Making the case for super-automatic espresso machines (again)

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HB
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#1: Post by HB »

I played the Devil's Advocate in Making the case against Super Automatics, citing convenience as their undeniable lure. Later I returned to the same topic in Like kissing your sister. Today I was reminded again of the wisdom of super-automatics in pseudo-coffeehouses like McCafe.

The whole family trundled up the street to partake in Happy Meals. Although we live less than three miles away from McDonald's / McCafe, I've never stopped in until this afternoon. It's located at Preston Corner and looks more impressive from the outside than your average Mickey Dee's. Indeed the interior was impressive with textured rust-bronze wallpaper, high-back plush benches encircling private booths, faux copper-tin ceiling, wood accent inlays and Italian tile. Were it not for the familiar red and yellow backlit menu, you would think it was an upscale fast food restaurant.

While the kids clamored for their Happy Meals (a pricey way of purchasing a cheap toy), I snuck over to the McCafe that adjoins the lobby. The motif was the same and the pastries looked inviting. The seating area even had two leather seats around a faux-marble table, next to a rack of newspapers. I was really impressed by the decor, it was better than any cafe within a 10 mile radius of our house. Nobody was present except myself and the person behind the counter (PBTC). A three group La Cimbali spanned more than four feet of the countertop. The PBTC enthusiastically greeted me and pointed out the menu items ("Just about the same as anything you can order at Starbucks," he offered helpfully).

Always the curious equipment guy, I asked him about operating the Cimbali. He explained that you put the coffee in the holder and press a button, as easy as can be. "What about flushing the group?" I asked. He didn't understand the question. "This is a heat exchanger machine, isn't it?" I queried. "What's that?" he replied. Soon the kids would be squabbling over fries, toys, and sugary burgers, so I reduced my response to a mini-lesson: "Press the button and watch the water come out." (he does and the group emits a hissing cloud of steam and water). "That water is too hot to make espresso. Let it run for a few seconds after it stops spitting, then pull the shot immediately." He thanked me for the suggestion, commenting that nobody mentioned that during his training session.

I doubt burnt, bitter, scorching-hot espresso is the sole reason behind the lackluster popularity of the McCafe concept in our region. Well, it could have something to do with it. Sorry guys, by my count the score is super-automatics: 3, semi-automatics: 0.
Dan Kehn

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cannonfodder
Team HB

#2: Post by cannonfodder »

A super-auto compensates for many espresso sins.
Dave Stephens

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Teme

#3: Post by Teme »

One of the things that I have never really understood is why business owners invest in the likes of LM Linea and then have no interest whatsoever in ensuring that the staff at least have some sort of an idea on how to use the equipment. To me it just looks like a waste of money and/or a wasted opportunity. A shame anyway one looks at it and I think that in the scenario described by Dan, a properly dialed in commercial superauto would easily have beaten the "barista's" product (not his/her fault, though). Consumer superautos are a different story, though - at least currently (imo).

Br,
Teme

Tsiros

#4: Post by Tsiros »

I have in my kitchen a krups machine, something nuovo. From what i have understood it is utterly worthless when it comes to good espresso. I use illy preground. Tap water. I could go on, but i can understand you do not like what you read.

However, i have become pretty consistent with my double "ristretto" (not a proper ristretto and crema is 1mm thick) and i have great joy when i make it. Less joy when i drink it, but still it gives me pleasure. If someone gave me a full-auto that would pour an great espresso, i do not think i would enjoy it, not at all.

I am not very sure how what i just said fits here, but it seems like a good thought.

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another_jim
Team HB

#5: Post by another_jim »

Michael and a few others claim commercial superautos can be set up to produce good espresso, but that lots of expert maintenance is needed to keep them in trim. I'm beginning to wonder about this:

Those of us who attended the session Michael gave at the SCAA were also given a rather shocking lecture on the design mediocrities of current commercial superautos -- overheating grinders, long grounds, water and brew paths, and brewing chambers which are ultraprone to channeling are just some of the fab features. Home superautos get the added thrill of an undersized thermoblock for heat.

Given these design horrors, "setting it up" for good espresso is the same as "setting up" rabbit's ear antennas for good TV reception -- if a butterfly on another continent flaps its wings wrong, the espresso is dreck again. The "well set up" aspect of these machines probably doesn't survive the tech putting the case back on it after he's done tuning it.

Moreover "hand made" espresso is a moving target: I've recently been on the road a lot, and have done some superauto research. After spending a few minutes reviving the pbtc and pointing out that the little cups aren't for extra sugar, I've obtained quite a few superauto espressos. These are better than most US espressos were 10 years ago, that is, they are colored black, have a smattering of crema, weigh in at around 2 to 3 ounces, and taste somewhat sweet. However, I think there's a cafe or two in just about every larger town that emphasizes good shot pulling as their competitive edge; and these have nothing to fear from the current generation of superautos.

Here's my prophecy for the day: Conventional machines are losing market share, but are getting better -- they are being aimed at the emerging "specialty espresso" market. Superautos could be as good, but they are aimed at the "Folger's espresso market," of which Starbucks is the prime exponent, and they are engaged in a race to the bottom. They'll get cheaper, more modular and minimum wage tech friendly, with easier to push and prettier pictured buttons; but they won't get better.
Jim Schulman

Tsiros

#6: Post by Tsiros »

One has to look at other manual activities of the past years and see if they have been automated or not.

I think that activities that people, for whatever reason, enjoy, will stay manual. People who enjoy using their mind and hands will continue to use manual gearbox, grind their beans, prepare their meals, etc, while those who were pampered excessively by their parents will tend to use automatic machines for "comfort". "sitting on your ass" does not mean "comfort", in my book, but people tend to use wrong words. That is my main gripe when making conversation :( Anyway! back on topic!
...
Need a coffe, bbl...
42

Tsiros

#7: Post by Tsiros »

Teme wrote:One of the things that I have never really understood is why business owners invest in the likes of LM Linea and then have no interest whatsoever in ensuring that the staff at least have some sort of an idea on how to use the equipment.
X opens cafe. X goes to shop, asks for a coffee maker that is around $Y, buys coffee maker. X usually hasn't got the slightest idea what he just bought. X puts ad for barista, Z comes and operates coffee maker. I've seen rancilios, etc, in cafes in my town yet those who operate them...

me: Could you please adjust the grinder a bit finer to make me a proper ristretto?
him: Who said you have to do that for a ristretto?
42

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cannonfodder
Team HB

#8: Post by cannonfodder »

Interesting observation. It is shocking how many startups spend tens of thousands on equipment and neglect to get the slightest training on how to use or maintain their equipment.

After a very, very bad experience (first post in my blog) I started looking at the machine prior to even trying a new location. I have seen a few that appeared to be sprayed down with roofing tar (months of coffee sludge all over the machine). I just smile and walk on.
Dave Stephens

Tsiros

#9: Post by Tsiros »

Dear God! what are you doing to that dead bird? Have you no shame?!

*reads entry*

...hm...

Er, the bird thing is ok, what they did at starfuI MEAN BUCKS is way more disgusting. Honestly, i was going to prepare me some burgers with pickle and calabrese tomatoes, but now i will just have some descaling fluid...
42

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cannonfodder
Team HB

#10: Post by cannonfodder » replying to Tsiros »

LOL..
The descale may have some adverse affects on the old digestive system.

I don't suppose you have wild turkeys in Greece, never been there but I would love to visit one day.

The burger sounds good, I had a big old venison burger with nice thick slice of tomato this evening.
Dave Stephens