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Making coffees on a banqueting scale

08 August 2007

Producing a flavoursome cup of coffee in banqueting quantities is often aproblem - but it doesn't have to be, as Ian Boughton reveals

For all the attention focused on baristas and the art of the espresso, the most profitable coffee sector of all is, in fact, the least glamorous one. It's the bulk coffee sector, in which conference and banqueting services can need to fill several hundred cups virtually at the same time.

This is invariably filter coffee, because it's practically impossible to serve espresso-based coffee to hundreds of dinner guests all at once. And now there's a standard by which to judge what is, and is not, good filter coffee.

The idea of the Gold Cup Programme, from the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, is that caterers which meet the standard will be able to display a quality badge. So-called "brewmasters" will train, test, and certify a caterer to display the Gold Cup and will follow up with twice-yearly audits, very similar to the Tea Guild's certification.

As Drewry Pearson, managing director of Marco Beverage Systems, says: "The objective of the Gold Cup will be good, filtered coffee and consistent high standards."

Bit of science

Until this is established, however, caterers will continue to be accused by the coffee trade of seeing the beverage as a cash cow which requires no interest or skill - and thus, little training. Pearson sympathises with this view, because the brewing of filter coffee does involve a bit of science - when it's explained, most caterers' eyes glaze over very quickly, and they miss the important parts.

Briefly, 50g of correctly ground coffee, sitting in one litre of water at a temperature of about 94°C for a period of about five minutes, will give an "extraction" of flavour which equates to about 20% of the bean converted into dissolved solids, which is the likely optimum taste.

However, where many caterers go wrong is when their coffee is kept brewing, on direct heat, for too long. The typical example is the pour-over jug held on a hotplate for an hour or more.

But it doesn't have to be this way, says the coffee trade. The answer is to remove the coffee from direct heat after brewing, and to hold it in an insulated jug, flask or urn. If it's not exposed to direct heat, it will stay in acceptable condition for a surprisingly long time - to achieve this, some makers use insulation of stainless steel while others use "soft heat", which is a kind of bain-marie system.

Typically, Marco Beverage System's Filtro Shuttle brews filter coffee directly into a six-litre insulated and removable urn. In restaurant use, a coffee brewed when the diners sit down will still be fine at the end of their meal.

An illustration of using the same principle in far larger quantities can be found at Glasgow University, where Ailleen McInnes, director of hospitality services, has 50 buildings to supply and receives orders ranging in quantity from two people to 500. She decided on the strategy of brewing centrally, removing the coffee from direct heat at the right time and transporting it around the campus in insulated containers. For this, she picked Bunn equipment provided through First Choice Coffee, which also provides her Grand Café Fairtrade coffee.

Mismatched machines

The demand was typical of many bulk-brew situations, says Alistair Anderson, business development director of First Choice Coffee. He says: "The university already had a collection of mismatched machines, some not right for the purpose and some in poor condition. This is nobody's fault - it can happen over the years at any big site."

He continues: "For the logistical problem in getting the coffee around, we decided on a Bunn ThermoFresh system, which brews into freestanding satellite units [urns] which have a very good thermal insulation - we've tested it, and found we can serve coffee after three hours. So long as you haven't decanted it, it keeps well."

Bunn is known for its hi-tech approach to filter brewing - it was a pioneer of programmable presettings of brew times and temperatures for different blends. The ThermoFresh delivers its coffee into five-litre containers designed to be manually carried by catering staff these have a safety lid which will not open even if an urn is dropped.

"Coffee brewed in bulk doesn't have to be the poor relation of gourmet coffee," insists Roger Cobb, European sales director of Bunn. "Our ThermoFresh can brew 12 litres to the same high taste standards as a single two-litre brew. This is achieved through the programming facility and ‘pulse brewing'."

Pulse brewing means that brewing filter coffee is not a matter of simply sloshing hot water over coffee grounds rather the machine knows how to switch itself on and off to dispense the right quantity of water at the right temperature for the type of coffee being used.

The theory of central brewing and remote serving has now caught on widely. Urban Espresso has thought about it from a slightly different point of view, and used it to reinvent the concept of the tea trolley, partly for the workplace and partly for the small conference market. Again, the principle is of brewing into pump-action thermos dispense flasks with the coffee brewed centrally and carried to the point of serving.

Even if the heat and insulation are correct, a hazard for bulk-brew is dosage - using the incorrect amount of coffee is blamed for many catering disasters. First Choice Coffee now makes preportioned packs of between 210g and 240g for five litres, and tells staff that a full pack will get the right result. Kenco does very much the same, with more or less the same measures, and at Marco Beverage Systems the view is that any caterer brewing less than 50g per litre is highly unlikely to win a Gold Cup mark to display.

