An Evolution In Brewing
Coffee brewers continue to become more sophisticated, adding high-tech features and providing better quality in nearly any quantity you need.
By Mike Sherer
We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The quality of a cup of coffee may be the last impression your guests take away from your operation. As important as first impressions are, you don’t want to leave patrons with a lasting last impression that overrides all the effort that went into the meal preceding it.
Some of you negotiate with purveyors for the best coffee you can get within your budget. But coffee beans themselves are only half the secret to a good cup of joe. The right brewing and serving equipment can maximize both the quality of the coffee you serve and the profit you make from each cup.
Often, when you pick the kind of coffee you want from the supplier you choose, equipment comes as part of the package. The supplier provides and maintains the brewing equipment and builds the cost into the price you pay for coffee.
Advantages exist, however, for those who spec and purchase their own equipment. First and foremost, you get to select the equipment that makes the most sense for your operation in terms of capacity and the amount of control you want over coffee production and service. Owning your own equipment also means you’re not locked into a contract, so you can change suppliers whenever you want and tailor your program to the needs in your markets.
You’ll consider a number of factors during your equipment selection process. Your coffee program sets the tone; if you offer gourmet coffee you’ll want as much flexibility and control over the brewing process as possible to maximize yield and profit and minimize loss of an expensive product.
Is your coffee program self-service or staff-served? Which type of service you offer may have an effect on the type of brewing and holding equipment that you select. Or, one brewing system may satisfy both needs, giving you the flexibility to serve customers, but let them get their own refills, for example.
The utility service available on site may affect the type of equipment you’re able to use, too. Some equipment is available only in 208V, 220V, 230V or 240V service (though some is available in more than one voltage, including 120V), and some has very specific requirements for water pressure intake and flow rate. (We’ll talk a little about water quality, too, a bit later.)
Sizing It Up
Perhaps the first place most people start, though, is size. Brewers range in size from single-burner pour-over units that produce one 10-cup decanter at a time to huge urns that produce 10 gals. at a time. Most chain operations fall somewhere in between, and a popular system in recent years has been satellite machines that make about 1.5 gal. per batch. Lately, however, higher volume operations have turned to larger brewers that handle brew cycles of 2 gals. to 3 gals.
Determine the size you need by figuring out how many customers per hour order coffee and finding a machine that brews that many cups per hour. Two caveats, however: cup size and throughput.
Manufacturers can give you production figures for their machines, but typically they figure cups per hour based on a cup size of between 5 oz. and 7 oz. For example, production numbers range from 190 cups/hr. for one maker’s 1.3-gal. unit to 450 cups/hr. for a twin 1.5-gal. brewer. One manufacturer even claims 600 cups per hour for its twin 1.5-gal. brewer. Larger units, of course, produce even more.
When your customers are usually ordering 12-oz. to-go cups of coffee, however, you may need twice the capacity a manufacturer has listed for a particular brewer. Often, spec sheets will note production in liters or gallons per hour, so you can divide the number of ounces you serve into total production of the machine. (The machines noted above, for example, are rated at 7.9 gals./hr., 18.9 gal./hr. and 33.7 gal./hr.)
Keep It Moving
The other capability you may want from a brewer is fast production and quick recovery. If your business comes in waves, as in most operations, most of the “customers per hour” you serve during the breakfast rush, for example, may show up in the first half-hour. If that’s the case, you’ll either need a machine with more capacity to compensate, or the ability to brew ahead and hold coffee for service.
Throughput is the next most important factor to look at, and that means quick recovery. The two big factors in recovery time 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. Power ranges from about 3,300W for a single 1.5-gal. unit to 12,000W for a twin 3-gal. brewer. Remember, too, that most brewers also have a hot-water spigot for tea or hot chocolate. Some have a separate heating unit and storage tank for hot water, which reduces recovery time for the brew cycle.
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. And one manufacturer makes a brewer with no tank at all. Instead, the machine uses a high-powered element to heat water on demand, much like a tankless water heater. The unit is much more efficient than standard brewers, according to the maker, because it uses no power until the brew cycle is activated.
