Can You Automate Craft Coffee?
A new industry is trying to replace the barista pour-over with technology. Will it work?
First they came for our grocery store cashiers, then they came for our bank tellers and replaced our favorite librarians. In the cultural shift towards automated living, an automated pour-over machine is the the newest gadget to elbow its way into an industry known for hands-on service. Could handmade, pour-over coffee, the darling of the craft coffee world, be on its way out?
Although low-end automatic pour-over machines, like the Bodum Bistro Automatic, have long been around for consumers who hope to replicate their favorite cup of coffee without leaving the comfort of their homes, you may have noticed more recently that commercial grade, automatic brewers are finding their place at the bars of your favorite coffee shops.
The Seraphim, a high-end single-cup brewer, just arrived at new cafe near where I live. I stopped by and watched as it delivered spritzes of hot water over grounds placed in a single cup filter. I must admit, I was initially put off by the device with it’s bright white, sterile appearance but I couldn’t argue with the appeal of a machine that delivers water, heated perfectly and timed precisely, creating a consistently high quality cup of coffee, every single time.
“It’s becoming a very popular selection for coffee shops,” Krista Reddington, Marketing Director at Wilbur Curtis, the company that manufactures the Seraphim, told me. “It maintains the quality of the cup and allows the barista to engage with the customer instead of being distracted by the manual process.”
I asked Kate Blackman, who has over 16 years of experience working in speciality coffee and last worked as Director of Coffee Quality Assurance at Parisi Coffee in Kansas City, about her thoughts on the new trend of automated pour-over machines being used in cafes.
“I think it can compete. I really do,” said Blackman. “You have a repeatable consistency with the automatic pour-over, which is really appealing because the automatic pour-over doesn’t get distracted by something else going on in the cafe or lose track of time. So, on a really high volume bar where you are still doing single brews, it could still have a place.”
An automated pour-over machine may quickly become a sought-after choice in the craft coffee world, but Blackman doesn’t believe it will be replacing the manual pour-over anytime soon.Hand-brewed coffee rose to popularity from a desire to manually control every aspect of the coffee making progress and individualize it to the specific needs of the chosen bean.
“The appeal of having a human make your coffee is that coffee is kind of a living, breathing thing,” explained Blackman. “Having a human connected to what they are doing, looking for flaws, it’s just different.”
For instance, a machine may offer the most consistent water temperature, but a well-trained barista would notice grounds that aren’t being saturated and direct the water to those grounds. Blackman also shared that, on the consumer side, a manually brewed cup of coffee might evoke a completely different emotional response. One could argue that this method of brewing coffee is here to stay because consistency, for many, isn’t all that goes into their perfect cup of coffee.
“When you go into a restaurant, you could have technically proficient food that may taste good, but if you were served by a robot, that could make a difference in how warm and accommodating your meal feels,” she explained. “You’re going to have a different emotional connection with your coffee watching a futuristic head that comes out of the counter and spritzes water on your coffee versus talking to the barista who is brewing your coffee and maybe telling you a bit about what they taste in the coffee, who grows it or where it is from.”
There’s also the issue of labor. A device like the Seraphim may offer way more consistency but it doesn’t necessarily save time or cut back on the manpower needed to brew a cup. The machine itself is only responsible for delivering water to the grounds, timed and heated precisely. A knowledgeable barista is still necessary to program the device as well as weigh and grind the coffee.
“I think it takes some of the fun out of it for the barista,” Blackman suggested. “It is still this very labor intensive process, but there is a kind of a disconnect. The people in the cafe may no longer feel they are a part of the process and may become disengaged from pushing for better coffee, leaving it to the machine.”
And how does your favorite neighborhood barista feel about it? “It’s dumb,” one barista told me without hesitation while his co worker argued that it would make his job way easier. Another mentioned she had tried a cup of robot coffee and thought it was pretty good but then added that she didn’t plan on brewing her coffee that way. The technology might change, but the old methods of brewing probably aren’t going anywhere.