A traditional espresso machine will produce a fantastic cup of coffee in the hands of a trained barista, but these days there are several choices for operators who need a machine that anyone can use. Ian Boughton reports
An important aspect of beverage service is that customers and hotel guests like to see their coffee prepared especially for them - and to be made "espressly" for them is one of the roots of the term "espresso". Staff pushing a button is not seen as a skill worth paying for.
And yet, the major brewing methods require skills which must be learnt, which brings a problem for venues when the right trained staff are not to hand. Fortunately, there are further helpful developments from the coffee trade which bring the delivery of exceptional coffee within the reach of less fully trained staff than ever before: the development of the capsule coffee machine, and the arrival of such recent ideas as the "brew in the bag" filter coffee, mean that the drink delivered by the night porter could well appear as impressive as that served by the barman.
A notable factor is the relatively new concept of the "single-serve" coffee machine, which delivers one cup at a time. A "global beverage strategist" told an international conference recently that it was the biggest force for change in the coffee service industry, and that single-cup machines now accounted for 60% of coffee served in New York offices. The potential was quickly recognised by caterers - "It opens the door for the do-it-yourselfer," said the analyst.
The biggest easy-use single-cup advance of recent times has been the "capsule", as popularised by Nespresso. This is a plastic container which is slipped into a dedicated machine; an espresso appears at the front, and the spent capsule is quietly delivered into a waste bin at the back. These have appeared in many restaurants, and Heston Blumenthal was a notable early user.
There is, however, a drawback. Capsules were created for the European market, where the general taste is for a straight espresso shot. In Britain, the taste is for coffee with milk, and not all capsule machines feature steam arms for heating and frothing the milk.
"It's the most idiot-proof method of all, and the best guarantee you'll get of decent coffee," acknowledges Barry Kither of Lavazza, a brand which has its own capsule system. "The milk is the part where most people screw it up. Nobody has yet perfected automated milk for these drinks, and this is where it can be an embarrassment - I have seen capsule machines serving at a speed which was an embarrassment, beside a barista and a traditional machine pumping them out twice as fast."
Nevertheless, the capsule has made a mark. United Coffee, the largest coffee roaster in the UK, is just about to launch its own system, the Campanini. "When consumers want only the very best coffee, operators still need to be able to deliver this even on a small scale," says managing director Elaine Higginson."Traditional capsules have delivered only espresso shots, which is a dilemma when the request is for speciality coffees. The Campanini provides a choice of beverages including cappuccino, mocha and latte."
It does it by a unique system - to make a cappuccino the user uses two capsules, a coffee one first, followed by a milk one.
In general, the capsule concept has unquestioned benefits.
"Our capsules are 100% fresh espresso coffee with no nasties, packed with nitrogen inside a triple laminate foil," says Angus McKenzie, managing director of Kimbo, the most recent Italian capsule name on the British market.
"Coffee made by a trained barista can bring perfection… in the real world, we don't achieve that as often as we'd like. And venues which serve under two dozen coffees a day, have a big problem in keeping beans fresh. And there is no wastage. That is why capsules can play a major role."
Kimbo has provided a no-skill way around the milk problem with a free-standing automatic milk-frothing machine, and says that it is the first company to bring a practical solution to the puzzle of speciality coffees by untrained staff.
The catch, acknowledges McKenzie, is the price - a capsule costs about 35p, compared with around 7p for a portion of ground espresso. However, he points out, the margins in coffee easily allow for this, and the benefit of allowing an untrained porter to serve a near-perfect cappuccino are well worth it.
The most recent idea has been to allow the capsule to be used by those who have traditional espresso machines with automatic steam wands - with these, the operator puts the wand in the milk jug, switches it on, and it froths and heats the milk to a pre-set formula.
Using a capsule in the conventional espresso machine presents a physical problem, in that the capsule has to be punctured at top and bottom for the brew water to pass through. Several makers of espresso machines have been working to adapt their machines to suit.
Matt Tuffee, sales and marketing manager at La Cimbali, suggests that his brand of Italian espresso machines is the most advanced in adapting its machines to accept capsules. In modern espresso machines, users can adapt the various brewing parameters of temperature, water pressure and so on… possibly uniquely, La Cimbali is allowing for this to be done with a capsule, which means that a Nespresso capsule can be brewed with the formula that suits it best.
"We have challenged the norm by suggesting that we can now get even more from a capsule - we have created a new and exciting understanding of what can be done with coffee in capsule form."
