These days, coffee is hot in more ways than one. It’s estimated that Americans drink more than 300 million cups of coffee a day. But buying a quality coffee bean is not all you need to serve great coffee. You must also have the right machinery. Equipment plays an important part in determining the end product quality.
Many commercial coffee and espresso machines are available on the market today. Coffee makers range from the small pour over models to huge machines capable of serving large banquet rooms. Espresso machines vary widely from the most basic models requiring individual skill to sleek sophisticated (expensive) models capable of pouring a perfectly portioned espresso with a single touch of a button. Here is some of what is available.
Brewed coffee makers range in size from single- gallon decanters to 80-gallon and larger banquet urns. An alternative for smaller operations and moveable buffets is insulated shuttles that transport well and dispense product easily through a faucet.
As operators try to differentiate themselves with unique coffee services, we’ve seen a rapid increase in popularity of airpots, completely sealed and insulated thermos-like units that (according to one manufacturer) can hold temperature and quality up to eight hours. Airpots are attractive and easy for customers to operate and are excellent for serving a variety of coffees. Even when offering such variety, they produce little waste because batches are small, usually two or three liters.
Since airpots are independent of the brewer, unlike urns, many varieties of coffee can be offered.
For high volume coffee use, such as at banquets, there is the coffee urn machine, which has used basically the same mechanics for coffee brewing for decades. These units start to get practical when you need to serve 100-150 customers at once. The typical size is a twin three-gallon urn, though there are also six- and ten-gallon units, as well as some smaller ones. However, an urn doesn’t allow small operations to deal effectively with multiple offerings.
Never underestimate the importance of clean equipment. Equipment should be thoroughly cleaned at the end of each day, including taking apart faucets, scrubbing decanters and urns and cleaning gage glasses. Don’t use soap or abrasives except on decanters, and remember to rinse thoroughly.
One exception to the daily clean up routine is a recently introduced coffee system that uses single portion sealed pouches that are individually brewed. The machine opens the pack and pumps in hot water that brews through the pack’s filter. A fully brewed portion is then dispensed into a waiting cup.
With these units, you can serve a variety of coffees without having to worry about keeping fresh product on hand or keeping an array of pots warm. The same machine can also produce some brewed teas and hot chocolate.
Espresso makers vary in size, capabilities, and ease of operation. A match to your expected volume is easy to make once you decide on the degree of sophistication needed for your operation.
Traditional espresso makers are classified by the degree of automation: manual, semi-automatic, and automatic. Manual machines rely on a hand pump to produce the high-pressure super-heated water needed to create these distinctive coffee drinks. Semi-automatic machines also have pumps but lack volume controls to adjust the strength of the brew while automatic machines have both pumps and a volumetric control to ensure consistency.
Automatic machines still rely on the operator to measure the proper amount of ground coffee and to tamp the mixture into the brewing chamber. Experienced baristas can make excellent coffee; but unless you have someone with the training, it is difficult to ensure consistent quality.
Making good espresso with a less automated machine is close to an art form. Skill is needed but once the unit is mastered, good coffee can be produced every time. If this is lacking, you’re better off with an automatic machine
Espresso machine size is defined by the number of "groups," or brewing heads, it has. A single-group machine makes one or two cups at a time and, as a rule of thumb, can produce up to 80 cups of espresso an hour (production rates decline if cappuccinos and other specialty coffees are also being made).
A good barista can use a two-group machine while three- and four-group units are designed for two-person operations. Most espresso machines also have one or two wands for steaming milk for cappuccinos.
Espresso machines, especially the less automated ones, tend to be temperamental, so expect a fair amount of maintenance and service. Choose reliable local service support so you don’t end up waiting days or even weeks for parts.
It’s said that freshly ground beans are mandatory for a good espresso and the grind must be extremely fine–much finer than regular coffee–so a quality coffee grinder is a necessary accessory. Leave space next to your machine for the grinder since you will be grinding often, but very small amounts.
Some suppliers also have a pre-ground espresso. Others provide pre-portioned "pods" of ground beans wrapped in filter paper that provide consistency and reduce mess because they are discarded after use.
Super-automatic machines are relatively new to the market and are often very expensive. They do, however, produce a quality, consistent espresso with minimum waste and little chance for operator error. Super-automatics have a built in bean storage hopper and grinder.
With the press of a button, the exact weight of beans is dispensed, ground, tamped into the brewing chamber and brewed with the precise amount of water at the proper temperature.
The brewing chamber is even automatically cleaned and the used grounds stored or flushed down the drain. Some manufacturers now also make a machine that has a refrigerated milk compartment and automatically steams and mixes milk for cappuccinos. These machines are ideal from a food safety aspect and are operationally sensible where there will be many operators and training is difficult. There are also machines that are so simple to operate that they are specifically for the self-service market and are perfect for snack bars or cafeterias.
Producing a good cup of coffee or espresso is practically expected these days. The three critical factors for this are buying a good coffee bean, having the proper grind and buying the right equipment. Educating yourself about the machines available takes care of that last factor, allowing you to concentrate on the other two.