The Automated Barista: Is this Really Future of Coffee?

Recently, a friend sent me an article about a new automated coffee machine and the threat it poses to Starbucks baristas (and other baristas around the world). A company called Briggo, based in Austin, Texas, has come out with a machine it claims makes better, more consistent coffee than even the best barista champions. The article implied that by removing the inconsistencies and hassles that come with human baristas, machines like the Briggo may replace the barista position someday.

Reading through the article, my reactions were mixed. The first one was, “That’s crazy, you’ll never replace baristas with a machine,” but then I sat down and tried to more calmly think through what evolving technology might mean for the coffee industry.

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The Art of Espresso Machines – the Van Der Westen Spirit

There´s the art of espresso, and then there's the art of the espresso machine. I stopped in at Heart last week and saw this sitting on the bar:

The machine, called the Spirit, was manufactured by Kees Van Der Westen, a Dutch industrial designer who spent several years building espresso machines in his spare time before working at La Marzocco, where he helped develop the Mistral. The barista said the look was patterned after the cockpit of a World War II bomber. It catches your eye in the same way walking by a chromed out Harley-Davidson, and it complements Heart’s minimal, early industrial space well.

This is what it looks like from the barista’s perspective (photo from manufacturer's website - click to see more): 

Packed with technology, the machine also pulls consistently good shots.

Very cool. 

Creating a better way to go: FoamAroma

When you think of coffee technology, you might think of the sleek, shiny espresso machines sitting on the bar, the mysterious glass orbs of the vacuum pot, or the lengthy, spiral curves of a Japanese ice-brewer. These are the complex technologies on display in a specialty coffee shop—the “stars of the show,” if you will.

One technology you might overlook, because it is much less flashy, is the cup. Despite its relative simplicity, the cup you drink from has a large impact on your coffee experience.

The best way to enjoy hot coffee is to drink it from a ceramic mug. Mugs feel solid in the hand and smooth on the lips. A mug’s open top allows the full aroma of the coffee to reach your nose. As long as they have been washed properly, ceramic mugs do not impart any flavors into the coffee.

Drinking from a paper cup is a much different experience. Paper feels cheap and can add a dull off-flavor to your coffee. When you put a plastic lid on top of the paper cup, you trap most of the aroma inside the cup, further reducing the taste experience. If you drink a cappuccino from a to-go cup, you distort the balance between the textured milk and the coffee (the foam gets trapped under the lid when you tip the cup). On top of its taste deficiencies, using paper cups creates a large stream of waste destined for the landfill.  

Nevertheless, many people drink their coffee from a paper cup. From my own observations, I would estimate that at least 50% of the coffee sold in cafés is ordered to go. For some cafés, the percentage is higher. At the Starbucks I worked at in Boston, the rate was closer to 95% (it was a commuter store). Whatever the exact number, a lot of people order their coffee to go, and a high percentage of them do not get the coffee experience they deserve.

Enter a new lid

Entrepreneur Craig Bailey wants to change this. Bailey, a former engineer in the paper industry, has developed a new version of the to-go cup lid he calls FoamAroma. The new lid allows coffee drinkers to taste more of a cappuccino’s foam and smell more of the coffee aroma. Bailey’s idea came to him one day when he stopped in at Lava Java, former USBC champ Phuong Tran’s café in Ridgefield, WA.

Craig Bailey, inventor/entrepreneur

“Before October 2007, I was drinking coffee for the caffeine,” said Bailey, a former engineer in the pulp and paper industry. “I had this project up in Longview and I happened to stop in at Lava Java. I don’t know why, but I changed to a traditional five and a half ounce cappuccino. I have no idea why. I just had to try it, and it changed my life. It actually blew me away.”

His eyes opened to how good coffee could be, Bailey went back for more.

“I got the same drink to go in the car the next day,” he said, “but it wasn’t the same experience.”

Trapped under the plastic lid of a to-go cup, the cappuccino failed to impress him.  Disappointed, Bailey began to look for ways to fix the problem.

