Inside the Metreon, a four-story retail and entertainment complex in San Francisco, shoppers don’t have to mill around a Starbucks, waiting for their drinks as the grande and venti cups begin to back up next to an overly busy barista. At Cafe X, a kiosk on the first floor, customers punch in a four-digit code, and Gordon quickly, silently hands them the beverage that they ordered on their phone.
Gordon is a robot. Or, to be more precise, he’s a device with a single robotic arm, enclosed like a zoo animal behind a semicircle of glass at Cafe X. Gordon doesn’t have skulls and mythical creatures tattooed on his arm. He doesn’t frown when you want a café latte with a few squirts of vanilla syrup. He doesn’t under-froth the milk for your cappuccino. And, most important, he doesn’t make you wait for your daily dose of caffeine.
Conceived by a millennial for millennials, Gordon and Cafe X are custom-made for a generation that demands both speed and quality. Not only can Gordon have an espresso drink waiting at the time you requested, but the robot can prepare the drink with beans from a specialty coffee roaster, which will have worked with Cafe X to dial in the ideal recipe for that particular varietal.
Machines can often offer consistency and perfection—or at least the promise of it—when brewing those increasingly expensive beans from around the world.
Cafe X would seem to be a coffee drinker’s best friend—and a barista’s worst enemy. But before you demonize Gordon as the latest example of job-stealing robots, Cafe X Technologies co-founder and CEO Henry Hu wants you to know that he’s not the least bit interested in putting baristas on the breadline. Hu, in fact, views Gordon as an ally to all those flesh-and-blood baristas. “Essentially, baristas are working like robots because their role is to make the drink as fast as possible and as consistently as possible,” says Hu. “By introducing automation to handle highly repetitive tasks, we allow baristas to do more ‘human’ things. It’s really a win-win.”
This is a familiar theme to those who develop high-tech equipment for the specialty coffee trade: Their new toys, they say, won’t displace baristas, but instead turn their jobs into something more expansive, more comprehensive, than a mere coffee maker.
Technology, the argument goes, will allow baristas to devote more time to learning about a coffee’s origins, different roasting techniques and even brewing-extraction science. They can engage more with the customer rather than obsessing over a pourover. Leaders in both the coffee and technology fields argue that automation and robotics will, counterintuitively, put the personal touch back in the coffee shop, that third space historically used as a communal gathering spot.
“You have to step back and ask yourself, ‘What is the essential role of the barista?’ If you think the critical role of the barista is the conversion of whole-bean roasted coffee into ground particles and the addition of water across a filter medium, then, yeah, maybe there is some risk there,” says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association. “But I don’t believe that’s the critical role. I think the critical role of the barista is to provide the customer with an experience that’s tailored to meet their needs, and the barista can use a wide variety of tools to get that done. I mean, we don’t for a minute say, ‘Wow, automated grinders! That’s the end of the barista! They should be grinding this by hand!’ That’s not true.”
The Alpha Dominche Extraction Lab opened in February in a former warehouse and manufacturing district known as Industrial City, located in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
The lab has a sleek Danish minimalism to it: naked concrete floors, white tile counters, wood countertops, shelves stocked with plants spaced out with geometric precision. The place must feel right to Thomas Perez, the chief executive of Alpha Dominche. He’s a native of Copenhagen.
Perez has introduced a similar kind of order to Alpha Dominche. He became CEO in late 2014, amid mounting problems with the Steampunk, the company’s high-tech, single-cup brewing device that looks like a cross between a giant turkey baster and a church pipe organ. The pricey piece of equipment provided great theater when it worked—and lots of drama when it didn’t. Steampunk’s ability to service the machines was limited, and numerous coffee shops simply gave up on the machine.
In the nearly three years since he took over Alpha Dominche, Perez has relocated its headquarters from Salt Lake City to New York City and injected new life into the business. In December, the company expects to release Sight, a $6,500 glass-sculpture-cum-brewing-device that will drag the batch brewer out of the shadows and give it a glamorous new perch on a coffee shop’s front counter. Alpha Dominche has been testing early prototypes of a home version of the Steampunk, while also perfecting the next commercial edition of the brewer, one that will ditch the steam water boiler that gave the tool its sci-fi-like name. (The device is also being rebranded as the Focus).
You have to step back and ask yourself, ‘What is the essential role of the barista?’
“When you consider all the work and effort that goes into the perfect cup—from crop, processing, roasting and grinding—you risk blowing it all by not brewing it right,” Perez says. “For me, the barista of the future should be able to understand how to set the brewing parameter and what the brew should taste like and be able to educate the customer.”
Alpha Dominche is also working more closely with specialty roasters, the segment of the third-wave coffee community that has a love-hate relationship with the places that brew their beans. Roasters live in mortal fear that inexperienced baristas will take their pristine beans and brew them into over-extracted dreck. But the roasters who collaborate with Alpha Dominche have Steampunks on-site to develop their own recipes, and those recipes are then delivered to the cloud, where baristas far and wide can download them to their own Steampunk software programs. The machine takes it from there. Consistency problem solved.
The system sounds so foolproof that anyone could become a Steampunk barista, even the greenest of coffee greenhorns. That’s certainly a prime selling point of the Steampunk: that a shop in the hinterlands of America, where people might not know a pourover from a downpour, could instantly become a specialty coffee destination with the download of a few preprogrammed recipes and a Steampunk on the counter.
