Brewing for the Masses
By: Mike Sherer
The rush is
on and your customers want a cup of coffee. Not just any
coffee, but your best specialty blend, and if they can get
it in a “grande” to-go cup, all the better.
you need a lot of good coffee right this minute, and you may
even need a way to let customers serve themselves so you
don’t tie up staff. What you need is a 1.5-gal. satellite
We may not
be drinking as much coffee as we used to, but we’re drinking
better coffee, and often in larger quantities. While per
capita consumption fell to a low of 21.8 gallons in
1998—from an astonishing high of 39 gallons in ’62—it’s been
on the increase since the late ’90s, largely due to the
interest generated by coffee chains like Starbucks.
Americans now throw back about 22.1 gallons annually.
“cups” being the norm these days in terms of serving size,
and more of you are finding self-service a good labor-saving
option, there’s a real need for brewers that can produce
high volume in a short period of time. Decanter brewers
generate lower volume than you might need, and urns make a
lot of coffee that can end up sitting for long periods.
are 1.5-gal. satellite brewers. These workhorses provide
high throughput in manageable quantities that likely will be
consumed long before the coffee passes its prime. Before we
get into how these brewers accomplish this feat you need to
know why it’s important.
The Fine Art Of Brewing
you learn in this business is that customers will forgive
you for just about anything except a bad cup of coffee.
Whether that bad cup is a result of coffee held too long, an
inferior blend, or poor brewing technique, the taste lingers
in memory far longer than it does in the mouth.
on the other hand, can keep customers coming back, and is
the result of combining water and coffee beans in a complex
process called extraction. Extraction actually isn’t so much
complex as it is variable. When you pour water over ground
roasted coffee beans, the water extracts some of the solids
and volatile oils from the coffee. The ideal water
temperature for this process is between about 198º F and
The ratio of
water to coffee and how long the water is in contact with
the coffee grounds are the other variables. Too much water
will result in weak coffee; too little, strong coffee. Too
much contact with water, and your coffee will be bitter; too
little, and it will taste thin and underdeveloped.
How long you
hold coffee before it’s served and at what temperature are
almost as important as how you brew it. Ideal holding
temperature is between 175º F and 185º F. But the volatiles
in coffee begin evaporating almost immediately, which is why
coffee in an open decanter on a burner or warming plate
begins to taste burned after 20 or 30 minutes.
Satellite Brewers Get It Right
thing about 1.5-gal. satellite brewers is that they address
all aspects of the coffee-brewing challenge. They are
sophisticated brewing machines that make the complex and
variable process of producing good coffee as simple as
pushing a button. And they incorporate thoughtfully designed
servers that hold coffee at the proper temperature for
extended periods. Even better, the servers can be placed
wherever you need them.
decision you’ll have to make is between an analog and a
digital brewer. The industry is rapidly shifting over to
digital, programmable machines, but there are still some
analog brewers out there. They operate with solid-state
electronics, but they feature analog on-off rocker switches
and usually a knob that allows you to select between factory
presets to adjust brew time and water volume to a particular
blend of coffee and/or different batch sizes.
machines, many of which have been on the market for several
years, give you a wider range of programming options to take
advantage of more types of specialty coffee. Controls are
housed in sealed, heat- and moisture-resistant touchpad
panels. They also provide more bells and whistles, which
we’ll talk about in a moment.
the big difference between analog and digital machines is
their price. Both will brew an excellent, and virtually
indistinguishable, cup of coffee. Digital machines, for the
extra cost, give you a lot more flexibility to change
brewing specs for different coffee blends and roasts.
brewer on the market these days, and you’ll get a
well-constructed piece of equipment that’ll brew darn good
coffee. What you want from a brewer in this category is fast
production. The next most important factor to look at is
throughput. Production numbers range from 7.9 gals./hr. (190
cups/hr.) for a 1.3-gal. unit to 18.9 gals./hr. (450
cups/hr.) for a twin 1.5-gal. brewer. One manufacturer
claims 600 cups/hr. for its twin brewer.
production capacity will come close to doubling if you
select a twin brewer over a single (you lose a little
capacity heating a bigger tank of water). If you’re
concerned about the machine going down, you may want to get
two single brewers instead of a twin. One manufacturer’s
twin brewer actually has separate tanks and heaters, giving
you redundancy in a single unit.
