Last week I went to HOST Milan and the Eversys f***ed my head up. Here’s why.
The future is here. The Earth is round again and machines can make better coffee more consistently than a human can. The debate is no longer whether machines can do it better, it’s how we make the most value of this for the specialty industry.
Will reducing the need for human involvement in a barista focused industry promote engagement with the consumer? Will it confuse them? Are we just trapped in a theoretical conversation? There are strong arguments all around, but let’s not be scared of the horizon. Let’s take a closer look.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the objective ‘better’ debate so will just say this:
Whether you're working on a Sanremo Cafe Racer or the La Marzocco Leva, automated processes of said machine are brewing your coffee. The mechanics of brewing espresso happen within the confined walls of a basket, add water, pressure and heaps of ‘system noise’. A barista’s job is to eliminate as much of this noise as possible with consistent, considered techniques and their acute understanding of the machinery.
All of this is what technology can now, and will increasingly be able to consistently do better.
Brewing espresso does not occur in the hands of a barista.
If we accept this we can move on to the bigger question of how automation (and super automation) will change our industry.
The age of the Autonomous barista
The independent specialty industry is losing - not gaining - ground against the chains. Superior taste isn’t immediately evident, if you don’t already know about coffee, but wait times are. Competition and the pressure to be efficient is more intense than ever before and the consumer’s perspective needs to be a HUGE focus.
The obvious umbrella benefit for adopting a greater degree of automation is that it will mean more people, with less experience, can serve better coffee to more consumers. It also potentially provides opportunities for more differentiated cafe experiences, innovations and diversification. Less time making coffee means more time to ‘serve’ it.
We’re not competitive against the chains. The coffee is better, yes, but the wait times, the stress in having to navigate a menu while a busy barista is immersed in their craft is not. You need only look at the McDonald’s advertisement earlier this year to validate this. Adopting super automation means the service of specialty coffee would immediately be equally efficient and the chains could finally be truly challenged.
“It will mean more people, with less experience, can serve better coffee to more consumers"
Whether you embrace it or not automation will probably initiate a new era of hospitality for the barista profession. Service-added value will be made possible by baristas not having to ‘make’ coffee, thus circumventing the need for consumers to understand the differentiation of the product. Where automation doesn't exist, the service factor and professionalism could support higher beverage prices and ultimately barista wages.
If the variability of coffee preparation is nullified it follows that the customer’s experience of their product is dependant on factors further up the supply chain, such as the quality of green or roasted coffee they’re drinking. Less obscurity resulting from preparation variables means greater transparency into things such as sourcing and the diversity between clean well-roasted specialty coffees which can be more easily offered. We could foresee a future where customer preferences are origin-orientated, finally streamlining a supply chain that’s efficient from the farm upwards.
Imagine a world where knowledge and skill aren’t obstacles to serving specialty grade coffee. Automation could solve issues of human resource scarcity in unskilled markets. In skilled markets too it could promote further learning where baristas can look beyond the movement of their hands into the variables and theory of coffee extraction more closely.
What if consumers don’t care about taste as much as we think? What if their beverage being prepared by hand is their cue that it’s ‘good’ and is the very reason they’re in your cafe in the first place? If the machine could make the drink 30% better, this would be a different story - but that’s not the case (yet).
“Perhaps the inherent value in a cup of coffee is either unattainable or uninteresting to most consumers. If so, we’re putting ourselves at risk of falling victim to the Betty Crocker Effect ”
Can automation solve issues of skilled human resource scarcity? Probably, yes. Does automation encourage baristas to look further into extraction principles rather than techniques, if they want to learn? This is probably also a yes. But could this not also disengage the next generation of baristas from entering specialty, that is baristas who discover coffee through their attraction to the process of making it or dialling in every morning? Unless coffees are rotated regularly, eliminating the variables in coffee-making might actually be making it monotonous.
“The most efficient innovations and the smoothest transitions into the age of automation will be those which balance the values of the consumer with the needs of the barista."
Since when has the consumer really had an objective and informed view about taste? Perhaps the inherent value in a cup of coffee is either unattainable or uninteresting to most consumers. If so, we’re putting ourselves at risk of falling victim to the Betty Crocker Effect where quality perception is damaged because of ‘invisible’ processes. If a bartender didn’t shake and strain, would the punter still appreciate it?
If the value of the coffee itself isn’t obvious to a consumer, then we could develop a situation where appreciation is limited to what the customer sees, and since this isn’t much you can expect them to want to pay less for it too.
The challenge for us all is finding the balance between involvement, process and mechanisation. The most efficient innovations and the smoothest transitions into the age of automation will be those which balance the values of the consumer with the needs of the barista.
All in all, the potential Pros paint a positive picture of the future but there are two sides to a coin. I’m not saying I’m not troubled at some level about it. I can’t imagine walking into my roastery and not seeing the Linea PB or the Cafe Racer and feeling the sense of pride for the work we all put in to craft beautiful coffee - but I’m certainly not prepared to resist the change either.
The Earth is round and it’s also really big. Different things will always suit different places. Don’t be surprised though, if, on the not too distant horizon, the thing that suits a lot of places is a super automated machine that looks fully manual. It makes a lot of sense.