capsules as needed.
The device itself costs $400 and each pod is $1.50. Right now there are 12 options, including six savory offerings. Tigoût’s founder and CEO Rodrigo Córdoba, who showed me the machine on the CES show floor, plans to launch the company officially in December of this year.
Drinkworks + Bartesian
Adventurous CES goers could sample the hard stuff thanks to a few pod-based machines. Drinkworks and Bartesian are both cocktail-mixing robots which rely on flavor capsules to make classic drinks.
Drinkworks, which is the result of a joint venture between Keurig Dr. Pepper and Anheuser-Busch, is a countertop appliance which turns pods into cocktails, ciders, and even beers. Just pop a capsule — which already contains alcohol — into the machine, press a button, and out comes your drink of choice. You can see it make me a Moscow Mule at CES in the video above (which, yes, I drank at 10am cause Vegas). Drinkworks is available in select states for $299 and the pods cost around $3.99 each, depending on the drink.
Like Drinkworks, Bartesian is also a pod-based cocktail robot. It uses capsules filled with juice, bitters and other mixers. However, unlike Drinkworks, however, Bartesian users have to provide the spirits themselves — which allows for more customization but also adds an extra step (and expense) to the process. Bartesian devices are currently available at retailers around the country (and online) for $349.99.
Clearly food & bev companies have seen the success of Keurig and Nespresso and decided that pods = the future. And there’s some validity to that. Pods offer near-instant gratification (assuming you remember to reorder them) and a high level of consistency. They also give consumers the option to switch things up according to their mood — if you want a hazelnut espresso one day and a vanilla one the next, no problemo — and provide hardware makers recurring revenues.
But while pods do allow some level of wiggle room, their very nature means that they still end up trapping consumers. You may be able to choose the flavor of your cold brew/dessert/cocktail pod, but you’re reliant on the pod itself to get the finished product — and that means you’re beholden to a specific appliance manufacturer. Consumers can chafe against being locked into food ecosystems. Pods also don’t give you wiggle room to tweak a recipe — for example, if you like a slightly less boozy cocktail or a sweeter cold brew.
There’s also the negative environmental aspect to consider. While some pods are technically recyclable, most end up in landfills. That could become a bigger issue as consumers begin to prioritize sustainability more and more.
Despite their obvious convenience, will the cost of pods — both literal and environmental — keep consumers away? Clearly a bunch of companies at CES don’t think so. But I’m not so sure that the pod-volution of food and drink will take off — especially for more niche products, like olive oil.
Instead, I think we’ll see a growth of smart devices like the Picobrew, which can work with the company’s Picopacks or let consumers add their own ingredients. Even Keurig is getting on-board. You can buy the company’s proprietary pods, but many machines also let you buy reusable pods and add your own coffee for more of a customizable and waste-free twist. The DIY aspect still keeps consumers within the hardware device’s ecosystem, but allows them more flexibility (and sustainability). That’s the type of tech I’d like to see more of at CES 2021.