Will automatic espresso machines ever make as good a cup of coffee as a qualified barista? Maybe not, but they get pretty close, and the reality is that most of your customers won't notice the difference. Ian Boughton reports.
The development of the automatic espresso machine has reached a higher level than could have been predicted, even just a few years ago. In fact it has reached the "super-automatic" stage - in which the equipment will take roasted coffee beans, grind them, tamp them, brew them, steam milk, froth milk, and combine coffee and milk in a way that produces an attractive drink.
There has been a great deal of discussion recently about just how much the automatic espresso machine can actually do. Certain famous high-street brands now use super-automatic machines - although they may prefer that their customers did not know that.
So we need to know just how good they are for use in the catering industry, and how wide their menu can be. New drinks are always being added to the standard coffee menu: could an automatic machine make a flat white, the most recent fashionable drink?
"Don't underestimate the capabilities of a good-quality automatic machine," says Elaine Higginson, managing director at First Choice Coffee. "Our Black & White Cool delivers authentic espresso shots and rich, textured foam that is barista quality. A flat white is essentially a double-strength latte, and the beauty of the machine is that it can be programmed with any combination of espresso and milk, so that operators can produce bespoke drinks consistently, and consistency is the primary focus.
She continues: "There's no point focusing on the latest trendy drink if the quality isn't up to scratch, but with the technology on the market today, there's no excuse for serving poor coffee."
Consistency, the production of identical drinks time after time, is the great benefit of an automatic machine, says Café du Monde's operations director, Mike Osborne. It is the ideal choice in certain circumstances, where staff turnover is an issue or where staff have to multi-task. But, he says, don't fall into the trap of thinking they are never as good as a manual machine - a poor barista makes poor coffee, whereas a well-set automatic machine always makes good coffee.
Automation also gives cost control, says Jonathan Barr, sales and marketing director at Selecta. "To guarantee the same grammage of coffee every time is essential for working within a tight budget. A great additional advantage is that choosing a machine that takes a 12oz take-away cup, will help open up the coffee-to-go market. More people are drinking take-away coffee than ever before - don't miss it."
An unexpected name has cropped up in the automatic espresso sector. Burco has produced the Bean to Cup Coffee Maker, and puts the case for a more powerful motor and more substantial brewing chamber than other machines. It also makes the case for a micro-fine sieve : this, the company claims, means the use of a finer-ground coffee, and thus a better flavour extraction.
Milk used to be a headache in automatic espresso machines. Now, automatic frothers and steamers are of great quality, but it is good to have the choice of a manual steam arm, even if that involves some automated features.
At Fracino, managing director Adrian Maxwell says it gives the operator the facility to alter the point at which the system stops heating the milk, a feature which is not always offered in all machines elsewhere.
The Drury Tea and Coffee company offers the Rancilio i-Steam auto-frother, and says it can show an operator making latte to a standard that proves that its automatic frother can produce milk which is barista-perfect.
Curiously, layered milk drinks can be better from an automatic machine than made by a human barista, says Duncan Gaffney at Coffeetech. "Layering a drink in an automatic machine is a natural process. You are ‘stretching' the milk, with more added air, and separating milk and foam more than you would with a manual machine, because a human tends to mix the two a bit more. So your foam does tend to be lighter than a manually-made one.
"As the foam is lighter, the milk drops more naturally to the bottom. Then your coffee drops through the milk, goes right to the bottom, and the crema has the effect of rising to the top of the coffee, and lifting the foam above it. The result of layering in an automatic machine is more distinct than when a human does it."
However, he adds, operators should beware some of the myths about automatic machines. "Everybody talks about automatic machines being fast and they're not - what they are is convenient. The time benefit is that staff can spend time serving a bun while the machine is making the coffee.
"And while everything is technically possible the question is: how robust and durable is a machine going to be in the real world, and will the operator keep it clean? That's why one manufacturer invented a disposable milk unit for Tim Hortons, the Canadian chain - you change the system when you change the milk."
An automatic machine doesn't mean that you can forego maintenance skills, agrees Martin Lines, marketing director at Nestlé Professional. "You've got to look after your beans and your milk just as well as if you are brewing manually - if you don't have the resource to do that, then consider a high-end soluble coffee machine.
"And you don't use real milk, you have options in powders - dairy or non-dairy. But a non-dairy will never work as well, and even within dairy formulations, powder products can go from a not-very-good to a very-good. So be careful in choosing it, and remember that taste problems can be down to the settings as much as the product - that burnt caramel taste may be a badly-set machine."
Melitta's Alpha bean-to-cup machine, which can produce up to 250 espresso-based coffees per hour, now incorporates Milk-Jet, a patented fresh milk system that provides whatever combination of foamed, steamed, heated and cold milk is required, in whatever order it is needed. With recent improvements, Melitta says that Milk-Jet can now produce a firmer froth than many competitor systems.
With such improvements, some suppliers say that an automatic machine can actually now reproduce that flat white, the most recent addition to the general coffee menu.
"Program a double espresso, two ounces, into a traditional five-ounce cup," says Angus McKenzie, managing director at Metropolitan Coffee Company, a distributor of the Sanyo automatic espresso machine, "then program three ounces of tightly-foamed latte milk, for which you've set the machine to introduce less air than for cappuccino foam. Head to head, it may not be the flat white produced by an Australian barista - but it can do it time and time again.
"And while you're thinking of setting controls, look for a machine which can produce Americanos in a cycle, which many automatic machines cannot. You'll find it very useful for restaurant or breakfast-style jugs of coffee."
At Mulmar, known for its distribution of the famous La Marzocco espresso machines, director Enzo Frangiamore recommends that caterers get enthusiastic about automatic machines, but not over-excited. "There is a lot of brilliant technology around but it is also possible to be blinded by technology. There is a point at which we will say to a caterer ‘is this really going to suit your business?'
"Technically, the parameters of automatic machines from major manufacturers now allow you to make the recipe of any drink. We can get a very good espresso extraction, and very good milk, although until you invent a machine which can swirl the jug in one hand and bang in on the counter, you're not going to get there completely.
"Yes, you can make the recipe for a flat white - although whether you get quite the right depth and body is questionable. But it is also questionable whether the average customer will notice.
"Certainly, automatic machines are getting cleverer. Flavoured syrups can now be added, with a kind of bag-in-the-box system, and they are not simply dropping the syrups into the cup, but blending them with the milk.
"What is very significant is that the automatic espresso machine manufacturers are now trying to make machines which are as reliable as we expect a vending machine to be. It will happen in our lifetime"
0844 815 3755
Café du Monde
0870 770 2951
Drury Tea and Coffee Company
020 7740 1100
First Choice Coffee 01908 275520
Melitta 01628 829888
Metropolitan Coffee Company 020 8743 8959
Mulmar 0845 688 5282