“I took the Solo lid and started poking holes and cutting slots and tearing tabs,” he said. “I got some hard clay in the house—I was going to form molds and fix the problem. FoamAroma is the product of that epiphany.”

Bailey wanted to produce a drinking experience that would mirror that which a mug offered.

“The velvety, textured foam is such a big part of the experience, as is the aroma,” he said.

For two years, Bailey’s interest in creating a better lid was just a hobby, but things changed in the spring of 2009, when a large earthquake struck Chile and damaged that country’s main port. Chile is a large pulp exporter, and as a result of the port shutdown, the world price for pulp shot up. The mill where Bailey was working at the time could not afford to purchase pulp, so it cancelled the project he was working on. Bailey took the cancellation as a sign it was time to turn his hobby into a business. That summer, he found a plastic manufacturer in Florida and a patent attorney, and he has been working on FoamAroma full time since then.

The new lid has a round hole in the center and a large, triangle-shaped hole for drinking from. The triangle mouth hole sits on a surface that is inclined toward the center of the cup. This directs any splashes back toward the center of the cup, unlike a traditional Solo lid, where coffee splashes straight up when the cup is bumped.

The larger holes in the FoamAroma lid also allow coffee drinkers to slurp the coffee, so customers can drink their coffee right away instead of waiting for it to cool.  

“It turns out that if you can slurp air through as you sip, it cools the fluid off and you don’t burn your mouth,” said Bailey.

FoamAroma is currently available in black or white for standard 12-24oz. cup sizes. A version for an 8-oz. cup has been designed and prototyped, and should be in production soon.

These days, Bailey spends much of his time visiting cafés and other places where coffee drinkers and café owners gather, spreading the message that a better to-go coffee experience is possible.

“I’ve learned that most baristas don’t drink from paper cups, so they don’t know how bad [the old lids are] until you get them to do a side-by-side comparison,” he said.

Besides coffee, Baily is also targeting the tea industry. FoamAroma’s first major order was for a container load to England, where tea is the most popular hot beverage. At the London Tea Festival, one tea shop owner called the FoamAroma the ‘holy grail’ because it allows tea drinkers to smell the teas’ aromas. 

Whether or not FoamAroma becomes the new standard for the hot beverage industry, Bailey says there is no turning back now.

“I cashed it all in,” he said. “I’m in this 100%. I’m not going back to spending days with chemical engineers behind a computer. I like talking to coffee people. It’s a lot more fun.”

Ristretto Nicolai

If you are someone who really likes coffee, the opening of a new specialty café in town is big news. On a quiet Sunday morning, Jinsu Lee (who shares a passion for good coffee and café experiences) and I went on a mission to find the new Ristretto Roasters café. Having not spent much time in that part of Northwest PDX, we were unsure about where to go, especially when we arrived at a large brick building with “Schoolhouse Electric Company” painted on the side. The multi-story brick structure looked like an old factory. It was surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings, with no houses or condos in sight. A freight train grumbled heavily by as we pulled up to park.

At first, we saw no indications of the café. After a bit of hesitation and wandering around in the street, though, we noticed the RR sign on the sidewalk. We were at the right spot after all.

Walking in, my first impression of the café was Wow – beautiful! Who would have thought a great café would exist here?

According to Ryan Cross, distribution manager for Ristretto (who happened to be working as a barista that day), the Schoolhouse Electric building was indeed an old factory, but it had served as an office building for several years, stuffed full of low ceilings and claustrophobic cubicles. No longer. The developer completely gutted the building for the renovation, throwing out the cubicles, getting rid of the false ceilings, and pulling plaster off the walls to expose the brick underneath. The space now has the feel of a cathedral, a cathedral of coffee.

The large windows that used to provide light for factory workers’ days now gives the café a light, open feel. The bright, airy feel of the café is juxtaposed against the imposing power of the massive wood pillars and beams that give strength to the space.

Accelerated Development, the same company that designed Coava’s Grand Avenue café space, also designed the new Ristretto Roasters café. You can see some similarities in the modern-retro-industrial chic design. It is an example of industrial elegance.

