Foodservice Equipment Reports

Big Brewers

Healthcare costs, bad bedside manners, hospital gowns…patients have plenty to complain about. Your coffee shouldn’t be on the list. Specifying the right equipment and following best brewing practices will give your coffee program an edge.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind oil. Americans consume about 22 gals. per capita each year. Among adult coffee drinkers, that’s an average of more than three cups a day. With all but comatose or the most critical patients expecting coffee with almost every meal, you have to be able to produce a lot of coffee for use in a short time period. If you’ve had brewing equipment near the patient tray line for a while, you’re likely still using urns. But the options out there now provide more than one way to produce a decent cup of joe.

You can figure out what type of equipment you need by taking a look at a couple of key factors. The first is volume. At peak demand, how many cups of coffee do you need, and in what timeframe? If you serve a 500-bed hospital, you might need the ability to serve 500 cups of coffee as fast as trays move down the trayline. A 40-bed nursing home obviously doesn’t need high-volume equipment.

Equipment makers not only can tell you the capacity of their coffee brewers—from 1-liter decanters to urns of 10 gals. or more—but also how many cups per hour their machines can brew. When asking for these figures, make sure you check the manufacturer’s cup size. A typical “cup” is only about 5.3 oz. If you serve a 7-oz. cup, you won’t get the same productivity from a machine as the maker claims. Factor accordingly.

The second point you should consider is your patient profile. Elderly patients in a skilled nursing facility might not have a highly developed sense of taste anymore, and might not appreciate flavor differences between a utilitarian blend and a more expensive specialty coffee. That can give you more options in terms of both the equipment and coffee you use.

Likewise, if your patient population turns over quickly, it might be more important to serve hot coffee quickly than serve a gourmet cup. Conversely, if patient satisfaction is a high priority, you’ll likely want to serve the same quality coffee that you normally reserve for sale in your retail operations.

One other factor to think about is efficiency. You have to keep things moving on a patient trayline, and whatever brewing equipment you select has to fit into your system. Equipment also should be easy to use and clean.

Efficiency isn’t just a matter of saving labor, either. If you have a retail cafe, a catering operation or mobile carts, you may find it more efficient to consolidate coffee production in one place--likely near the patient trayline--and service other foodservice facilities or operations from that central coffee production area. It’s easier to monitor centralized brewing and to keep waste to a minimum.

Your choice will be affected by available space and access to power and water, as well. Typically, those are not issues when installing equipment in an institutional kitchen. However, you may have 120v, not 240v, electric service, for example, or no plumbed water line in the area where you plan new brewing equipment. That could mean additional installation costs or choosing different equipment. Or, due to space limitations, you may choose production equipment with a smaller footprint.

Finally, evaluate suppliers’ warranties and service programs. Find out what kind of reliability the equipment you choose offers and the level of after-sales service the company provides.

Choices, Choices

For volume coffee production, you essentially have three choices—urns, satellite brewers or coffee concentrate dispensers. Each type of production has its advantages and disadvantages. Equipment cost—and ultimately cost per cup—ranges depending on makes and models in each category, so you’re likely to find something that fits your budget no matter which method you prefer.

Urns use batch production to make coffee, typically in 3-, 6- or 10-gal. increments. Advantages are that it makes fresh-brewed coffee, which usually denotes better taste, higher quality and lower front-end cost; offers very high volume that’s ready to draw down when you assemble patient trays; and are relatively simple to operate.

Disadvantages include potential waste unless you project your needs accurately from meal to meal; potentially higher labor costs to operate and maintain; potential product inconsistency if employees aren’t properly trained (brews that are too weak or too strong); and quality issues if coffee sits for prolonged periods.

Satellite or shuttle brewers are a cross between urns and decanter brewers, giving you the flexibility of mobile serving units with high-volume batch production. Typical models feature 1.5-gal. insulated containers, with twin units capable of 3 gal. per brewing cycle. But new larger models have serving containers as large as 3 gals, giving you double the capacity in a twin brewer.

Advantages include potentially less waste; longer holding times without adverse effects on quality; greater control over extraction and brew cycles; and mobility, since servers can be moved wherever they’re needed, from patient trayline to an off-site catered meeting.

Disadvantages include limited capacity in exceptionally high-volume operations and potentially higher labor costs to operate and maintain.

Dispensers mix hot water with coffee concentrate in single portions. Coffee concentrate is available in dry or liquid form. Dry concentrate may be either powdered or freeze-dried coffee, and liquid is available in refrigerated and shelf-stable versions.

Advantages are virtually unlimited capacity, portion control, little or no waste and potentially lower labor costs to operate and maintain.