But the reality is more complicated than that, says Sarah Karges, a barista at the Extraction Lab. The cloud-based recipes often work better with lighter, Scandinavian-style coffees or for tea, which the Steampunk also handles. But a shop’s environment—its humidity, elevation and other factors—can affect coffee extraction. A recipe developed at a German roastery may not translate to a coffee shop in Brooklyn. Karges may review the original recipe for, say, a Colombian bean, but then discover through trial and error that the brewing temperature needs to be higher or the extraction time longer. “The expertise comes in developing the recipes, and that’s what we do as baristas here,” Karges says. “It takes a lot of experience to know how to do that well.”
The Steampunk, in short, is still reliant on a human handler to perform at its peak. There’s a symbiotic relationship between human and machine. They both need each other.
Coffee technology is growing at an exponential rate, both for the retail shop and for home. Barely a week rolls by without some start-up seeking investment money for a cool, multi-cup brewer that can roast, grind and brew beans and then compost the spent grounds in your backyard garden, all via Alexa. Okay, I made up the composting feature, but the point remains: Technological advances are coming so fast and furious that most in the coffee industry, let alone home drinkers, can’t keep up.
Most daily coffee drinkers probably don’t care. But the baristas at your local coffee shop do. Some feel an almost existential dread with every new advance that takes away one more element of their job. They’re like the union workers at GM who watched a parade of cold robots slowly take over the assembly line, wondering when the machines would come for them.
The machine job creep has been so subtle that the average barista may not have seen it coming. Consider just a tiny fraction of the tools out there: The Curtis Seraphim, with its curving arm that looks like a cobra trained to brew single cups of coffee, has assumed pourover duties. The Poursteady, a robot that can prepare up to five pourovers at a time, has only reinforced how inefficient a human barista can be. The Steampunk has mothballed the French press once used by baristas, while BKON’s reverse-atmospheric-infusion device, dubbed RAIN, could make baristas never want to touch a regular old siphon brewer again.
Technological advances are coming so fast and furious that most in the coffee industry, let alone home drinkers, can’t keep up.
Then there’s Cafe X, the self-contained automated kiosk where the human barista is basically a machine-servant, there to serve the needs of the robot and the coffee drinkers who rely on it. All this hardware may improve the efficiency of shops and make the coffee taste better. The machines may even help baristas get through the early-morning crush of customers. But that doesn’t mean all baristas have embraced their robotic counterparts.
Take Jessica Caisse. She works at a Blue Bottle shop in the Bay Area, but that doesn’t begin to tell you about her passion for coffee. For more than a decade, Caisse has been devoted to most aspects of the trade—roasting, brewing, serving, drinking. She even operated her own coffee truck for a couple of years. She loves making coffee, the whole long, painstaking ritual of preparing a pourover by hand. She understands why roasters, shop owners and customers would embrace new gadgets: Machines can often offer consistency and perfection—or at least the promise of it—when brewing those increasingly expensive beans from around the world.
But she’s not fully buying the argument that technology makes a barista’s life better. For Caisse, something tactile and human is lost when machines take over the brewing rituals. The machines focus too much on the reward and not the human interaction to get there.
If baristas worry that their jobs are changing, or becoming obsolete, perhaps they can take comfort in the fact that they’re not alone. Coffee technology itself changes, evolves and sometimes disappears, too. A product once considered the future of the coffee industry may suddenly find itself gathering dust on a shelf.
Take the Clover machine. The Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Co. rolled out the Clover—a single-cup brewer that’s a cross between a French press and a siphon—in the mid-2000s to much fanfare, despite the $11,000 price tag. The SCA’s Ric Rhinehart bought one of the first Clovers when he was the chief operating officer at Groundwork Coffee Co., a specialty roaster based in Los Angeles. Rhinehart thought the Clover was “an exciting tool for its moment in time.”
The moment basically ground to a halt in 2008 when Starbucks bought the Coffee Equipment Co. and its Clover. The machine, more or less, went into hiding for years after the purchase, no longer available to any shop outside of the Starbucks chain. The Clover story has since become something of a metaphor for every new high-tech toy that appears in specialty coffee shops: It may get a lot of initial attention, but will it stick around for the long haul? “We’ve been compared to them from the very beginning,” says Stephan von Muehlen, the founder and chief executive of Poursteady. “I think the cynical take was that when Clover was acquired, that mothballed the machines all together. But I’ve recently seen them again in a few Starbucks Reserve stores. They disappeared for a while and now they’re coming back.”
Poursteady has no plans to go the route of the Clover. Instead, the company is preparing to move into a larger space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in September, leaving behind the company’s “proverbial start-up garage,” as von Muehlen calls it. The Poursteady has been growing steadily since 2015 when it sold its first machine to Joel Finkelstein, owner of Qualia Coffee in Washington, D.C. Finkelstein values brewed-to-order coffee, and he saw the benefit of a machine that could prepare five pourovers at a time, reducing the wait for busy customers—and the stress of his baristas. “A human might be able to do that with a lot of experience,” Finkelstein says. “But we could never do it that consistently.”
Since that first sale, Poursteady has shipped machines to shops in Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, South Korea and other countries, says von Muehlen. But despite its expanding reach, Poursteady has still sold only about 75 units, a total that reflects the device’s high price tag (starting at around $12,000 for a five-cup machine) and the company’s lack of a marketing budget. By contrast, the Steampunk’s sales are higher; the device (which runs about $14,000 for two units) can now be found in more than 500 shops, mostly in Asia, Perez notes.
As for Cafe X, the robotic coffee kiosk can only be found in the lone San Francisco center. For now. Hu says he plans to install more coffee robots around the Bay Area in the coming months, but he doesn’t ever see his grab-and-go kiosks replacing full-service coffee shops. “Our goal is not to replace cafés,” he says. “There’s always a time and a place for going to a café.”
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