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Kings of the black stuff

21 November 2013
Kings of the black stuff

To think of coffee machines as all doing much the same thing is to miss the modern diversification in technology that has comprehensively segmented the coffee experience. Ian Boughton savours the world
of fully automatics, capsules, filter and espresso machines

The simple term ‘coffee machine' conceals an alarmingly wide range of technologies and purposes. Yet the most recent advances are well worth the attention of beverage operators with ambitions to make money from great coffee. Here we take a look at four ways that businesses have approached the subject.

Fully automatic:
Melitta at Black & Blue
Black & Blue has seven restaurants in London. At its Wigmore Street site (pictured), the coffee service
is from a Melitta Alpha super-automatic espresso machine.

Fully automatics used to be idiot-proof push-button pieces using cheap coffee, with a matching reputation for unreliability. The modern super-autos have turned that idea on its head. They produce coffee very close to the standard of that served by a human barista, and today's best super-autos deserve to be matched with high-quality coffee.

At Black & Blue, marketing manager Emily Browne says the aim is to balance quality service with high speed without ever heading into fast-food territory.

"This is a busy, high-turnover restaurant," she says. "We are not fast food, but we are starter, steak, dessert and coffee in an hour. We have a lot of businesses round here, so we are convenient for lunch meetings and a lot of fairly brief lunch meetings are held here. These meetings end with coffee, so we have to produce good coffee, quickly."

The brief was for an easy-to-use machine that gave reliable consistency of product, according to Neil Day, business development manager at Melitta.

While caterers could achieve a very complex coffee menu out of the newest super-autos, in practice most stay with the standard menu of espresso, latte, cappuccino and Americano.

The modern super-auto could produce that most fashionable of milky coffees, the flat white, says Day: "It's a question of milk flow, because automatic machines are fast, and the flat white needs slower and more careful milk. But it can be done."

The automatic has certainly delivered results for Black & Blue.

"We are already seeing a lot of orders for a second coffee at lunch, but now we have started doing breakfast it has become more important than ever to have excellent coffee," says Browne. "You get your breakfast coffee and orange juice wrong and you have a very big service problem. Get coffee wrong at 8am, and you might as well pack up."

Espresso Capsules:
Lavazza at Center Parcs
The big issue in espresso coffee today is the capsule. The capsule is a measure of ground coffee contained in something like a milk jigger; an automatic uses it to brew the coffee, after which it discards the spent capsule.

The originator of the idea was Nespresso, but there is now a vast amount of choice of capsule machines and suppliers. Center Parcs opted for the Lavazza Blue version.

"Our portfolio of units goes from themed restaurants to pancake houses, restaurants and bars, and a very diverse customer base from babies to grandparents," explains the group's food and beverage manager Eddie McAdam.

"We already have 10 licensed Starbucks cafés staffed by baristas which serve as our speciality coffee houses. But we can't have baristas everywhere, and for the more food-focused units we needed a coffee process which would guarantee a standard. It soon became clear that capsules were the answer.

"You still get the 'theatre' of coffee, because we're using machines with manually operated steam arms. But it's the grind, the tamp, the volume and so on which is the real skill of espresso, and I've been able to take all that out."

A capsule measure is several times the cost of a normal espresso dose of ground coffee - but that's not the full picture, says McAdam.

He explains: "The capsules themselves are more expensive to use, but they are more cost-effective. The machine is cheaper, the cost of maintaining it is cheaper, I don't have the cost of a grinder, and I don't have the cost of training. The stock control is easy, because 100 capsules are 100 drinks. The speed of service is exactly the same as by a barista - if anything, slightly quicker.

"If you were to pick any 10 restaurants on the high street, you'd be lucky to get a decent espresso, with a decent crema, in any of them. Go into any of our units, and I'll guarantee you get one."

Filter coffee:
Marco Systems at Notes
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It may come as a surprise that filter coffee, the simplest brewing method of all, is also the subject of one of the major machine technologies of recent years. This is Marco Beverage Systems' Uber brewer, which is used by the Notes café-cum-music/bookshop in London's Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Leeds.

It is filter coffee which allows an operator to serve truly great coffees at their best, and the Uber came about after a complaint from a champion barista about the temperature accuracy of certain water boilers. The resulting machine is now commonly seen in the top coffee houses.

The only visible part of an Uber is a single dispense tap on the counter-top, with a touchscreen control panel. The water boiler is hidden under the worktop.

"Great coffee has to be brewed at a specific temperature, with a specific water volume, for a specific time to reveal its greatness," says Marco's national account manager Neil Clark. "For the first time, a barista can now achieve temperature accuracy to within one tenth of a degree, water volume to within one millilitre, and contact time to within one second, allowing speciality coffees to be respected. And accurate brew temperatures for tea are largely ignored, but the Uber gives a tea master the ability to achieve the exact brew temperature for any great tea."

In many coffee houses, the Uber has become the major feature of the 'brew bar', a concept in which various pieces of equipment are used to bring theatre to what used to be the uninspiring subject of filter coffee.

Typically, the Uber will supply the water for an Aeropress or a Chemex filter, with several methods used because baristas believe that great coffees achieve different results through different brew methods.

"To know that you can run a brew bar and produce hand-made filter coffee with a consistent temperature is a very good idea," says Notes co-owner Fabio Ferreira. "And when a lot of water boiler equipment doesn't look very good, this is a very good-looking gadget to have on your counter."

Traditional espresso:
La Cimbali at Fazenda

One often overlooked aspect of espresso is that the grind of the coffee can be the single most important feature in brewing. It is even less frequently appreciated that the coffee grind can vary throughout the day - a minor change in temperature and humidity can upset a coffee-grinder sufficiently to produce disastrous results. Professional baristas know this, and may adjust their grinders constantly, but most staff in the general hospitality trade are not even aware that the problem exists.

At Fazenda, a Brazilian gaucho restaurant in Leeds and Liverpool, managing director Robert Melman chose the La Cimbali M39 with Perfect Grinding System, a novel feature in which grinder and espresso machine communicate through Bluetooth wireless. If the brewing parameters slip, the grinder self-adjusts to compensate.

"We spent 12 months investigating coffee machines," Melman reports. "We considered bean-to-cup and capsule machines, but once we tried the La Cimbali machine a few times and managed to see the technology live, we finally decided it offered the big plus of achieving consistency through a traditional machine. This feature helps massively to achieve high-quality coffee in every shot, regardless of weather and the other things that can influence espresso."

A gaucho restaurant features Brazilian-style steakhouse service and Fazenda customers receive a series of 15 different cuts of beef, pork, lamb and chicken, served one after the other.

The La Cimbali machine allows Fazenda to serve two unusual but traditional South American espresso-based coffees: the Lagrima, in which a measure of hot milk is given a 'lagrima', or teardrop, of espresso; and the Bombon, which is a base of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup topped up with a shot of espresso. "Brazilians love sweet things," says Melman.

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