Many newer digital brewers now have energy-saving features that allow you to put the brewer on standby so the heating unit cycles less often when the machine is not in use. Some machines have a switch to put the brewer into standby mode. Others can be programmed to go into standby mode during slow periods, or automatically go into standby when they sense periods of inactivity.
Satellite brewers give you the ability to serve from the same vessel you brew into, and take that vessel to another location. For some operators, that means they can get by with a single brewer even when they offer both regular and decaf coffee. Twin brewers give you the ability to brew and serve two kinds of coffee at the same. They also provide redundancy, since in most cases heating units and water tanks are separate.
Extracting Good Coffee
Assuming you’re using quality beans, the key to good-tasting coffee is proper extraction. The idea is to extract the right amount of volatile oils and solids from ground coffee beans to get a rich, smooth cup of coffee that’s not bitter, too thin, too strong or too weak.
Extraction actually isn’t so much complex as it is variable. The major variables are the temperature of the water used for brewing, the time that water is in contact with the coffee grounds, the ratio of water to coffee, and how much surface area of the coffee is exposed to water (i.e., how finely you grind the beans).
The ideal water temperature for brewing coffee is between 198ºF and 202ºF. The typical ratio of coffee to water is 2 tablespoons to one cup of coffee. More water (say 8 oz. per cup instead of 6 oz.) will result in weaker coffee. Less water or a finer grind will result in stronger coffee. A longer brewing cycle could result in more bitter coffee, a shorter cycle in thin coffee. You get the idea.
While there are still less expensive analog brewers on the market, most 1.5- to 3-gal. satellite brewers are digitally controlled. Basic models now are able to control brewing temperature to within ±1ºF during the entire cycle for more consistent coffee from batch to batch.
Time And Design
Manufacturers control extraction time in three ways: brewing cycle time, spray-head design and basket design. Each manufacturer’s sprayhead 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 designs 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.
Brew cycle time is set at the factory to work best with the design of the manufacturer’s sprayhead and brew basket. But newer models give you even more precise control over the extraction process. You can control the brew cycle time based on the type of coffee and grind you’re using. And you can control the strength on many models with a feature called bypass that 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.
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. Another feature on some equipment, pulse brewing, turns the sprayhead on and off during the brewing cycle so the grounds are wetted more evenly.
Digital brewers offer the added advantage of letting you program both the precise temperature and extraction process (using any combination of pre-infusion, pulse, bypass and brew time) for a particular blend or grind. And many models have enough memory to hold brewing recipes for several different types of coffee, allowing employees to brew any number with the push of a button.
Most models also give you the option of brewing less than a full container of coffee. Almost all let you brew half a batch; several have three program options for a full batch, half-batch or third of a batch. One new model is programmed to brew into any one of seven different size vessels up to 1.5 gal. at the push of a button and has memory for 250 coffee profiles.
More Control, Better Operation
Smart features on many digital models make brewing good coffee a snap. First and foremost is a lockout 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 lockout also prevents anyone from starting a brew cycle if the water in the tank hasn’t yet reached the proper temperature. One manufacturer’s models let employees “start” a brew cycle, but won’t actually begin brewing until water is at the right temp.
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 yet run out. And the 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.
Some manufacturers offer brew baskets with splash guards designed to prevent scalding coffee and grounds from burning an employee who pulls a brew basket out during a brew cycle. Other models offer a basket lock that prevents employees from removing the basket during the brew cycle.
Most models also have a safety interlock that shuts off the heating element if the water level is low for some reason, and often have audible alarms and/or message alerts on the display to let employees know something’s wrong.
Hold And Serve
While customers want a hot cup of coffee, one of coffee’s biggest enemies is heat. The volatile oils in coffee begin to evaporate almost immediately, and heat just accelerates the process. Time is coffee’s other enemy. It’s no wonder that coffee in a decanter on a hot plate begins to smell burnt and stale after about 20 mins.
Manufacturers have risen to the challenge of keeping coffee hot and maintaining its taste and quality in a variety of ways. As mentioned, satellite brewers brew coffee directly into holding and serving vessels (called satellites because they can be transported to remote locations like bus stations, banquet rooms, off-site catering jobs, etc.). Typical sizes of these satellites are 1.3 gal., 1.5 gal., 2 gals. and 3 gals. (a few are measured in metric liters).