A shiny new La Marzocco Strada espresso machine sits on the  gracefully curved coffee bar, gleaming under the warm lights hanging overhead. Behind the bar, a legion of six(!!!) grinders stood ready to grind. Three were dedicated to coffees for pourovers, three were for espressos – one blend, one single-origin, and one decaf. A plethora of choices for most coffee drinkers, but a coffee wonderland for a pursuer of great coffee.

I tried two different coffees. The first was a pourover of a natural-processed coffee from El Salvador. The deep, fruity aroma preceded the sweet, medium-bodied coffee. The second coffee was an espresso of an East Timorese coffee. It was rather savory.

In addition to drinking coffee, we also got a lesson on some of the finer points of barista know-how. Cross gave us a close-up view of how the Strada works. The Strada is a high-tech machine with accurate temperature and pressure controls. The variable control paddles on the Strada are very sensitive, allowing the barista to precisely control the pressure, speed and intensity of the extraction. Cross showed us how he was pulling the espresso shots using a bottomless portafilter (no pour spouts). By taking off the spouts, he made it easier to spot any “channeling” through the filter.

Channeling is the phenomenon where water passes through the puck in small “channels” instead of filtering evenly through the coffee. One way to envision channeling is to think of the ground espresso as if it were the soil in a garden. When you water a garden, you want the water to sink evenly into the soil. Otherwise, the water will run together and form a trench (channel) in one part of the garden. The excess water washes the soil away and you lose both water and nutrients when this happens.  

Baristas want the water to evenly pass through all of the ground espresso in order to produce an extraction that pulls out the best flavors inside the coffee. When coffee channels, too much water passes through the grounds too quickly, causing overextraction in that part of the puck. Pulling a shot with a bottomless filter gives the barista a quick visual check on the evenness of the grind and the tamp. He or she can see if the coffee is coming out from one part of the bottom of the filter or if it is coming out evenly.

The new café shares a space with the Schoolhouse Lighting Company, a home décor store that takes used industrial equipment and gives it a new twist, fashioning it into usable home décor. Ristretto’s décor blends seamlessly into the space.

The café seemed isolated from any residential neighborhoods, farther away from houses than cafés usually are. Cross explained that when the building’s developer held an event to celebrate the renovation, Ristretto ran a pourover bar to serve coffee for the event. The developer was impressed, and he encouraged Ristretto’s owners to set up a café there, setting the wheels in motion. Northwest Portland residents should be glad they did.

Is that a card catalog over there under the bench?

Ristretto on Nicolai would make a great stop for coffee if you are in the Northwest area. The space is beautiful and the coffee, some of Portland’s finest. Not everyone who goes in will want to learn about the intricacies of the espresso extraction process, but everyone who visits the newest Ristretto will be able to sit and enjoy great coffee in a beautiful space. 

Address: 2181 NW Nicolai, Portland, OR  97210 (map)
Phone: 503-227-2866
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm
            Saturday 8am-6pm
            Sunday 8am-4pm
Coffee: Ristretto
Wi-Fi? Yes, I believe so.
Recommendations? Ask what’s on grind…

A PDX Coffee Adventure-Part 3

After our talk with Matt, Sam and I decided to walk up to Coava Coffee, just a few blocks away. I had been planning to stop by and talk to them about their new Kone filter that was just released for sale. Coava has been very effective at creating a buzz (pun intended) in the social media sphere. They are very active on Twitter, and the Kone was recently reviewed favorably by The New York Times and Gizmodo. I was hoping to talk to them about their marketing strategies and to try some Kone-poured coffee.

The rain was falling steadily and a hostile cold wind was blowing as we walked to Coava. We were relieved to get inside the café and out of the weather. I was glad to be back in one of the first PDX coffee shops I stumbled across in my exploration of the area’s coffee scene.

We walked up to the counter and started talking with Matt, one of the co-owners, about the Kone filters. Keith, the other owner, was busy boxing up Kones for shipment while Matt was taking care of the bar. They’ve been very busy lately with getting their products ready to ship.

Kones in waiting

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