A couple of
notes when you compare the production capacity of various
machines. First, ask the manufacturer what size “cup” the
specs refer to. (In most cases, it’s about 5 1/3 oz.) Next,
the two big factors in recovery time, and therefore
throughput, are tank size and wattage of the heating unit.
The bigger the tank, the more hot water available for
brewing, but bigger tanks need more wattage to heat that
water as quickly as smaller tanks. Remember, too, that most
brewers also have a hot water spigot for tea or hot
chocolate. Typical tank size for a single brewer is around 3
gals., and tanks for twin brewers range around 7 gals. or 7½
continuously cycle the heater on and off to maintain the
temperature of the water in the tank. Machines with
insulated tanks are likely to be more energy-efficient since
they’ll retain heat better. One manufacturer makes a brewer
with no tank at all. Instead the machine uses a high-powered
element to heat water on demand.
mentioned earlier, good extraction is the secret to good
coffee. You control the quality of the coffee you use; the
brewer controls the extraction process. Since the time hot
water is in contact with the coffee grounds is key, there
are several ways manufacturers control that time.
design is one. Again, each manufacturer’s spray head is a
little different. One distributes water in a star-shaped
pattern, others in a circular shape like a shower head. One
has only seven holes, another has 13. The idea behind all of
them is to thoroughly wet the grounds and continue to
agitate them during brewing.
also affect the process. How deep or shallow the bed of
grounds is will affect how quickly water flows through them.
Since the grounds swell as they absorb water, baskets are
designed to hold at least 50% more than what a full batch
requires. Depending on the size of your batch (full or half,
for example) the grounds should form a bed of from 1” to 2”
in the brew basket.
brewers provide several additional ways to control the
extraction process. The first is pre-infusion. Brewers can
be programmed to wet the grounds with a small amount of
water and allow them to swell before the brew cycle begins.
Next, pulse brewing turns the spray head on and off during
the brewing cycle so the grounds are wetted more evenly.
Finally, a feature called “bypass” allows you to circulate
hot water around the grounds instead of through them. Adding
water to the brewed coffee adjusts the strength without
changing the taste by extracting more solids from the
whether analog or digital, have factory preset temperature
and water level controls designed to give you a great cup of
coffee right out of the box with a push of a button. Digital
brewers offer the added advantage of programming both the
precise temperature and extraction process (using any
combination of pre-infusion, pulse, bypass and brew time)
for a particular blend or grind.
brewers also give you a variety of smart features that make
brewing good coffee a snap. First and foremost is a lock-out
that prevents employees or customers from fiddling with the
controls. That means that once you or your coffee supplier
has set a program for the blend you serve, it can’t be
inadvertently changed. A temperature lock-out also prevents
anyone from starting a brew cycle if the water in the tank
hasn’t reached the proper temperature.
A couple of
other safety features offered by some manufacturers include
a “double-brew” lockout that prevents you from starting a
brew cycle when one is already in progress, and a lockout
that won’t let a cycle start without a server or satellite
machines now have freshness alarms that remind you when to
brew another batch of coffee, even if the last one hasn’t
run out. And digital read-outs provide reminders for
cleaning and maintenance, self-diagnostic messages when
something goes wrong, and brewing statistics that help you
monitor performance and inventory.
these brewers have energy-saving features, too. Several have
an automatic “sleep” mode that turns the water heater to a
lower setting after several hours of disuse. Some will
automatically shut off the heater at night and let you
program an auto-start time in the morning to turn it back
Servers, Satellites, Shuttles
name you call them, the servers for these brewers come in a
variety of forms. As noted, the majority hold 1.5 gals. of
brewed coffee. The two exceptions are a model that holds 1.3
gals. and another manufacturer’s 2-gal. brewer. And once
again, you’ve got choices depending on your application.
either heated or unheated. Unheated thermal containers have
the advantage of requiring no power to keep coffee warm, so
they can be placed anywhere your customers need coffee.