Dosing basis

"It won't help you if you cut corners on dosing - customers won't rebook your hotel for events if you do," warns Paul Freeman, marketing manager at Douwe Egberts. "Dosing forms the basis of some of our ‘back-of-house' training, and we produce laminated visual charts to go up on the wall right next to the bulk brewer."

He adds: "Our charts also highlight when staff should consider throwing coffee away and making a fresh brew - and there's an audible alarm on the machine that sounds once coffee is likely to have deteriorated past an acceptable quality.

It's also important to select the right blend for bulk brew. "It's a pretty smart idea to have one main blend that can be used whatever time of day," says Freeman. "A high quality medium-roast coffee with quite rounded flavour characteristics will satisfy consumers first thing in the morning, over lunch, during an afternoon meeting, or late at night."

Douwe Egberts is unusual in also offering Cafitesse, a "liquid roast and ground" coffee. This is a concentrate, but not of the kind used in the 1950s it's an actual roast and ground coffee brewed in traditional manner then concentrated into a syrup and reconstituted with hot water at the point of serving. There has been a move in the USA to suggest that this can completely take over the large conference market.

"It's a good workhorse coffee for back-of-house environments and it will happily dispense into airpots and jugs all day," says Freeman. "Cafitesse is an easy-drinking, smooth, light coffee, with characteristics that you'd expect from a good quality traditional roast-and-ground coffee."

As an alternative, the Nescafé Coffee Company has devised a soluble-coffee system for bulk use.

"You can't have anything complex when you have 1,000 people all finishing their desserts at the same time," observes Martin Lines, marketing director at Nestlé FoodServices. "For this reason, you won't use a roast-and-ground solution, although customers may expect a cafetière."

Nescafé's Excel will dispense 1,500 cups an hour and the company's major argument in its favour is that a soluble coffee doesn't go stale.

Practical option

If customers expect a cafetière, says Colin Hopkins, marketing manager at the Glasgow roaster Matthew Algie, then give them one - this can now be a practical and acceptable option.

"Bulk brew has become synonymous with poor quality, but it doesn't need to be like that," he says. "A bugbear is coffee served at wedding receptions. The customers go to a lot of trouble choosing a venue and selecting menu options - then, at the end of the meal, out comes poor quality coffee that has been sitting in a bulk brewer for hours.

"With a clean machine and good quality coffee, served soon after it's brewed, you'll get a good result. Alas, in many cases, you get unloved equipment, cheap beans, too little coffee used, and the result left to cook in what's essentially a bain-marie. No self-respecting chef would treat his peas like that, so why do it to coffee?"

The cafetière option, he says, is worth testing.

"There are lots of good-looking cafetières available now. You can do high volumes quickly - dose up all of the cafetières a little in advance, and then you just need to add the hot water at the right time. This takes no longer than putting coffee into a jug from a bulk brewer, and your service is transformed - your customers see instantly that you're serving something better."

There are some golden rules on how to get bulk-brew right. Kenco's head barista, Stuart Haden, has devised practical tips for caterers which address some of the most common mistakes.

Tips for caterers

Typically, he says, short cuts lead to disaster, complaints and lost customers. Staff must be told to always dispose of the spent coffee grounds at the end of each brew and never to reuse coffee grounds. Then rinse out the brew basket to remove traces of oil.

Always use only one filter paper per brew - some people use two, which means that the coffee brews too slowly, and the flavour is affected. When putting the coffee in the brewbasket, level the coffee by lightly shaking it as this helps to achieve perfect extraction (that is, getting the flavour out of the coffee).

And never do what is so often seen in catering - don't "prestage". Don't open packs of coffee and have filled filter papers stacked and ready for use, because as soon as you expose coffee to the air, you damage the flavour. Open those sealed packs only when you're ready to brew, and use a fresh sealed pack for each brew.

Two classic pieces of advice from Kenco should be employed in any catering situation.

First, hold regular tasting sessions so that staff members know what well-brewed coffee should taste like, and keep tasting during serving hours. Second, a great tip which should be posted up where all staff can see - if you don't know when the coffee was brewed, don't serve it.

Bunn is known for its hiâ€'tech take on filter brewing, and the mooted Gold Cup standard could improve quality industry-wide

The success of bulk-brewing systems, such as Marco's Filtro Shuttle (right), lies in the coffee being brewed in the correct proportions and at the right temperature, and stored until use in an appropriate container

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