Disadvantages include taste and quality that often doesn’t match fresh-brewed coffee and higher-per-cup product cost.

A Good Cup Of Coffee

Good coffee is the result of the simple combination of water and coffee beans in a complex process called extraction. Extraction isn’t so much complex as it is variable. Pour hot water over ground roasted coffee beans and 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 burnt after 20 or 30 minutes.

A sealed airpot or vacuum container will retain heat for several hours and prevent evaporation. Even in these, however, coffee can begin to assume an “off” taste in an hour or less. Also, while many airpots have a vacuum-insulated glass liner—the most efficient at retaining heat—not all do. And most satellite servers are insulated stainless, which loses heat more rapidly.

Good extraction is the secret to good coffee. While you control the quality of the coffee you purchase, a brewer controls the extraction process. Each manufacturer has its own engineering solution to the brewing process. The time hot water is in contact with the coffee grounds is key. Manufacturers have several ways control that time.

Spray head design is one. 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 13, and still another 21. 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. Grounds swell as they absorb water, so baskets are designed to hold at least 50 percent more than the amount a full batch requires. Depending on the size of your batch (full or half, for example) the grounds should form a bed of from one to two inches deep in the brew basket.

Features To Look For

While analog brewers, especially urns, are still available from equipment makers, digital equipment has improved the brewing process, giving you more control and greater consistency. The extraction process is all about controlling how long and at what and temperature water is in contact with coffee grounds.

Digital controls are making it easier to manipulate those variables to give you the best yield and flavor. Temperature can be maintained within a degree or two. Machines can be programmed to perform functions like “pre-infusion” (wetting the grounds to let them swell before starting the brewing cycle); “pulse brewing” (which turns the spray head on and off during the brewing cycle so the grounds are wetted more evenly); and “bypass” (which allows you to add hot water to the brewed coffee instead of through the grounds, adjusting the strength without changing the taste). Digital machines also help you control waste by allowing you to brew partial batches.

Digital brewers feature several safety features, depending on the manufacturer. Some models have a lockout that prevents employees from starting a brew cycle when one is already in progress. Others prevent a brew cycle from starting until water has reached a certain temperature. A few satellite brewers also have lockouts that prevent a brew cycle if the server isn’t properly in place.

Typical safety features you should look for on many urn and satellite brewers include splashguards on brew baskets in the event employees try to remove them during a brew cycle, or a lock that prevents them from being removed at all during brewing. Most have temperature limiting switches that automatically turn off heating elements if water in the tank is low.

Energy savings is another feature offered on several models. Many offer a stand-by mode that lowers the temperature setting in the water tank. It saves energy when the brewer isn’t in use, and requires about half the time to bring the water back up to brewing temperature. On many satellite brewers the feature automatically goes into sleep mode after the brew cycle hasn’t been used for a certain period of time. And you can automatically program the machine to auto-start in the morning or other times of day.

Some units do away with tank heaters altogether, heating incoming water through a heat exchange tube inside the unit.

On urns, other features you may want to consider include a faucet shank extender to get the faucet directly over the tray; a spout extender that helps direct the coffee right into the cup; an air agitator so solids and oils don’t stratify during holding; and a high-speed carafe filler for catering or other functions.

Added features you may want to consider on satellite brewers include digital displays on servers that indicate how full the server is and how long the coffee has been held. Depending on your operation, you also might want to consider heated shuttle servers in addition to thermal servers. Some sit on a temperature-controlled hot plate, and one maker even features servers with a heated jacket that gently warms contents from all sides.

Keeping It Clean

Keep in mind that coffee is 98 percent water. We’ve talked a lot about product quality and a machine that lets you control the extraction process to get the most from the coffee you buy. But if your water quality is poor, you should invest in the proper filtration system to remove unwanted minerals, chemicals and odors. A beverage specialist or water filtration expert can help you select the right combination of filters. Don’t install without this input; the water is as important as the coffee.

Water affects brewing machine performance, too, not just coffee flavor. Minerals in water can cause scale build up on brewer parts like heating elements, spray heads and brew baskets. You should de-lime your equipment on a regular basis.

The solids and volatile oils in coffee leave a residue, which will eventually affect the taste of your coffee. Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to keep equipment sparkling, and make sure employees wipe it down every day, if not every shift.

Coffee Machine Manufacturers

Bloomfield Industries/Middleby

Brewmatic Co.

Bunn-O-Matic Corp.

Cecilware Corp.


Grindmaster Corp.

Hamilton Beach Commercial/Proctor Silex

Newco Enterprises Inc.

Techni-Brew Int'l./Div. Boyd Coffee Co.

Wilbur Curtis Co.

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