Coffee

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The State of the Art: What's New in Coffee Equipment

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MINIM at Saint Frank [Photograph: John Ermacoff]

2014 is almost upon us, and the evolution of the coffee craft marches on. In my opinion, there's a lot of stuff out there right now that falls in the "new hotness" category that history will remember as passing fads. Others are incremental improvements to the collective arsenal of coffee tools. Let's take a look at some of the newest trends and innovations in coffee equipment, and I'll share a few of my personal opinions on them.

Coffee Equipment Fixtures

Ten years ago, the focus of espresso equipment was on delivering brew water with a consistent temperature—no more than a degree hotter or colder than the setting. That was followed by a lot of interest in actively controlling brew water pressure (espresso is typically brewed at 9 bars, or 130 psi), which hasn't really yielded the improvements we had hoped for. Temperature pressure profiling (adjusting the brewing temperature up or down during the brew) is much easier said than done, and is one of the holy grails for us coffee nerds for sure, so don't expect temperature profiling machines any time soon.

So the equipment makers have turned their focus to aesthetic design, with one trend being rendering the equipment nearly invisible.

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Left, Marco Undercounter. Right, Modbar.

The Marco Überboiler, a controlled pourover-style brew water dispenser, was one of the first of the new crop of in-counter coffee equipment. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of using an Überboiler directly on the coffee, which defeats much of its purpose. It simply lacks the freedom of movement and pour rate that is important for pourover brewing. It did, however, spur development of the Marco Undercounter water boiler, which relocates the big water tank to (go figure) under the counter. A spigot or "font" is all that sticks up above the countertop.

The same has been happening with espresso machines. Earlier this year at the 2013 SCAA Expo, a new company called Modbar revealed its line of modular espresso, steamwand, and pourover systems. Just last month, the first of a new line of espresso machines called MINIM was revealed at San Francisco's Saint Frank Coffee. Both are installed in the cabinet, with only the necessary bits reaching up through the countertop.

The idea is that eliminating the countertop appliance allows for a more physically open engagement between barista and guest. Opening up that countertop space has reinvigorated some excitement in an otherwise stagnant conversation around espresso equipment.

I think that opening that space up is great, but there's more than one cost to that luxury. The equipment is much more expensive, about twice the cost of a typical high-end machine. This gear is designed to be built into the counters, which means rearranging things will involve much more than scooting it around. Finally, designing equipment in this way requires a radically different set of parts, some with completely proprietary elements that will have to survive daily use.

Getting rid of the big countertop rig does change the typical feel of a coffeebar, and if baristas can exploit the openness by really engaging customers in a meaningful way, that's a big thumbs up for sure.

Precision Coffee Grinders

You've heard that a burr grinder is necessary for making quality coffee, and you've heard right. But not all burr grinders are created equal, and different grinders are better suited for particular tasks.

The main thing to understand about coffee grinders is that they will vary in how uniform the size of the coffee particles are. Sure, to your eye, they're all the same teeny-tiny eentsy-weensy, but in truth, there's always a range of sizes. Generally speaking, the more precise the grind sizes, the better we consider the grinder.

The most precise coffee grinders of all are what's called roller-mill grinders. Those cost from around $10,000 to as much $100K (or more), and are designed for big commercial roasting companies to grind their supermarket roasts. For a specialty coffee shop, the most precise option that's also somewhat practical is the Mahlkönig EK43.

Retailing for almost $3,000, the EK43 is the current object of desire for coffee geeks. The large size of the burrs (98mm diameter), the design of the cutting surfaces of the burrs, and the fact that the burrs are vertically-oriented all contribute to about as consistent as grind sizes get before you get if you're not springing for one of those roller-mill grinders.

Thing is, that consistency is great in some circumstances, not as great in others. Coffee is a constant lesson in compromise and trade-offs. A more precise grind particle size will yield a more even extraction overall, that's true. But sometimes when you have fewer of the smallest, finest particles, you may realize that you were counting on those finer bits to help slow down the flow of water through your coffee bed, and you might not be able to get the full extraction you were looking for. Overall though, the EK43 is justifiably drool-worthy.

I dropped the G's and got one myself.

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Left, Mahlkönig EK43. Right, Baratza Virtuoso.

