With technology improving all the time, manufacturers now claim that bean-to-cup machines can match the standards of a human barista. Ian Boughton reports
At one time, it was generally considered that a fully automatic espresso machine was just not good enough to create true speciality coffee. Then people in the beverage trade began to cautiously suggest that the quality was beginning to approach that of a human barista - but not quite.
Meanwhile, makers of traditional espresso machines increased the technical specification of their equipment out of all recognition and came up with all kinds of arguments to prove, that in practice, the manual machine was faster, cheaper and had less breakdown downtime than the automatic bean-to-cup.
Now the bean-to-cup has suddenly fought back with a remarkable argument that, in a catering situation, the very best bean-to-cups can actually match the standard of a human barista, and can do so more consistently than a human.
"The bar for coffee quality has been so universally raised," says Paul Hopkins, managing director at Melitta, "that a fully automatic machine is now the only way for many catering operators to provide acceptable speciality coffee in work and leisure situations."
His company's major bean-to-cup launch this year has been the Melitta C35, which already has more than 2,000 in the field worldwide, and by the end of next year, Japan alone will have 2,000 in use.
In that country, many are already in use in 24-hour cafés where personal preferences can be accommodated - strength, water volume, temperature are all adjustable. Therefore, says Melitta, it is now possible to establish a truly popular speciality coffee menu with an automatic machine.
Franke has recently come out with what can legitimately be termed a "much awaited" machine, the Pura, in which, says managing director James Nicholson with a touch of irony, the manufacturer has brought in several "revolutionary" features - the ability to remove the bean hoppers or powder containers without the contents spilling, and the ability to reach a large amount of the inner works for servicing or replacement through one front-door opening.
Rather more unusually, Franke has devised an automatic feature for those who like additional flavours in their coffee, perhaps almond or vanilla. The Pura can hold bottles of flavoured syrups and dose them automatically. But, says Nicholson, milk is the very big issue.
"Bean-to-cups could never really compete with a traditional espresso machine because of the milk quality. The quality of the coffee has been as good, sometimes better, than a traditional machine. For the past 18 months, machine manufacturers have concentrated on the formation of milk foam, and also the levels of variation that a machine can produce from differing qualities of milk.
"Franke have spent thousands of hours developing milk systems and with our Foam Master we can certainly declare that the quality and consistency of the milk foam is as good as a very good barista-produced milk, and faster. The desired consistency of the milk foam can be individually programmed for each drink on the coffee machine, and different qualities of milk foam can even be produced for the same product, which enables the creation of perfect layers of milk, milk foam and coffee.
"This means unlimited options and no more difference in comparison with milk frothed by hand. So now the quality of the coffee-based drinks being produced by automatic machines is regarded as just as good, and consistently so," adds Nicholson.
One of the biggest arguments of all is whether service from an automatic espresso machine is really faster than a traditional manual one. A human barista, with a three-group machine, can theoretically pour six espressos at once - with the skill of "working the line", the barista can take a mixed order of drinks from several people in a queue, and decide maybe to make half a dozen cappuccinos at once, with a larger milk jug. The automatic does not make such a judgment - it simply makes a drink when the button is pushed, and in this respect is slower because it works only one drink at a time. The fastest answer, say some, is to use the automatic machine for the espresso, while using its manual milk option.
"Fully automatic machines will not compete on speed," says Louie Salvoni, founder of the Espresso Service network of machine engineers. "A traditional three-group will out perform a single-group fully-automatic every time - there is no contest.
"The question for a catering professional to ask is - why do two of the leaders on the high street, Pret and Starbucks, who both use fully-automatic machines, prefer to use external steam wands as opposed to the internal milk-frothing systems? The answer is that internal milk frothing systems are still prone to breakdown because of the intricacies of the systems and cleaning issues."
They are still queue-busters, says Matt Tuffee, national accounts manager for La Cimbali. "Coffee and speed do not go together, in that 20-25 seconds is still the perfect extraction time for espresso, however, there are ways that an automatic machine saves time. Setting the pre-infusion properly can shave four or five seconds off a shot quite legitimately, and we can grind the coffee for the next drink while brewing the one before. Let the machine handle the espressos while the humans do the milk, and you have lots of four-second savings which add up - this is where you can churn out cappuccinos very fast."
Simon Edwards, general manager at Krogab, says his Concerto bean-to-cup is certainly faster. "Not only considerably faster but more versatile - with a traditional espresso machine you are limited to espresso-based drinks. An automatic machine allows a more varied offering, such as including hot chocolate, and in a smaller footprint, and no milk jugs means a clutter-free coffee station."
The second big argument against automatic machines is that they are prone to breakdowns. Universally, it is said that this is down to milk. In a traditional espresso machine the milk never actually enters the machine, whereas in an automatic it goes through a series of pipes to be heated and frothed.
