Coffee Automation: The Death of a Craft?

Coffee Automation: The Death of a Craft?

Automatic tampers and automatic milk frothers have begun popping up in the specialty coffee world. For some, it’s a shock horror, for others, not so much.

In this blog post I wanted to share some of my own thoughts around automation in the speciality coffee industry. This doesn’t mean my thoughts are any more right or wrong than anyone else's, they’re just that, my thoughts.
I’ve been in the coffee industry since 2012, starting off in a multinational coffee shop, and working my way into specialty coffee. I’ve experienced full automation, and mostly fully manual set ups over the years. In a nutshell, I actually think automation is great, let me explain why.

The Art of Being A Barista

I’ve had my back up before when automatic tampers have been suggested, the same with automatic milk frothers. A bit of pride always creeps in, I’ve spent nearly 10 years perfecting a craft here, and suddenly a machine can do it better than I can?
Well the truthful answer is, probably.
I’ve had the pleasure of always having access to top of the range equipment, so I can’t speak for the budget options in these fields, but the industry leaders are that for a reason.

Automatic Tamping

Tamping is one of the most poorly taught areas of the coffee world in my opinion. I’ve encountered people with sore wrists, repetitive strain injury, people pulling out a set of bathroom scales and pressing so they hit a certain level of force. Honestly it’s all a bit mad, and that’s because traditionally we have done a terrible job at teaching people how to correctly tamp coffee.

When you tamp coffee all you are doing is compressing a puck of dry coffee to create extra resistance. That resistance is needed because your coffee machine is pumping out a set bar pressure of water regardless, and if there isn’t enough resistance the water will come cascading through giving you a watery, under extracted coffee.
But it isn’t a strong man competition, the coffee puck doesn’t actually require that much force. However, the temptation is to try and push the portafilter through the counter. The problem with this is after a day of making coffees, your wrist is in pieces.
Also your tamp is different from my tamp, which is different from your local baristas tamp, which is different from that other coffee shop baristas tamp. Pressures vary and their ability to create a level tamp varies, which means you encounter a lot of variance across baristas. This means every coffee is going to taste a little different, all other factors remaining the same.
It's important to note that in a commercial setting, you will find that you have to adjust grind sizes between baristas (grind particle size also help to create resistance, which varies based on your barista’s tamp - sorry I wish this was less complex!). Commercially this means more (necessary) waste for your business.

Automatic Milk Frothers

The humble steam wand on espresso machines has done a fantastic job of creating velvety smooth milk over the years. But as automatic milk frothers pop their head up, they could soon be a thing of the past.

Again, another poorly taught area in the coffee world. We’ve all been there, expecting a beautiful silky smooth latte, flat white, cappuccino, cortado and what we have ended up with is something that is clunky, bubbly, and just not a pleasure to drink. 

Milk steaming takes a lot of practice and care, and can also go wrong very easily. You need to have a barista who knows their stuff to get perfectly steamed milk.

However, new commercial milk frothers are starting to do a fantastic job at producing some of the best milk I’ve ever experienced! 

Are we killing a craft?

I’ve heard this argument a lot, my retort has been we are already automating so much in the coffee world that has meant less work for the barista to create great tasting drinks for the customer.

Barista’s and coffee geeks, I’m going to use some language that you may be familiar with. If you have no coffee experience, the language I’m using here may be a little confusing. Scroll to the bottom of this article, I’ll explain a little better down there.

Flowmeters - who uses the manual button anymore, am I right? Pull the scales out, zero the cup, portafilter in - oh you forgot to flush the group head, scales out, flush the group head, wipe the drip tray, scales back on, cup back on, hit the button, watch the timer, watch the scales, steam the milk - “where’s this order going?” “Oh I think it’s over the…” - the weight has gone over the recipe. Start again. The steamed milk sits, the foam and liquid separates, and now you have to re-steam a pitcher of milk. 

Flowmeters are an automated version of this. Has it removed some craft? Arguably. Has it made coffee more consistent, taste better, and reduced waste? Most definitely.

Pressure Pumps - If you’ve ever had the joy of using a lever espresso machine, you will know that it involves a lot of work to ensure consistency. You control a lot of the pressure profile, the rate the water flows etc all via a spring piston that is operated using a lever (I won’t pretend to know loads about lever machines - I really don’t). A lot can go wrong if you don’t have the proper training, focus, and attention to detail. However, espresso machines now have an internal pump that does this all for you. You set the bar pressure, and the machine will pump for you. 

Has it removed some craft? Arguably. Has it made coffee more consistent, taste better, and reduced waste? Most definitely.

Timers on grinders - this is the most recent automated edition that has become the norm over the years. You set a run time (or even more recently, a weight) and your coffee grinders run to that target time. It will stop automatically without you having to do anything. This time should correspond to a weight (for example 8 seconds of grinding = 18 grams of coffee) - it isn’t the most accurate system in the world, however it’s a lot better than the manual setting. A grinder that is set on manual will grind indefinitely until you stop it. Using your eyes to guess the grind weight before you check it on your scales is extremely inaccurate - over the years you will start to hone the ‘craft’ of this, but the automation is much more accurate.

Has it removed some craft? Arguably. Has it made coffee more consistent, taste better, and reduced waste? Most definitely.

Craft vs Quality vs Consistency 

We are working in a bit of a triangle here. Yes automation to an extent is removing some of the craft in coffee making, but I would argue there is a craft to correctly setting up, maintaining and quality checking these automated elements of coffee making. You can’t just walk up to these automated parts of the coffee brewing process with zero knowledge and get great tasting coffee. It is the knowledge of the craft that allows these automated systems to work well.

Quality, if correctly set up, has greatly improved with these automated editions to the coffee world. Every time you are removing the human error aspect of the coffee making process, getting us closer and closer to the perfect cup.

Consistency is key. Have you ever been to a coffee shop and thought “oh I won’t get a coffee because that barista is working.” That’s a whole other blog post, but it shouldn’t be the case. With automation, consistency across baristas becomes easier, meaning the customer gets great coffee every time.


So what is the barista good for now?

A lot actually. They provide human connection, a conversation, a smile, a mind filled with coffee knowledge. These are quintessential parts of the coffee experience. That’s why we choose to go to cafes instead of the petrol station forecourt coffee machine.

They also have to set up, maintain, and quality check all these automated functions, and troubleshoot when it goes wrong. They have to taste the coffee to actually make sure it tastes good - because with all the automation in the world, if someone hasn’t created a tasty espresso recipe, you wont get a tasty coffee.

Yes of course they still move the portafilter about, hit the buttons, pour the latte art, but in all honesty this could easily be automated as well. But those other elements are also a craft, and we definitely aren’t killing that.

Explaining some terminology 

Hopefully this will help understanding some of the terms I spoke about earlier.

Flowmeters - these are an internal piece of an espresso machine which allows you to pre-programme the amount of water being used to make a shot of coffee. It ensures the same amount of water passes through each time automatically with great accuracy.

Pressure pumps and level machines - modern espresso machines pump water through the machine at a set bar pressure, lever machines use a series of levers and pistons to create this same bar pressure, however it is much more complex to use.

Timers on grinders - when your barista is preparing your coffee, they have to grind the beans. They will use a certain amount of coffee to ensure the coffee tastes the intended way. They’ll do this by checking the amount of coffee on a set of scales. On most espresso grinders there is a built in timer which allows the coffee to grind beans for that length of time. The barista will calibrate the length of time to the end weight of ground coffee. It does vary slightly, the system isn’t perfect. However, grinder manufacturers have now started building scales into the espresso grinders to ensure even better accuracy.