But if you can't or won't drop $3K on a coffee grinder, the good news is that the next-best options are much more affordable. At $250, the Baratza Virtuoso is probably the best overall coffee-equipment value that exists out there. You're talking about a grinder with a more precise grind particle size than pretty much anything at any price until you get to the EK43.

The Forté, also from Baratza, is still a bargain at $950, and has a comparable grind quality but is designed for retail coffeebar workloads. The Virtuoso might still seem like a lot of money to spend on a coffee grinder, but if you're gonna use it every day and you're in to buying high-quality specialty-grade whole coffee beans, it's a bargain at twice the price.

New automated brewing machines

When the Clover brewer debuted in the fall of 2005, the industry hadn't yet declared filter-brewed coffee (a.k.a., not espresso) the best representation of specialty coffee ideals. The Clover definitely caught everyone off guard, quickly turning us on to the idea of single-cup brewing as a better, more sophisticated experience than brewing and dispensing from big multi-gallon urns. Chemex became super-cool again, and after Starbucks acquired the company that made the Clover, the indie-coffee crowd embraced manual methods like pourover instead.

That doesn't mean automated single-cup went away forever.

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Left, Bunn Trifecta. Right, Curtis Gold Cup.

Bunn-O-Matic, a 56 year-old company, revived the category in 2009 with the Trifecta brewer. You put the coffee grounds in a tubular chamber and lock it. The chamber fills with brew water, and it bubbles air through it to agitate it during the brew cycle.

A couple of years ago, the Wilbur Curtis company released the Gold Cup Brewer. Basically, the Gold Cup is a double auto-drip brewer, shrunk down to a single-cup format. Not only can it brew through the provided cone funnels (that use Melitta-type cone filters), but you can fit many other pourover setups under the shower head.

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Left, Alpha Dominche Steampunk. Right, Blossom One.

Alpha Dominche, a new company from Utah, debuted the Steampunk Brewing System last year. Basically, it's an improved Bunn Trifecta, with a two-chamber design, more filter options, and a sophisticated control panel.

The most recent entrant comes from a startup in San Francisco, Blossom. The "Blossom One" has much in common with the popular Aeropress manual brewing method, in a more automated machine.

I'll be honest with you: I'm not really a fan of any of these machines. The Curtis Gold Cup has a lot going for it, but it has a few key features that, if improved, could result in a great brewer. Its main problem, though, may be that it's not an attractive piece of machinery. Who thought fake carbon fiber belonged on a coffee brewer? My cousin's 1995 Honda Civic called and it wants its dash trim back.

As for the other three, the Trifecta, the Steampunk, and the Blossom, their lineage, whether the designers realize it or not, comes straight through that Clover, as it pertains to the coffee brewing dynamic. The main problem with the Clover is that it seems to believe that coffee brewing is as simple as coffee grounds + hot water + time + a little agitation = great coffee. If you change one variable, say want to brew in less time, just grind finer and/or increase the agitation and you're good to go. Right?

If only it were so simple.

How can you bake bread faster? Grill a steak faster? Just turn up the heat, right? Or, just turn up the convection on the oven. Or, just cut the steak or loaf in half! That will cut your cooking time by 50% right? Well...

Yes, there are people who are happy with what these automated single-cup machines are producing. I'm here to tell you, it can taste better. It's a microwave oven when what you want is a Dutch oven.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong and these innovative brewers will join the pantheon of essential coffee tools. I doubt it though. The successful coffee brewing innovations that I've observed all represent solutions to problems that were limiting coffee flavor quality. These machines seem to create more problems, while solving very little.

On the other hand, precision grinders and in-counter coffee equipment do solve problems in ways that can be easily perceived—assuming they'll work as promised.

I haven't heard about anything yet that's going to threaten to change the game in 2014. A new version of this, a new design of that, but maybe we don't need anything new. Then again, the big complaint you'll hear from us pro baristas is about the poor selection of grinders on the market. EK43s and Baratzas aside, grinders are still clumsy, messy, and each has a deal-breaker problem or two. Talk about a problem that needs a solution!

As always, I'm eager to read your comments.

About the author:Nicholas Cho is the co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, and produces and hosts the Portafilter.net Podcast for Coffee Professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @nickcho

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