If espresso machines could…

The past couple of months researching machines have lead me to think about where espresso machines might go in the future…

In the next few months, the cafe where I work will hopefully be acquiring a fantastic new machine incorporating temperature stability, adjustable temperature settings, and a whole host of features that will lead to vastly improved espresso, allowing our espresso production to benefit from some of the most advanced features available within the industry at present (just don’t mention basket diameters, for God’s sake!).

But, I’ve come across some interesting posts on the subject, and some surprising facts about even the most ‘up to date’ and revered espresso machine features. For instance, the acclaimed PID technology used for the very best machines at present, is actually, in engineering terms, very old and out-dated technology that has been around for about sixty years! There are apparently much more accurate ways of controlling temperature out there, and it makes you wonder how many other elements of the espresso machine could be improved from here on in.

One fairly obvious thought I had was that an accurate and displayed temperature reading of the actual brew temperature in the group would be good (not a calculated temperature predicted by the computer based on variables affecting the temp after travelling from the brew boiler, but the actual one in the puck); a bit like having a scace built into every portafilter, that still allowed you to brew a real shot… There’s the whole issue of how reliable temperature readings actually are in the first place, and how precise they are capable of being with the current technology, but a reasonably accurate, scace-type reading might be interesting (this has probably already been done, and I just haven’t heard of it!).

What about an espresso machine that could ‘taste‘ and determine exactly what brewing defects the shot produced would have, like sourness, etc? (I know machines now often suggest alterations in the grind, etc, by measuring the extraction, but it’s very rudimentary) What about a complete and radical overhaul of the shape, design, ergonomics and switches used on machines – something really outlandish, yet practical? There’s that pressure profiling stuff which is emerging at the moment too …but admittedly, I don’t really understand that yet!

…And what about a system that could grind, dose, tamp and deliver beans automatically to the groups… Oh! Wait! Good Grief! NO – that would be a terrible system! Winking Smiley

Maybe even a whole new type of mechanical brewing – akin to espresso and its particular qualities, but radically different and superior..?!

The truth is I suppose, that the World’s most advanced technology and design could, theoretically create a mind-bogglingly amazing espresso machine, but no-one in their right minds is ever going to spend the sort of sums needed to create it (we need an eccentric, espresso obsessed, billionaire inventor-engineer on the scene!). Similarly, even if it was done, what sane cafe would be prepared to pay the £1,ooo,ooo price tag?!

The reality is that we probably don’t actually need any further improvements for a very long time. There are all sorts of innovative features on the latest machines that will allow baristas to continue to improve what they do for quite some time, and the majority of baristas don’t even have access to these machines yet. Moreover, there are a lot of baristas out there using adequate, good, or even great machines who don’t get the best from them, and who are not passionate or particularly skilled in what they do; so further improvements might be completely unnecessary, at least at the moment. Equally, the general public are not (…yet?) especially aware of the differences created by good machines and baristas, and that also perhaps needs to develop further before machines need to.

And realistically, would further improvements actually have any tangible and discernible effect on the taste of espresso for most people, even specialists? (I, for one, still struggle to determine the subtle characteristics of coffees, even when brewed on great equipment!) Afterall; the very best chefs don’t require ovens that can deliver adjustments of +/- .1C in an accurate and provable way to create the most amazing food (different, I know, but still!).

…So it’s probably more about changing the attitudes of the public, the barista, the industry, and cafe owners, with what we’ve already got, before machines have to go any further.

And, if machine development advances much further there’s also the risk that they’ll develop in the ‘wrong’ way, and that there will be no requirement for the skills of the humble barista anymore! Whilst I very much want to produce the best espresso that I am able to, and machine improvements are crucial for this, I also still want to have a job to do at the end of the day!

Personally speaking, our new machine will have more than enough gadgetry and stability to keep me improving, and to keep me guessing, for a very long while, I’m sure, and maybe they really don’t need to get any better. But it’s still interesting to consider whether there are still innovations within espresso machines that might be useful and worthwhile, in terms of enabling baristas, and the speciality coffee world, to make ever increasingly amazing coffee for people…

Many people are talking about a whole move away from espresso towards filter, and in some ways this is completely understandable and no bad thing. But I for one love espresso, and think it would be a shame if this exciting, magical, and beautiful beverage was ditched, just as it was nearing some kind of Nirvana …Perhaps we are already there, and the word, the skills, the machinery, and the passion for it just needs to be more widespread in order for perceptions to gradually change.

There are folks out there far more able and qualified to address these questions than I though – so I think I’ll leave it to them. For me, after the last couple of months investigating machines, I’m just looking forward to getting back to concentrating on the craft of making coffee, and with the help of new, quality machinery, trying to up my game a bit and learn more about the intricacies of espresso preparation. But nonetheless, I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on the topic..!

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5 Responses to “If espresso machines could…”

  1. Hugo Says:

    Great point about chefs ovens….

    I bet you’ve been making better coffee than at least 99% of coffee shops in Wales on a machine that would horrify most coffee geeks. I’ve yelled it before… it’s not about the machine. It helps, but it’s merely a tool for you, the barista. You know the process, you understand the issues, you want to make good coffee. A great machine merely helps you do that. It doesn’t do it for you.

  2. blackmountainscoffee Says:

    I agree with Hugo. You can have the best machine in the world and the best coffee, but if you have a numpty working the machine, none of it matters one bit. The machine is an aid that helps bring out the passion and the best in both the barista and the coffee. I think that most people would run for the hills if they had to work on your machine. Magician comes to mind. The alternative is to buy yourself a bean to cup and not care. Not much of an alternative is it? If barista skills were truly appreciated and therefore paid better, then thats probably where the biggest improvement would come from on the high street. Make it a career option for more people and the improvement should follow. Great article by the way.

  3. thebeanvagrant Says:

    It’s true; it’s all about those four M’s! If one or more isn’t up to scratch, the coffee will never be amazing, even if one or more is absolutely stunning.

    Which reminds me – I’ve still got to sort out that Macinazione bit
    …finding a Delta timer might be a good start..!

    Many thanks for the comments, guys – very kind.

  4. thebeanvagrant Says:

    Ps:

    I’ll have to look into this business of ‘wages’… I thought, like me, everyone just did it for the love of it!

    Seriously though, it’s true that the wages create a real catch 22 that stops the craft from developing. Taking espresso to the highest levels requires a lot of skill (I’ve been ‘training’, as best I can, for 6 years, and still have tons to learn), but no one’s prepared to pay for it. The unattractive prospects mean that only the most dedicated (or stupid!) persist with it.

  5. Alex Says:

    Personally I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the humble espresso machine. I have no doubt that it will evolve, giving more and more in terms of control and also the ability to monitor whats going on. We’re getting more and more baristas demanding more control resulting in things such as pressure profiling and temperature profiling… Despite this, the demand appears to be to create all this amazing technology in as ‘manual’ a machine as possible – A preference of paddles over buttons for instance.

    I envision a machine that will give us control over pressure and temperature throughout extraction, with live monitoring and graphing of what is going on in the group – A usb connection with a laptop won’t be enough, this machine will have a screen. Data will be logged, fuzzy logic will work hard to keep things stable at the busiest times in ways that minimise any hit on quality – “This dude takes an average of 6.7 seconds to load a group, I can syphon some pre-heated water from group 3’s boiler to top-up group 2 in 4 seconds – BAM!”

    But despite this, baristas will demand that the ‘romance’ still be there – so we’ll be manipulating all these variables with a knob or a polished wooden lever. Almost perverse, isn’t it?

    Every advancement will make the best espresso better, the best baristas better, but the margin for error will also become bigger…

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