A bean-to-cup machine used to indicate that an establishment didn't care about quality coffee. But the next generation of automated appliances will satisfy even the snobbiest java drinker. Ian Boughton reports
The bean-to-cup machine remains one of the most under-appreciated parts of the coffee world. Just a few years ago they were derided as ‘idiot-proof' machines fit only for the ‘button-pusher' level of junior staff, were vastly expensive and often unreliable.
Today, the bean-to-cup has a different image. The arrival of some remarkably sophisticated technology has surprised even the speciality coffee trade, with subtleties of temperature and milk treatments achieving drinks almost indistinguishable from those created by trained baristas. They have become so useful that it is suggested that there are 16,000 bean-to-cup machines entering the British market each year.
The La Cimbali S30 Perfect Touch
The quite remarkable feature of bean-to-cup machines, and one which surprises many operators, is the claimed speed of brewing. Typically, the Eversys E4 imported by UCC is said to produce 350 espressos an hour - that's twice the rate of comparable machines. Such capacities astound coffee traditionalists used to making espresso at 25 seconds per shot.
"Although Eversys is the new bean-to-cup kid on the block, it has been 42 years in development," says UCC's managing director Elaine Higginson. "The founder left one of the biggest brands in Europe to start up his own and create a bean-to-cup machine which was different."
In the early days of fully-automatic espresso machines, that founder has said, the industry's focus was entirely on how to use technology to automate and speed up the brewing process - the quality of the finished product came 'a distant second' on the machine industry's priorities. Now, he says, he has turned the process around to concentrate on taste and coffee quality - but with what Eversys still claims to be remarkably fast brewing and delivery speeds.
So how can we equate hundreds of espressos an hour to the traditional formula of a 25-second brew? At Melitta, managing director Steve Penk sees it from both sides, having been an executive of the world barista championships. Speed, he argues, is all very well so long as it does not compromise the taste of the coffee. "We have all worked with the various parameters of what makes an espresso, and the bean-to-cup machine does seem to put all this aside," he says. "You do not choose a super-auto because you want to dumb down your coffee!
"The majority of bean-to-cup machines are set up for convenience, not coffee quality. When I see some machines working on a very short extraction time, I often worry what the flavour result will be."
Having said that, Penk agrees that the best super-automatic bean-to-cup machines can indeed produce excellent coffee at acceptably high speeds. The big difference, he explains, is that where great traditional espresso is down to the skill of the barista, great bean-to-cup espresso is down to the skill of the machine engineer, who must be able to set the machine up with as much understanding of coffee as they have of technology.
"Properly set up, our Melitta will produce an exceptional result from a 7gm dose, which used to be the traditional measure for a single espresso, but is unheard of in a super-auto. We use 12gm for a double espresso shot, where most super-autos use 18gm - the accumulated cost savings of several grams per shot is, surprisingly, something that catering customers rarely look at closely."
There is a new kind of high-tech claim from La Cimbali, whose S30 Perfect Touch is described as beginning "a new generation of super-smart super-automatics featuring 'Internet of Things' technology. This is the modern stage of the concept of an internet in which 'all things and people are connected".
What this means is that the machine uses Wi-Fi to monitor and report quality control, consumables and output level, as well as cleaning and maintenance status and requirements. This data can be viewed via a PC, tablet or smartphone.
"The unique thing is that it connects to the internet, so you can communicate with it and it will communicate back," says managing director Carl Bjorkstrand. "Why would you want this? In the future, when you switch off your lights using an app on your phone, this could also put the machine into standby mode and perhaps start it up in the morning before you get to work. When all your devices are linked, the coffee machine may tell your shopping app to add extra coffee beans to an order it is collating."
WMF Espresso 1
La Cimbali is one of the companies advocating automatic systems which will produce frothed milk at colder temperatures so it can be used in speciality coffees or with alcohol. The strength of the alcohol can be lost through heat, such as in a limoncello latte, and fruit-based coffee beverages work best with cold foam, as in a Black Forest coffee drink with chocolate syrup, cherries and kirsch.
Some of these speciality drinks can now be produced automatically on bean-to-cups, allowing for both cold foaming of milk and the automatic addition of flavoured syrups or spirit shots.
"Customers don't like to be kept waiting, so bean-to-cup machines are becoming the machine of choice," says Justin Stockwell, managing director of Caffeine and supplier of the Schaerer machines from Switzerland. "By giving a careful balance of ingredients -coffee, milk, cocoa, flavoured syrups - these machines now give you enormous freedom in creating your own speciality beverages."
The ability to automatically add flavours is not available in all bean-to-cups, but Schaerer has Flavour Point, a bolt-on unit that allows the addition of a measured shot of one of four different flavours, or a shot of alcohol.
The bean-to-cup sector is still progressing, says Adrian Maxwell, managing director at Fracino, the UK's only maker of such machines. "All customers are now well aware how a correctly-made cappuccino should taste, and they now know that a latte should taste completely different to that. Automatic equipment has traditionally struggled to meet the variety of flavours and milk textures which are needed in speciality coffee, but new technology and development has focused on creating drinks that fulfil the customers' expectations - they expect high-quality drinks and are no longer content to accept a poor-quality drink.
"This expectation of premium coffee on demand will continue to grow, and those venues that may not previously have offered quality coffee will now be more attracted to the possibilities that bean-to-cups will give them."
And, says Penk at Melitta, this will develop further with the introduction of more high-quality, entry-level machines. Hitherto, bean-to-cup machines have been expensive, with prices in excess of £10,000 not uncommon, and some of the very cheap ones have been risky buys.
"Now, there are four or five major manufacturers developing entry-level bean-to-cup machines at around £5,000. If you go a long way beneath that level, you are talking about domestic-quality machines, but we will certainly see a major improvement in high-quality, entry-level, catering-standard machines."
A traditional look
The most attention-getting development in automatic bean-to-cup machines has been the creation of a unique 'hybrid' by WMF. The company argued that customers prefer to see a traditional espresso machine operated by a barista, rather than a push-button square box, but accepted that many caterers can struggle with the training and other practical requirements. So the company created a category of its own.
The new WMF Espresso looks and acts like a traditional machine, and uses a conventional portafilter brew-basket, but it handles much of the process itself. It is the action of staff placing the portafilter in position which triggers the grinding of the beans and delivers the grounds into the basket for brewing. It will then brew automatically if required, and will steam milk automatically if needed, but skilled staff can over-ride this and take on as much of the operation as they wish, perhaps to brew a 'guest' coffee or a decaf. This means that a bar manager can decide how much of the coffee operation should be automated.
"There are places which will not give house room to a bean-to-cup, because there are too many which have the same, standard utilitarian look," says WMF. "This is deliberately made to look and work like a traditional machine, and to combine the emotion and individuality of a traditional machine with the functionality and productivity of an automatic bean-to-cup machine."
The machine is new to the British market, but the prototypes and early models have been tested in the field by the McCafé chain in Germany for over four years.
01908 275 520
0121 328 5757
020 8238 7101
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In