Opinion: The future of espresso, James Hoffmann

Part of our series exploring the future of espresso machine technology, coffee expert, entrepreneur and author, James Hoffmann, explains why sustainability and reducing the cost of business is more important than ever for cafés and coffee shops

"With the broader trend toward sustainability, café operators are becoming more interested in reducing their impact" – James Hoffmann 

Truly innovative technology must solve a problem

When I first got into coffee in 2003, the conversation was increasingly driven by temperature stability and everyone’s obsession by it. Much of this originated from David Schomer in the US, as well as online groups like Alt Coffee. Manufacturers broadly liked this as a trend because it was a discreet engineering problem. We saw endless innovation in those early days in the pursuit of flat line stability in espresso brewing.
After that, the big technology obsession was pressure profiling and the manipulation of pressure. This was interesting, but not necessarily innovation, because it was not created with a particular problem to solve – it was more a demonstration of technological capability. Increasingly, we’ve seen espresso machines transitioning from volumetric technology to ‘gravimetric’, which use beverage mass to deliver consistent and controllable results.

Espresso machine manufacturers have broadly ignored sustainability, but this is changing

Several years ago Counter Culture Coffee released a study examining carbon emissions tied to a single pound of coffee farmed in El Salvador and served in a café in Philadelphia. It found more than 80% of emissions came from the café, which typically might be running a large un-insulated dual-boiler machine, as well as hot water boilers and batch brewers, which are extremely energy-inefficient.

"Environmental waste is also financial waste and electricity paid for unnecessarily is absolutely a problem for café owners"

An espresso machine plugged into a 45-amp single-phase line potentially consumes electricity at an enormous rate. Many café owners do not question the substantial cost of their energy bill every month and it just becomes another overhead.
More recently, sustainability has finally started to become an industry driver as consumption habits have shifted. The vegan trend has been fascinating to watch in the UK and generally. With ‘flexitarian’ entering the lexicon, I don’t know anyone who has not consciously reduced their meat consumption. How much steak we eat is a long way from espresso machines, but with the broader trend toward sustainability, café operators are becoming more interested in reducing their impact.
In the context of already thin café operating margins, and now the pandemic, reducing the cost of business is more important than ever. Environmental waste is also financial waste and electricity paid for unnecessarily is absolutely a problem for café owners. From a consumer perspective, it will be very interesting to see if putting the carbon cost of a drink on a menu, as we have recently done at Prufrock in London, influences what customers order.
Certainly for me, and my current equipment project with Victoria Arduino, there has been a massive push to improve energy efficiency for the espresso machine on your bench, which potentially consumes large amounts of energy and has a significant carbon footprint. In comparative testing, the Eagle One uses 36% less energy for the same number of drinks as a market-leading espresso machine. That is a lot of energy over a five-year ownership cycle.

Experiential cafés are driving increased customisation

We’ve been through a shift in our relationship with coffee machines. Between 2010-2015 we saw a peak in a bell curve when espresso machines changed from being functional items that prepared beverages to being almost totemic. They became badges that your café wore – part advertising, part brand, and part culture.
Café owners used to covet being the first to have a brand new machine in-store. Five years ago this might have attracted customers through the door – now it doesn’t because customers have experienced these new machines and know the coffee tastes the same.

Today we’re seeing more customisation where café owners want to build coherent spaces. Before coronavirus closed everything, we were looking at experiential businesses being the strongest. They were thinking about how to incorporate an espresso machine into the look, sound and feel of a store.
Customisation used to be quite complicated, but it is getting easier and I think this is very much a response to the customers wanting a coherent café experience from start to finish. Right now, the look of a coffee machine matters again in a different way. Whether it is beautiful or not is one thing – but whether it is coherent is another.

Café owners are trying to build brands that people can connect with. While coffee machines, from a technical perspective, are a lesser part of that story, having the right aesthetic in your café is very important.

From an article originally published in Issue 4 of 5THWAVE
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