Manufacturers who make systems that use thermal servers make
them in stainless and plastic. They can be foam or vacuum
insulated. Vacuum containers generally provide the best
heat-retention, but all of them keep coffee hot for several
hours. Be sure to look for spill-proof lids that seal
Some of the
newer thermal containers have done away with the traditional
sight glass that lets you know how much coffee remains
inside. Instead, the servers have battery-powered LCD
displays that not only tell you how full they are, but also
how long the coffee has been sitting. An added advantage is
that without the sight glass, graphics can be wrapped around
the container helping you merchandise your coffee or your
stainless containers also come in different configurations.
Most are heated on traditional hot plates you see on typical
brewing machines. Manufacturers sell separate heating units
for the containers so you can put them out on self-serve
counters. Overheating is always a concern, and manufacturers
are coming up with ways to address the problem. One offers a
double-walled stainless container, much like an airpot, so
the coffee stays hot with radiant rather than direct heat.
Another has developed a thermostatic hot plate that turns on
and off as needed.
of heated container uses heating elements in a jacket
surrounding the coffee, keeping it warm without burning it.
One has thermostatic controls to maintain coffee at a
temperature you select between 175º F and 190º F. The server
sits on a “docking station” that provides instant power
contact with the server, and an LED indicator verifies that
the unit is powered. Yet another manufacturer’s containers
plug directly into any standard outlet.
Tying It All Together
thing to consider when you’re looking at these brewers is
how easy they make it for you to consistently produce
high-quality coffee. If you’re serious about your coffee
program, you may want to buy specialty coffee beans in bulk
and grind your own. Several manufacturers have grinders that
can be tied to their brewers.
didn’t mention it earlier, how coarse or fine your grind is
also has an effect on extraction and brew time. One
manufacturer offers a grinder that mounts directly on top of
the brewer so the correct amount of coffee is dispensed
directly into the brew basket. Another lets you connect the
grinder to the brewer via cable. Push a button on the
preprogrammed grinder and it dispenses the proper grind in a
brew basket and sends brewing instructions to the brewer.
technology on the market is a programmable RFID recipe card.
Using your PC, you input grinding and brewing instructions
for a particular coffee blend. The PC downloads the
instructions to an RFID card. Then just wave the card in
front of the grinder or the brewer to automatically program
and start either machine.
pay for all this, of course, depends on the system as well
as the bells and whistles you select. List prices for these
brewers start as low as $1,000 for a single head analog unit
and go up to $5,000 for one maker’s base model twin digital
unit. Most twins are list-priced in the range of $2,200 to
$3,000, but options can drive the list price of a digital
unit above $6,000.
A couple of
manufacturers say they’re brewing up an innovation or two
that will be ready by The NAFEM Show in 2007. In the
meantime, there’s plenty of excellent equipment on the
market to choose from.
Maintaining The Perfect Cup
1.5-gal. brewers do just about everything to make a superior
cup of coffee except add milk and sugar. With precise
temperature and extraction controls, your brewer will turn
out perfect coffee batch after batch.
that can turn good coffee into bad, however, are poor water
quality, lime buildup and coffee residue in the machine.
1) Coffee is
98% water, and you don’t want your brewing efforts done in
by water that tastes or smells off. This is where a water
filtration system becomes your ally. We covered water
filtration technologies and products in our August 2005
issue, and you can find that detailed story by going to
you’re using a reverse osmosis filter, you also need to deal
with lime buildup. There are terrific de-scaling products on
the market to fight lime, available from your coffee or
all you do is drop a sachet or tablet in your brew basket
and run a brew cycle. Be sure to check your spray head once
in a while, though, to make sure lime doesn’t clog the
holes. If lime becomes a serious problem, then a water
filter again is a good idea. There are new heat-resistant
polyphosphates on the market that reduce lime buildup and
don’t affect taste.
with its volatile oils coffee leaves a residue, especially
in hard-to-reach spots. If you don’t keep your equipment and
servers clean, that residue will eventually affect the taste
of your coffee. Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning
instructions to keep servers sparkling, and make sure
employees wipe down the brewer every day, if not after every