Choosing the right coffee machine for your catering operation can be a tricky matter. Ian Boughton looks at the arguments in the traditional versus automatic debate
The right coffee machine in any catering situation is not the newest, or the most colourful, or the most fashionable. It's the one which works best for what any individual caterer wants to do. In the modern coffee business, this generally means a choice between traditional espresso machines, for which the operators require some skill, and automatic bean-to-cup machines, for which, generally, they don't.
The situation is actually more complex than that. To decide on the correct type of machine, the operator has to go right back to the most basic rules of brewing coffee. Don't be blinded by technology: start from the basics and work up, says Drewry Pearson, managing director of Marco Beverage Systems.
"The pour-and-serve coffee brewer is the most commonly used method in the Western world, and arguably it also brews the best coffee," he says. "Alternative methods don't give the exceptional clarity of taste and flavour derived from a properly brewed fresh filtered coffee. So the solution may be closer than most operators think - it's in the development of more good quality, well-priced filter brewers."
And that's exactly what's happened. The most attention-grabbing new product launch is the Clover, available through Espresso Warehouse, which allows caterers to achieve a barista-standard filter coffee. Filter is the method which gives the very best true taste for speciality coffee - but it's also the method most caterers get wrong.
The Clover allows control over the vital variables of filter coffee - water temperature, coffee grind, coffee-to-water ratio and brew time, and it brews at remarkable speed. The theory is that an operator devises a menu of half-a-dozen speciality coffees. The Clover is preprogrammed to know the best grammage, brew time, and temperature for each of those coffees, and so whichever the customer asks for, the machine will produce the correctly brewed result.
Elsewhere, for those who want speciality espresso-based coffee, the choice is essentially between fully automatic bean-to-cup machines or traditional espresso machines. However, the additional options now available are surprising.
Agostino Luggeri of Mulmar imports both La Marzocco traditional espresso machines and Acorto fully automatics. He says there are good reasons for serious caterers to choose a "super-automatic" machine.
"When it's used front of house, many options become available - your customers can make their own beverages, which helps reduce queuing at a breakfast buffet'" Luggeri says. "It removes the need for a second employee - usually, you have one barista to make beverages and one to serve pastries and take the money.
"The brew group pressure, timing and water quantity are fully adjustable so that espresso can be made to a standard taste profile. The Acorto machines actually monitor this profile and will self-correct if it changes."
It's now generally accepted that a top-line, fully automatic coffee machine can produce a result very close to a manually operated espresso machine. So it's more important to assess the needs of your business than argue one system over another for the sake of it, says Chris Preece, national account controller at Café Bar.
"Practicalities fall into place," he says. "Is the outlet busy at certain times, what are the daily volumes, what's staff turnover, and what's the target audience?" He offers three options - Gaggia traditional models, Schaerer bean-to-cup, and the third is a soluble option, the Café Bar XL.
That soluble market is big. Some railway station cafés offer the option of a "cappuccino" from soluble coffee, or a real one from roast-and-ground coffee. The reason is a choice at price points, with the instant perhaps 40p cheaper than the real thing - and there's appreciable commuter business for that option.
Meanwhile, at business and industry sites, the Nescafé Coffee Company has identified a preference among facilities managers for bean-to-cup machines. "Their immediate need is to serve customers with quality coffee quickly and preferably without staff intervention," says Martin Lines, marketing director at parent company Nestlé FoodServices. "Bean-to-cup machines achieve just this - dispensing the expected range of café-style drinks with all the characteristics of a roast-and-ground cup and the convenience of an automatic system."
Quotes on the operating cost differences between bean-to-cup and traditional will differ, but Andrew Tucker, managing director of Coffee West and San Remo UK, has produced an evaluation. He based it on a real client who demanded fully automatic machines where Tucker had hoped to install traditional machines. After a year's troublesome service he persuaded the operator to change by showing him some astonishing statistics.
"A bean-to-cup machine is easier to sell, and although I admire what they do, unreliability is inherent," says Tucker. "Although almost anyone can make a cappuccino from a bean-to-cup, this machine will require more ongoing training to keep running."
At the site he analysed, two bean-to-cup machines went into operation, and were replaced after a year by two traditional machines. The cost of the traditional machines was just under a third of the price of the two automatics. The traditional machines used 22% more coffee, but the bean-to-cup machines required twice as many training sessions, and although the traditional machines needed four call-outs in a year, the bean-to-cups needed 93 service calls.
At Café du Monde, managing director David Latchem has a company which has distributed Gaggia traditional espresso machines for 12 years and took on a range of bean-to-cup machines only six years ago.
"Traditional espresso machines are associated by the public with the culture of espresso," he says. "With a traditional machine, customers can see their drink being freshly made before their eyes, but the bean-to-cup doesn't always equate with 'fresh' in the customer's mind. Flexibility on a traditional machine is far superior to bean-to-cup, not least in the 'queue-busting' strategy of preparing four or six drinks simultaneously. Automatic machines score better on uniformity, cost-control of ingredients, and audit facilities. And when self-service is required, traditional machines are non-starters."
According to Keith Baldwin, managing director of Bravilor, the major problem with automatic machines is maintenance. "There's a lack of specialist technical support for fully automatic machines which has led to poor servicing and a lack of good quality bean-to-cup coffee'" he says. "Our SCS range will be offered with a Brita Water warranty, and supported by a team of specialist engineers dedicated to ensuring that key components such as the programmer and coffee grinder are set up and maintained to a consistent standard."
At Melitta System Service, the view is that maintenance is key. The company reports that the John Lewis catering projects team set up a competitive study trial between five makers of fully automatic machines, and as well as reliability and consistency of coffee quality, also deliberately looked at the costs of cleaning.
The trial team's concerns were that cleaning can conceal some hefty costs, for instance machines which require dismantling for effective cleaning or warranties which specify a particular, and costly, cleanser. Melitta, whose Cafina C5 machine was selected, advocates an automatic cleaning programme in which no internal part need be touched by human hand and will soon be extending this to a new bar machine, the All Bar None.
First Choice Coffee is another known expert in both traditional and automatic machines. It supplies certain world-famous chains with fully automatics and is now offering the Victoria Arduino Venus. It follows one of the classic upright designs in espresso machines, yet the distributor says operators can choose the machine that best suits their staff's abilities. There's a conventional semiautomatic version, but for those who serve high volumes yet want to keep a classic look, there's a volumetric version of the Venus that produces coffee at the touch of a button in a similar way to modern bean-to-cup machines.
Drury Tea & Coffee Company, distributor of Rancilio, will soon be offering a striking new option. The old idea of offering a metal casing in "brushed gold" or "champagne" has gone, and the new concept involves a finish in "animal-friendly leather". The metallic finishes are still available, but with them now comes a choice of fabrics - it is, says Drury's managing director Marco Olmi, now similar to the way you might choose a new car and pick your upholstery.
Fracino, the UK's only designer and maker of espresso machines, has brought in some surprising options in traditional machines. The new Catwalk Collection is deliberately designed to make customers stop and look twice at the coffee machine. Chassis designs feature diamante jewels and even snakeskin-look machines.
Meanwhile, commercial director Angela Maxwell says the right machine for the job can take the caterer into unexpected areas. Fracino has now adapted several of its machines into mobile or dual-fuel options to cater for the increasing trend towards external catering, or "espresso on the move". A dual-fuel may work equally on electricity or LPG, allowing for an espresso machine to be used not just outside but also in mobile operation. Possibly the smallest mobile Fracino operation involves machines built inside Smart cars.