Automation And Espresso

What we see today as the role, or the definition, of a barista is going to change completely. This isn’t wishful thinking, this isn’t fear mongering. The impending role of automation is something we will have to come to accept. In the future the role of the barista will involve putting the customer first. (Matt Perger’s “The Death of the Death of the Barista” is a good place to start in all this.)

We’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years railing against automation in espresso brewing. We look down upon coffee businesses that outsource the brewing of espresso, and the steaming of milk, to simplistic robots. We’ve prized the hand crafted, the human and have come to see quality as incompatible with automation.

While we’ve come to accept, and increasingly understand, that espresso is actually too difficult to be done consistently without some assistance – we haven’t truly embraced that truth. We haven’t actively looked to replace ourselves, we haven’t pushed for more technology. We’ve merely acquiesced to that which the community has broadly deemed useful and acceptable, such as volumetrics or gravimetrics.

Our reluctance to push for more technology implies our deep desire to cling on to the hand made, to the “authentic”. That the process of brewing could be reduced to a single button push repulses and scares us. If you turn this around to a customer’s perspective, we don’t look so good: We would prefer to serve them variable and oft-disappointing coffee. We’d rather smother the work of farmer, miller, exporter, importer, roaster and everyone in between over making ourselves feel somewhat redundant.

You can dismiss this idea as glib, hyperbolic or perhaps even snarky – but there’s an important nugget of truth in here. Our love of the craft is selfish, and that may be incompatible with the future of our work.

The classic response to this idea is to reject it, citing the failures of the last attempts at super automatic espresso machines. I would say that, to date, no one has built a machine capable of delivering truly exceptional coffee consistently, and reliably. I know they often break right now, I know they’re expensive to maintain right now, and that you have many reasons to reject them right now.

However, a number of things have changed since the last wave swept through the industry: we understand the key variables of espresso better. We understand grinding coffee better. Technology has progressed, and at an ever increasing rate. Reliability will inevitably improve. There is a growing audience that might actually want a machine like this. This is essential, because without demand there is no incentive to create such a machine. No one would say that a machine like this is impossible, or even improbable. It just hasn’t been built yet, but I’d wager we won’t be waiting all that long.

The world is teeming with ideas about how automation is going to change work. As autonomous vehicles begin to loom, it isn’t just taxi drivers who are nervous. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, and 5.2 million in trucking related jobs. Many of those jobs are going away, and I think it is fair to say that that is inevitable.

The job of the barista, as we define it now, didn’t exist 100 years ago. It barely existed 50 years ago. Why should we expect it to continue to exist in the future? The world is changing, and that change is gathering pace. This is true inside and outside of coffee.

Baristas will still be very necessary, but the role will perhaps shift to more of a hospitality focus. A barista might be a gatekeeper, a curator, a problem solver, or a tour guide. First and foremost, a barista will also be the person doing the tasting, as we’re a long way from machines being able to do that.

Chances are that if you order the expensive, rare single origin espresso you aren’t going to have to worry if the barista has it dialled in. No more espressos pushed across the counter, excused and ruined in advance by the barista confessing “it ran a bit quick”. If great green coffee continues to decline in production, and climate change only accelerates its decline, a cafe that doesn’t waste shots and manages to brew every coffee it serves very well seems like a very sensible idea to me. Knowing you’re able to deliver exceptional drinks is a great reason to increase your spend on the coffee your cafe serves.

A world where coffee is brewed consistently brewed well will have an interesting knock-on effect. It will apply a great deal of the spotlight onto the roaster, and their ability to be excellent. Roasting is a far more manual process than brewing, and as such it has its struggles with consistency and control. It doesn’t help that we’re still using technology that is decades old, and we’re hopelessly reliant on the poor data that comes from the temperature probes inside the machine. Technology in brewing will likely hasten the development and adoption of new technologies in coffee roasting. I look forward to that day.

What we prize now in the barista, what skill set we want from a professional, has changed and will change again. What won’t change is that our true role is to know about coffee, and to care about our customers. The demand for attention continues to grow more diverse, and so we’d be perhaps naive and foolish to believe that people will have more time to learn about coffee, or to have decision making occupy more of their time and energy.

There’s concern over where all the jobs will go, as automation seeps into the workplace. Right now, I’m not particularly worried. We all find joy in work, and what that work will be will change. We’ll hopefully work less, much less for some of us should a variant of Basic Income happen sooner than expected.

In this future I could believe a second movement, to reclaim the manual espresso brewing process, could appear. Proud, loud users of vintage technologies trying to leverage their authenticity in the market as a point of competition. I can’t help but wonder how much people are willing to compromise their coffee’s consistent quality, or to wait longer, when there’s a charming person who always sells them something excellent, with the help of a little robot, in the shop down the street. You may reject new technologies, but your competition won’t. Someone will take the opportunity, and out-compete you.

If I had read this post five years ago, I might have thought it sounded like scaremongering. I don’t want it to read that way. I hear the responses that decry the destruction of the art of coffee, that we’re just unweaving the rainbow. I can entertain these ideas more than those who might lament the loss of the “theatre” of coffee making. Those self same people who proclaim to find it so interesting are rarely fans of watching barista competition. I don’t think we’ll lose quite as much as we worry we will.

The moments of delight that I’ve had serving another person coffee have had very little to do with how the espresso was made, with how the coffee was tamped or the mass of espresso in the cup. They were moments when I got out of the way, when the guest had a delightful moment of clarity with the cup of coffee they were drinking. Those are the moments I prize, that I remember and that I’d most like to repeat.

Should we choose it to be, then the future may see us reap the benefits of genuinely delivering on our promises, and making great coffee something people truly see as valuable.

I’m going to be including a lot of supplementary reading on a variety of topics raised here in Issue #3 of the newsletter.