The degree of technology (and sometimes pseudo-technology) being claimed by espresso machine makers is now beyond the understanding of the average manager in the hospitality trade, claims a world barista championship judge.
David Cooper of Cooper's Coffee in Yorkshire believes the proliferation of wonder claims by espresso machine makers has got to the stage where many beverage operators are now finding it extremely difficult to tell useful technology from smoke and mirrors.
He is calling for some mechanism for comparing the performance claims of different espresso machines.
This radical suggestion, which appears just as the espresso world is about to show off its very best technology at the Caffe Culture show in London, has come from one of the most opinionated suppliers in the coffee trade, and one who has himself led the charge towards high-tech espresso machines.
Cooper was himself one of the main proponents of new high-technology features in espresso machines, arguing the case for ‘group head stability and control', in support of his import of the Dalla Corte machines from Italy.
That feature, which essentially means being able to set and keep an absolutely precise brewing temperature at the point the hot water hits the coffee, is now a standard argument raised by many espresso machine brands.
"It's very clear that 'pressure profiling' will become a competitive thing between manufacturers in the race to have the latest technology," says Cooper. "The principal difference between this and 'group head temperature stability' is that the latter actually makes a vast and easily-understandable difference to coffee quality.
"I think that this new 'pressure profiling' technology doesn't even compete - but brands are without a doubt going to make claims about it before very long.
"What is most frustrating about espresso machine technology is there is no one yet prepared or motivated to challenge manufacturers to prove their claims."
The recent world barista championship has drawn attention to what may be the most meaningful evaluation of espresso machines that currently exists. In the espresso world, the technical standards committee of the WBC invites manufacturers to submit equipment for a week-long technical evaluation, before being allowed to submit a closed bid to be the official equipment competition.
This is generally regarded to be an exhaustive, and reliable, evaluation. Nuova Simonelli, which won the status of World Barista Championship machine for this year, has recently said that the championship evaluations are the most strenuous it knows of.
Lauro Fioretti, technical assistance manager at Nuova Simonelli, says that the WBC gave "an objective evaluation of the equipment under different points of view: thermal stability, ergonomics, easiness for cleaning, machine's usability, steaming, power and simplicity in the preparation of cappuccinos. The method is fair, exhaustive and effective, and the board appointed for the evaluation were available to share with the participants the ways the tests were carried out, and even welcomed some suggestions made by the competitors.
"These tests surely represent an important test-bed for espresso machine performance, evaluated through particularly objective criteria."
This presents an important question for the British coffee trade, says David Cooper. Could there be any similar independent test-bed evaluation available to beverage operators which could give a reliable confirmation of the claims made for an espresso machine?
By Ian Boughton