COFFEE EQUIPMENT DEBATE: Man v machine, is the barista dead?

Ben Townsend, trainer, London School of Coffee; Sebastian Vibe-Petersen, export sales, Scanomat; Dale Harris, wholesale director, Has Bean; Tim Sturk, head of coffee training and development, BaxterStorey; Rob Ward, group coffee specialist, Gruppo Cimbali

With Costa now operating 6,000 express vending machines across the UK and growing, and rising levels of automation bringing new-found capabilities to coffee delivery, the ‘man versus machine’ debate has never been greater. At the 2017 Caffe Culture Show, industry experts huddled to answer the question of whether the barista is dead. Emma Calder was there to bring you an edited extract of the conversation.

On the panel:

• Ben Townsend, Trainer, London School of Coffee
• Sebastian Vibe-Petersen, Export Sales, Scanomat
• Dale Harris, Wholesale Director, Has Bean
• Tim Sturk, Head of Coffee Training and Development, BaxterStorey
• Rob Ward, Group Coffee Specialist, Gruppo Cimbali

Where do you see the man vs machine debate at the moment?

Rob Ward: In the realms of speciality, it’s all about consistency, controllability and repeatability. And actually that’s what machines are very good at, keeping those elements in terms of control. When it comes to a busy working environment, I think that’s where mixing elements of technology with what the barista does is important.

Tim Sturk: Consistency is very important and, ultimately, what’s most important in our business is the end cup. It has to be delicious. If it’s not delicious, who’s to blame? So, somebody has to take ownership of that cup. In our business we want that to be a human person so there can be rectification of any issues.

Rob Ward: I think there’s lots we can do in both worlds. It’s really looking at the skill set and where the customers are. We shouldn’t be afraid of either world, making something more manual or understanding who our clients are, who the people making the coffee are, and actually where do we need to set that benchmark? Just be open to ideas, be open to that technology.

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But can machines offer a better brew?

Dale Harris: I would suggest that machines will always be better than people at making coffee if the coffee going in is consistent and if the coffee going in is uniform. But coffee is rarely consistent. Or uniform. I think as the technology gets better, it will get better at dealing with those inconsistencies. But that’s one skill that a barista has, and that’s about the most important skill. You can take away the coffee making, but that person being in front of the customers and doing other things is where the value really lies, that’s what people really want to buy.

Sebastian Vibe-Petersen: Putting fresh coffee in and keeping a big focus on the adjustability and the way the machine is set up, I believe that combination makes the difference.

“I would suggest that machines will always be better than people at making coffee if the coffee going in is consistent”

Dale Harris: I have experience working with baristas who have the cheapest second-hand machines you can buy, but if they have the passion and the energy and they’re willing to waste extra ingredients and throw shots away when they’re not at the right level they’ll make better coffee then the most advanced machines you can buy.

Ben Townsend: The barista is not dead and will not be for a very long time because of the parts that only a human can manage. The big risk of machines is that you lose the essential human transaction and that’s very much where I came from then and come from now and would not want to lose.

Can a machine improve on the coffee but keep the face-to-face value of buying coffee?

Rob Ward: I think it depends where we gage the technology. If you’ve got a traditional machine where the grinder self-adjusts, the steam wand auto foams the milk but the barista pours it, actually from the consumers’ point of view, they feel they’re still getting the same environment. Generally where, for us, that bean to cup machine market sits is in self-serve environments or maybe a little bit of assisted serve.

Tim Sturk: Consumers aren’t walking into coffee shops, as I understand it, based on the machines that are in there. They’re not choosing coffee shop A because it has a Synesso or coffee shop B because it has another brand, they don’t know the difference. I think, hopefully, what they’re after is quality in the cup.

Rob Ward: And again, I think if I walked into a regular cafe and saw a fully automatic bean to cup machine I would be like, ‘yeah this is not what I want’, and if you were the cafe owner, you’d be crazy to buy it.

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Vending and gourmet vending machines are currently outpacing the growth of speciality gourmet vendors, so from that perspective is the barista dead?

Dale Harris: Gourmet vending is a good thing, it is spreading the idea of a better cup of coffee. Technology will improve traditional barista-style coffee but the more automated and modified the coffee experience can be, the more it will be about the cheapest, fastest and easiest way you can source that.

Tim Sturk: We train up to 500 baristas a year because we think it’s important and while we have everything in our business in terms of vending, we also have baristas. In some locations that’s appropriate, in others the barista is appropriate. So it’s varied on what your needs are.

How does technology compare to man when it comes to batch brewing and by-the-cup?

Dale Harris: If we look at brewed coffee, just black coffee, we have the same technology issue in that you have batch brewers at a hotel that are serving 120 to 150 litres of coffee a day and the quality control can be huge, there is no doubt that batch brewers are better at consistently brewing coffee than humans. You can serve better coffee with a batch brew but people seem to prefer and want to embrace hand-brewed coffee.

“Most of the technological innovation has made it easier to make a slightly better cup of coffee but it hasn’t changed the game”

Sebastian Vibe-Petersen: The gap has narrowed a lot, and the way that we built our machines was to replicate, as well as we possibly could, a really crafty barista. We do even more than that sometimes where we have a system that heats the water fresh for every cup. It’s not pre-heated water, it’s flash heated water, which we find enhances the quality even further. There are technological advances that we have made in the bean to cup equipment range that makes it better than traditional machines. If you get the elements right some of this technology can definitely enhance the quality.

Dale Harris: Certainly in the past there has been a lot of innovation in traditional equipment and bean to cup equipment, but most of the technological innovation has made it easier to make a slightly better cup of coffee but it hasn’t changed the game

Coffee around the world

• The first coffee house opened in England in 1651, six years after Italy opened its first.
• There are approximately 6,100 different coffee shop chains, independent coffee shops and cafés in the UK.
• There were almost 19,000 cafés in the UK in 2016, up from 7,000 in 2010.
• Around 115,000 people are employed in serving coffee to the British public.
• British people drink 2.1 billion cups of coffee away from
their homes.
• Overall, we still drink more tea than coffee, at 60.2 billion cups a year.
• Cappuccinos are the most popular, with 486 million sold in 2015.
• The combined annual revenue from coffee sales in coffee shops is expected to reach £5.8 billion in 2017.

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