Auto-Brewers: The Future of Coffee…Again?


Jan 01, 2012

My first coffee shop job was at Kidd Coffee, a small franchise in the middle of nowhere Ohio. We were forty-five minutes away from the nearest city and thirty minutes away from any other coffee shop. We offered four coffees year-round: mild coffee, bold coffee, decaf, and “Highlander Grogg,” a vanilla and hazelnut flavored coffee. We brewed them in big batches on our row of Bunn auto-brewers and let them sit for four hours, or until a customer complained that their coffee was cold, whichever came last. I had no idea where coffee came from or what it even was. Once, a customer asked me if we had any Colombian coffee. I stared back at him blankly and asked, “What is that, a flavor?”

This scene plays in my head whenever I see an auto-brewer, which has become the symbol of bad coffee since the emergence of the third wave coffee movement. Experiences like mine were the general standard for brewed coffee until forward-thinking professionals led us all into the golden era of by-the-cup brewing, an era that may be on the verge of another reformation – back to auto-brewers.

By-the-cup brew methods became celebrated as a sort of liberation from automation. The baristas were suddenly encouraged to take ownership over the quality of each cup by focusing on six key elements: grind, brew ratio, temperature, flow rate, extraction, and freshness. Even when given a specific recipe to follow, the barista has direct control over the resulting cup of coffee; that is, as much control as a barista can exhibit each cup, ever day, in extremely variable conditions.

Looking back at Kidd Coffee, I know the problem wasn’t the Bunns; it was me and the whole training program. Had we known about the six elements that make or break coffee, we could have properly utilized the tools at hand. Bulk brewers like the iconic Bunns and Fetcos are essentially large pour overs. Water is introduced to the coffee bed at a predetermined flow rate in a way that saturates the coffee bed until all the desired components of the coffee are extracted. When the proper parameters are programmed into the machine, the result can be identical to that of a hand-poured coffee with the same parameters! The real scarlet letter on the auto-brewers’ proverbial chest, and the reason so many of us think of our former second-wave coffee brewing tool poorly, is that we let the coffee sit. This is the distinct difference between batch and by-the-cup brewing. Hand-poured coffee is typically served and meant to be enjoyed promptly. If it isn’t served right away it will get cold and may not possess the characteristics it was intended to. Bulk brewers provide a certain amount of heat retention, which communicates that it is okay to let the coffee sit indefinitely, despite taste tests which suggest the contrary. Freshness is the one blemish on this otherwise respectable brew method. What, then, would happen if we auto-brewed by-the-cup?

As the industry has progressed in our knowledge of quality hand-brewing, so have the automated brewing equipment companies modified their products to sport these essential improvements, with the added benefit of robotic consistency. In 2007, Clover made a splash with its vacuum pot/french press hybrid. The Clover advertises temperature-stability and pre-programmable temperatures and brew times. In 2011, Clover began testing their one and only prototype Precision Pour Over, a fully automated pour over system, yet to be released. This latest Clover invention doesn’t have a programming function, but it does have a consistent pouring pattern and preset brew ratio per cup size. The Luminaire Bravo-1 (LB-1, also yet to be released) maintains a certain level of barista control, as the pour pattern is totally manual. The dazzling specs the LB-1 features include instant temperature change, extreme temperature stability, and variable flow rates. The Uber Boiler also totes these features, as well as a built-in scale, digital timer, and drain. On the other end of the spectrum, albeit with its fair share of criticism, the Bunn Trifecta is fully automated. It is similar in theory to the AeroPress, in that it fills a cylindrical chamber with grounds and water, then presses the coffee through a filter – but the particularly interesting aspect of the Trifecta is the unique feature of automatic agitation via air injection. Each of these inventions are a step in the improved-upon direction of our past of automated brewers. They are also an admission of human error.

Baristas are incapable of brewing perfectly consistent cups of coffee. And why should we pretend we can? There are two over-arching goals in coffee: brew coffee to its greatest potential, and give customers an enjoyable and (when appropriate) educational experience. Brewing by the cup through a hand-poured brew method creates a truly beautiful experience for both the customer and barista. When a focused and dedicated barista crafts a well-brewed cup of coffee, both major goals are accomplished. However, the results are not always – if even often – as tasteful as the show. As flawed and inconsistent humans, we are not always able to both honor the intricate flavors of the coffee and honor our customer. As intelligent and progressing humans, we can program the evolved batch brewer to detailed spec, ensuring the coffee reaches its utmost quality, and it will be the same every single time. The drama of hand-brewing may be lost, but in its place is consistently excellent coffee and the time necessary to focus on the customer.

Four months ago I had one of the best coffees of my life, and it was brewed on a Fetco. The coffee was Counter Culture’s Idido Natural Sundried Yirgacheffe, and it tasted like fresh picked summer blueberries. I didn’t think auto-brewers could produce anything other than swill, but it turns out that Fetco is a better coffee brewer than I am. I do believe people can make better coffee than machines, but I also think machines can make great coffee more often. Auto-brewers probably aren’t about to become the predominant brew method like they were before, but I do think they may have a place in high end cafes, just like every other brew method. And if they do, will that be so bad?

Thoughts on the topic? Let us know



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