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November 2006
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.

Basically, 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 coffee brewer.

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.

With 12-oz. “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.

In between 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

One thing 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.

Good coffee, 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 202º F.

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

The neat 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.

The first 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.

The digital 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.

Obviously, 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.

Pick any 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.

Your 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 gals.

Most brewers 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.

Extraction Action

As we 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.

Spray head 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.

Brew baskets 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.

Digital 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 grounds.

All brewers, 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.

Added Features

Digital 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 in place.

Several 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.

Many of 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 on.

Servers, Satellites, Shuttles

By whatever 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.

Servers are 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 tightly.

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 chain.

Heated 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.

Another type 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

One last 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.

Though we 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.

The latest 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.

What you’ll 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

Today’s 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.

Three things 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

2) Unless 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 chemicals supplier.

With most, 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.

3) Finally, 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 shift. —MS

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