La Cimbali has now created a small espresso machine which can be adapted to work with capsules in a catering situation - it is the Casadio Dafne machine, due to appear in the UK shortly.
Other espresso machine makers are working on the same idea. Fracino, the only British manufacturer of espresso machines, will be the next to offer an adaptation to allow capsules into their equipment.
"Capsules will really come into their own," says Fracino's John Cook. "They have created a huge new market for coffee blenders and many more will follow.
"Capsules offer a host of advantages for the hospitality sector - they consistently produce a quality cup of coffee in next to no time. The cost per cup of a capsule may be two to three times more expensive than ground coffee, but ease and efficiency, and the money saved by not having to buy a grinder, far outweighs that."
The very latest simple "machine' for unqualified waiting staff to use is a novel one, coming from Ameya of Vienna. It works for filter coffee, which can be surprisingly difficult for untrained staff to get right.
This is a virtually foolproof method - the Growers' Cup is a disposable brewing "bag" containing ground coffee, which sits in with a plastic holder. The user fills the bag with 500ml of hot water, closes the bag by a plastic zipper feature at the top, and lets it stand to brew before pouring through a spout at the side.
There is an astonishing range of single-origin coffees, which effectively means that out-of-hours staff can now genuinely claim to produce a cup of the best coffee in the world, using nothing more than a kettle.
Capsules and the environment
There is an interesting argument over the environmental impact of coffee capsules. The items are generally difficult to recycle because of the combination of plastic, paper, and polyethylene-coated aluminium foil top, and they are not biodegradable. One company in America has experimented with capsules which do not include plastic, and in some areas Nespresso collects its aluminium capsules for recycling. There are two arguments for the format - one is the rather hopeful claim that because the portions are so strictly controlled, there is less of the customary coffee wastage from half-finished pots and carafes. The rather better argument, if possibly impractical in some catering situations, is of the reusable and refillable capsule - it is washed like a paper coffee filter, but can be refilled with the caterer's own choice of ground coffee, and topped with a reusable plastic lid.
the art of frothing milk
The steaming and frothing of milk for a cappuccino is a skill - staff have to be shown how to do it, and have to practise to get it right. The ultimate test of perfect milk preparation is the ability to pour "latte art", which is the practice of producing a graphic design on the top of a coffee by pouring action alone (roughly similar to the way a pint of Guinness should be topped off with a little shamrock or harp design). However, with a little practice, all staff will be able to produce a reasonable result.
How does the simple automatic frother compare? Angus McKenzie at Kimbo UK has timed the preparation of a traditional cappuccino against the preparation of one using a foolproof capsule and automatic milk frother.
1 Grind coffee - one second
2 Put coffee into portafilter, insert, and start brew - 59 seconds
3 Steam milk manually - one minute 20 seconds
4 Add milk to espresso - one minute 50 seconds
5 Final product ready to serve - two minutes 15 seconds
Using Kimbo's Capsy and Milk Magic frother
1 Insert capsule and press "go" - one second
2 Fill frother with milk and press "go" - five seconds
3 Espresso ready - 45 seconds
4 Milk ready 2 minutes 45 seconds
5 Pour milk into coffee and serve - three minutes 10 seconds
The foolproof method is, he acknowledges, a minute slower. "But," says McKenzie, "I've never known a night porter to be in a rush!"
Capsules and pods
The coffee "capsule" and the coffee "pod" are not the same thing. The "pod", which is considered a perfectly reasonable way to prepare espresso and is a legitimate Italian invention, is rather like a circular tea-bag but packed very full and tight. A pod will fit most conventional espresso machines, avoids the mess of ground coffee, and a spent pod is thrown away just like a tea-bag.
An espresso "capsule" is built like a milk jigger, and in general a capsule will fit only the machine for which it was designed - the market leader is Nespresso, whose capsules fit only their own machines. It is predicted that general compatibility between capsules and machines is an unstoppable development, not far away.
Nespresso 0800 442442 www.nespresso.com
United Coffee 01908 275520 www.unitedcoffeeuk.com
Kimbo 020 8743 8959 www.kimbo.co.uk
La Cimbali 020 8238 7100 www.cimbali.co.uk
Fracino 0121-328 5757 www.fracino.com
Ameya 07977 539857 http://en.growerscup.com
Lavazza 01895 209750 www.lavazza-coffee.co.uk