Talking to Nespresso's head of coffee

Nespresso’s head of coffee, Karsten Ranitzsch, is on a mission to put coffee on par with fine wine, writes Trudie McConnochie.

Nespresso’s head of coffee, Karsten Ranitzsch. Picture / Supplied

Given that he's largely responsible for boosting the productivity of millions of people around the world, Karsten Ranitzsch should probably be wielding a magic wand or wearing a cape. Instead, Nespresso's global head of coffee is dressed in a neat navy suit, jaunty bow-tie and earnest spectacles. Coffee, after all, is a very serious business. And Ranitzsch - who, to the likely consternation of health experts, consumes an astonishing 12 cups of the stuff a day - is committed to keeping the romance alive in our enduring love affair with coffee.

It's a stimulating job, and the no-nonsense German-born Ranitzsch, who has been the top coffee expert for the Swiss company since 2005, has no intention of giving it up anytime soon. Speaking to Viva on a fleeting visit to Sydney, the 47-year-old plays up the science of his craft, but his passion for the energy-enhancing beverage flows through his words like water through the grounds of one of his aromatic blends.

"It's a product you can touch and feel and taste every day," he says. "And there's a lot of creativity you can apply - it's not boring. It's something that is making me happy every day."

He's preaching to the converted, of course. New Zealanders hold coffee dear to our hearts, with 78 per cent of us imbibing on a daily basis. And glamour brand Nespresso, which leads the "capsule coffee" market (to use the industry vernacular), has well and truly wooed us with its gleaming home coffee machines. It goes without saying that having the suave, wildly popular George Clooney as ambassador - arguably one of the most successful celebrity partnerships in marketing history - hasn't hurt.

Ranitzsch is Downunder to introduce the brand's latest Special Reserve Grand Cru capsules, which are available for a limited time in Nespresso's sleek Auckland, Wellington and upcoming Christchurch boutiques from this week.

The wine terminology is deliberate; Nespresso is pitting its alluring coffee blends as an alternative to your mealtime vino. The company trains sommeliers to match food to its capsules in restaurants, and has collaborated with Austrian wineglass-maker Riedel on elegant vessels to enhance the flavour of Nespresso blends. That battered tin of instant coffee in your mother-in-law's pantry has never looked less appealing.

"The commoditisation of coffee is our biggest threat," Ranitzsch says. "We have worked so hard in explaining that coffee is something you can appreciate at different times, and making it convenient. My concern is that this is going to be destroyed somehow by making coffee just like any other beverage.

"Everybody goes to a restaurant and looks at the wine list, and does wine tastings. I think coffee has that potential because it's much richer in terms of aromas and complexity. And you have more occasions to enjoy it, because you don't drink wine in the mornings."

It's what happens to the capsules after those occasions that bothers some people.

Nespresso has drawn criticism for using aluminium capsules, as they can't be recycled within your own home which in turn discourages many people from recycling them at all. And given the company's emphasis on educating consumers about recycling you can assume the number of capsules being returned to Kiwi boutiques for recycling isn't high. Ranitzsch says a suitably durable biodegradable material has yet to be found.

On the fair-trade front, at least, Nespresso is faring well. Its long-running sustainability programme and a partnership with Fairtrade International are boosting coffee farmers' welfare - a commitment which helped lure staunch humanitarian George Clooney.

This aspect is something Ranitzsch - who has never met Clooney and doesn't seem particularly upset about it - is immensely proud of. He shows us a video of Nespresso's sustainability work, but unfortunately we are distracted by footage of the twinkle-eyed Clooney and don't really take anything in. At this point it becomes clear that Ranitzsch's overriding motivation is not science nor passion, but virtue. His wish is that customers will consider the big picture when they sip on their beloved brew.

"I see what the farmers do in order to protect the environment and way they speak about preserving it for the sake of their kids," Ranitzsch says. "And then I'm having discussions with people in more developed countries who say, 'Oh, it's so much effort to bring the capsules back' and 'I don't really care about recycling', and that's something I really have a problem with. I feel ashamed when I'm on the coffee farms and have that in mind."

Quick fire with Karsten Ranitzsch:
Earliest coffee memory... Drinking coffee with my grandmother at age 17.

Favourite food/coffee pairing... The Rosabaya Grand Cru with foie gras. You have the sweetish taste of the foie gras, and the Rosabaya's red-winey notes.

Favourite country to drink coffee... Germany. I joke that you need to speak English to order coffee in Berlin, because the baristas come from all over the world - Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. It's a real lifestyle development.

A day without coffee is... I get headaches - I'm missing something.

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