Chris Palmer, of Xpress Coffee, and a director of the relatively-new Association of Independent Espresso Engineers (AIEE), says wise management can overcome these cleaning problems. "You must always clean pro-actively. Although the general recommendation is for an end-of-night clean, we always recommend a milk clean after breakfast service, so the milk isn't sitting in the pipe going solid. This scenario is similar in a pub, where they open at lunch and then again in the evening - the machine needs at least a milk clean in between, even if it has only made a few cups of milk-related drinks."
Roger Shuttleworth, head of marketing at Crem International, which distributes the Jura range, says that the coffee-making procedure of an automatic machine is technically perfect according to espresso principles. "The problems, if not down to cleaning, are down to misuse. Operators put water in the coffee grinder - I've no idea why.
"Or they use the wrong beans. We say not to use over-oily beans - that's not a good enough reason to turn away from a bean-to-cup, but it does show that you have to appreciate the issues, think about your machine, and encourages the common sense approach of talking to your coffee roaster or supplier about your machine."
The other main argument against the automatic machine is that of much higher initial cost, and higher and more frequent servicing costs. "Beverage operators no longer have to sacrifice the quality of their coffee if they choose bean-to-cup," says Florian Lehmann, managing director at WMF. "The perception of unreliability is a thing of the past. The initial cost of an automatic bean-to-cup machine is, admittedly, not cheap, but compared to a traditional espresso machine it is a very cost-effective solution to providing a wonderful array of quality coffees without the need for a trained barista, and at up to 200 cups an hour. That's a lot of coffee from a little space, no matter who pushes the button."
Remember that the costs of the newest high-tech traditional machines are also rising, says Roy Grey, of Capital Coffee Roasters, which distributes the Rex Royal.
"The gap is closing - the newest traditional machines now cost the same sort of money that top of the range bean-to-cups cost. The answer is for the caterer not to buy, but to free-loan a machine on a by-the-cup basis to include coffee, servicing and parts at as little as 25p per cup - and if bean-to-cup machines really were prone to constant breakdowns, we would certainly not be able to offer that."
The costs per drink are better, says Jonathan Barr, sales and marketing director at Selecta. "These machines replicate a barista providing a varied coffee menu, without the cost of actually hiring one. They also give full control over cost-per-serve, guaranteeing that the same grammage of coffee is used every time - essential portion-control."
And technology in the bean-to-cup continues to advance. So far, all the attention in bean-to-cups has been given to espresso coffee. Now we go further, says Elaine Higginson, managing director of United Coffee, which supplies bean-to-cups to many high-street operations including Greggs and McDonald's. "The Black & White range is unique - unlike any other bean-to-cup machine on the market. The latest addition is the Black & White Brew, which has the added function of grinding, brewing and holding seven litres of freshly brewed coffee, ready to be dispensed instantly."
This is unusual - espresso and filter-style coffee from the same automatic machine.
"With two hoppers and two grinders, the machine produces great espresso, and also either Americano from the same bean, or brewed coffee from the other hopper, with a bean more suited to filter coffee. The idea of holding those seven litres is for busy, high-volume outlets to both speed up service and improve the automatic offer even further."
At Fracino, the only British maker of espresso machines, new technology involves both the drink and management. "With our Cybercino we have enhanced the way hot water is delivered, which has dramatically reduced the time to make an Americano, from 45 to just 20 seconds," says sales director John Cook.
"Previously, it was also difficult to heat milk for lattes through a frother system, which is for cappuccino. The Cybercino now 'superheats' the milk by using a changeover valve, which alters to allow steam to heat the milk instead of allowing air through, which is what creates the bubbles for the cappuccino froth.
"We're also working on revolutionising the operation by remotely monitoring the computer programmes of our customers' machines from our factory. Although this development is a couple of years away from fulfilment, it's a very exciting progression."
Catering managers can indeed learn a lot from their automatic machine, agrees Shuttleworth at Crem. "You will get management reports and diagnostics from a bean-to-cup. It will tell you when to clean it and it will tell the engineer how many times it has not been cleaned. You get a lot of useful information from an automatic machine."
Indeed, says Hopkins at Melitta, with so few operators adhering to cleaning regimes, the concept of a machine which stamps its little foot and refuses to work until its cleaning cycle has been switched on is a great management asset.
how it works
A "bean-to-cup" coffee machine makes coffee automatically according to the principles of espresso brewing, which was for many years considered a manual skill that relied heavily on the operator's ability to "feel" the progress of the espresso shot.
The bean-to-cup replicates the steps of espresso - it takes roasted coffee beans from a hopper, grinds the amount required for the next cup, "tamps" (compresses) the ground beans, "pre-infuses" the initial small amount of water through the ground coffee, followed by the conventional amount of water at the conventional temperature and pressure, and dispenses the resulting brew. It then disposes of the spent grounds.
Bean-to-cup machines will automatically steam and froth milk, and dispense a fully-made latte or cappuccino, although there is usually the option for the operator to do this manually, for purposes of "theatre".
Capital Coffee Roasters
020 8540 5000
0844 692 2222
020 8238 7100
0845 880 2393