While a few models feature even larger serving vessels, at that size you’re talking such high volume you may want to consider a different brewing system altogether.
Satellites can be heated or unheated. Stainless heated containers come in different configurations. Many are heated on the traditional hot plates you see on typical brewing machines. Manufacturers sell separate heating units for these containers so you can put them out on self-serve counters.
Overheating and the resulting degradation of taste and quality is always a concern. One way manufacturers have addressed the problem is a double-walled stainless container, much like an airpot, so the coffee stays hot with radiant rather than direct heat. Another maker has developed a thermostatic hot plate that turns on and off as needed.
A popular style of heated container uses heating elements in a jacket that surrounds the coffee, which keeps it warm without burning. One has thermostatic controls to maintain coffee at a temperature you select between 175ºF and 190ºF. The server sits on a docking station that provides instant power contact with the server. An LED indicator verifies that the unit is powered. Another manufacturer’s containers plug directly into any standard outlet.
Unheated thermal satellites have the advantage of requiring no power to keep coffee warm, so they can be placed anywhere your customers need coffee. And since they don’t heat the coffee, they may preserve coffee’s flavor and quality longer than heated units.
Manufacturers who make systems that use thermal servers fabricate them from stainless and plastic. They can be air-, foam- or vacuum-insulated. Vacuum containers generally provide the best heat-retention, but all of them can keep coffee hot for several hours. Be sure to look for spill-proof lids that seal tightly.
Some manufacturers have done away with the traditional sight glass that lets you know how much coffee remains inside. Instead, newer thermal containers 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 to help you merchandise your coffee or your brand.
Final Word: The Main Ingredient
Coffee is more than 98% water, and the quality of this main ingredient can affect both your coffee’s taste and the performance of your brewing machines.
If you’ve had your water tested as part of your beverage program, share the results with your coffee purveyor. For taste purposes, you may want filtration that removes chemicals like chlorine and odors if your water has issues.
Water contains minerals, too, which can form scale in your equipment. If your water is particularly hard, filters that add heat-resistant polyphosphates will dramatically reduce lime buildup. Newer products also have far less effect on taste than polyphosphates of the past. Some new brewer models even have monitors that tell you when it’s time to change water filters.
Even so, scale can accumulate, especially on metal sprayheads (one manufacturer uses plastic heads to lessen scale). Special sachets or tablets are available that you can drop into your brew basket. When you run a brew cycle, they help delime the sprayhead.
Coffee’s volatile oils leave a residue and can quickly stain equipment. Keeping brewers and servers clean is important for both performance and taste. Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to keep servers and brewing equipment sparkling, and make sure your employees wipe down the brewer every day, if not every shift.
Consider Some Bells And Whistles
If you’re serious about your coffee program, you may want to consider add-ons to your brewing system. Here are a few options to keep in mind.
- Fast-flow faucets. You can fit some larger vessels with large-flow taps that fill carafes and airpots quickly for more flexible service options.
- Serving stands. Depending on the brewing equipment, heated or unheated serving stands are available to let you set up satellite coffee service where you need it.
- Coffee grinders. If you serve several kinds of specialty coffee, you may want to control freshness and quality even more by grinding it yourself. Like brewers, many are now digital, letting you program them to produce different grinds for various coffees with the touch of a button. They also can be linked to brewing machines.
- RFID tags. One manufacturer offers a brewing system that links radio frequency ID tags on brew baskets to both grinders and brewers. The system takes the guesswork out of what parameters to set for grind and brew cycles. Place the brew basket under the grinder, and the grinder will dispense the right amount of properly ground beans. Insert the full brew basket into the brewer and the machine will start a preprogrammed brew cycle for that specialty coffee.
- Wireless service monitors. Not only do many digital brewer models have LED or LCD displays that alert you to regular or emergency service and maintenance issues, some also relay that information wirelessly to your back-office computer. They can even be programmed to alert service companies to schedule a call.