Prufrocker: The Blog

Luddite vs Autosteam

Ask a barista what they think speciality coffee means and you will get a massive range of answers. I can promise you the one thing none of them will mention is speed.

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The Luddites.

Ask a barista what they think speciality coffee means and you will get a massive range of answers. I can promise you the one thing none of them will mention is speed. But the only time we are doing PR damage control is to do with speed of service complaints. Meanwhile the part of my job as a trainer that is perhaps the most appreciated by the owners of the cafes we support involves improving efficiency in workflows. So can we conclude, baristas don’t like having to rush their work and customers and coffee shop owners want them to smash it out?

The average Prufrock customer is aware of a little extra effort going in behind the bar, but a few times we have been trolled on social media even by baristas for inefficient service. We must own that some of our QC measures slow us down, and this is perceived by many as bad service. It is my role as trainer to find a sustainable solution to the most inefficient part of our work flow: the milk.

After conducting a little research, the way most high volume cafes seek to solve the bottle-neck in the milk department is to assign two staff down there. Or put one person on putting the milk into the jug and steaming it; then the other person on pouring it. Stand alone steam wands are considered to be another solution. Just put two staff on milk, give them a wand each is what Modbar considers to be the solution to this problem. Or strap two x two groups together and have baristas put on shots and steam on each side. Both are expensive solutions.

There is a steampunkesque work ethic which puts hand-made above all else. I’ll not say Luddite as this attitude is an important leveler which I respect; a quality conscience. But practically every commercial espresso machine in London is not being operated in a way that will guarantee perfect milk texture every time, because all machine manufacturers regardless of how specialist have large corporate clients that want the machines to be able to do high volume. Kees VDW has Toby’s Estate. Victoria Arduino has Starbucks. So the steam wand designs, hole sizes and flow rates are geared towards high volume. And at the other end of the chain, the customer demands efficiency so independents are pressured to follow suit.

Then the time it takes to steam? If that was just putting in the milk and pressing a button, that would save 23.7 seconds over two drinks. We know the patterns will take between 10 and 15 seconds each to pour and lets give the barista 10-15 seconds to pick up the jug and split the milk. Then there’s the putting some milk into a jug. This takes 11 seconds.


Here’s Prufrocker Kaori Takasu’s time splits on two flat whites.

Lap 1 is the split shot up until the pump is engaged : 26.2 seconds, 24% of the total work-flow

Lap 2 is the milk in the jug: 11.1 seconds, 10%

Lap 3 is Steaming: 23.7 seconds, 16%

Lap 4 is splitting: 15 seconds, 14%

Lap 5 is pouring: 12.2 seconds, 11%

Lap 6 is getting the other jug: 9.1 seconds, 8%

Lap 7 is the second pour: 12.7 seconds, 12%

Total time: 1:49.9

If it was two baristas at work, then the steaming would represent 28.3% of her workflow by the way. And the milk going into the jug would represent 13.2%

So any cafe doing over 500 a day can save some of this on barista staff wages, or reallocate 28.3% of your free flowing $Auzzie Dollar into the customer service. Or spend 23.7 seconds of pure enjoyment chatting to the customer. Have a sneaky spoonful of granola? It’s 83 minutes a day across 250 milk pitchers. I’m assuming most cafes will steam two drinks at a time.

Now consider what it takes to get perfectly textured milk. Prufrock has a prodigious collection of espresso machines in our London Barista Resource but the machine that produces the finest glassiest milk every time is without a doubt the Sage Dual Boiler home machine. The secret is almost certainly the absolutely miniscule holes in the steam tip. The steam boiler is admirably temperature stable bit it’s all in the steam tip I suspect. The holes do make a commercial application of this machine a bit harder because the smaller the holes, the slower the milk heats up. But really, it is undeniable how good the foam quality is from this machine and that’s good news for one of you as you shall soon discover.

But, there is no commercial outlet I know of in London using steam tips with hole sizes as tiny as these because it is necessary to get drinks made at a decent tempo. I so much admire Matt Perger for his willingness to own the importance of moderating a barista technique with speed. His latest Hustle is all about milk chemistry so go take a look.

Automated Milk Delivery is going to improve soon. There is a desperate gap in the market for a robust volumetric milk delivery system. When this is available, milk waste will really drop and dosing will get so much easier. Pergals are heinously ugly I must admit. Plastic bottles are nonsensically fiddly and annoyingly bulky so bring it on design guys. Ideally it will be unbreakable, not digital (that will just break) and under-counter in large and small size. I’m trying not to mention the Juggler, but no amount of pleading will get these guys over to Europe and they look so good.

Here is Charles Babinsky talking workflows in his round 1 routine at the WBC:

“When I’m talking about automation, it’s great that it gives us more consistency, and it will definitely help us crank out hundreds of cappuccinos per day but really more than anything, what I love about it is that it gives us time. Time to make a connection, time to give a service that ultimately we’re proud of.”

Busy cafes and carts like Taylor St, Kaffeine, Timber Yard, Noble, or Giddy Up, anyone poking their head above 300 coffees a day are paying people to unscrew milk bottles, pour out milk into a pitcher, turn on the steam wand and hypnotize themselves watching it spin around.

If you have a Black Eagle Gravimetric and you’re making split shots like this, then the drip tray scales have simply made even more efficient what was already the most efficient part of our whole cafe. It’s made the barista’s life a whole lot more enjoyable and they are able to interact with the customers and they are not needing to manoeuvre scrappy looking £5-quid-on-Amazon-not-in-the-least-bit-ergonomic-or-waterproof drugs scales across the drip tray. But even when our baristas were doing this in full flight, the shots maker was producing two shots in 30 seconds and the milk steaming and pouring was taking 2 minutes.

We have had auto-steam in the industry for a few years but it has always been terrible. It is actually still fairly terrible in my experience but after extensive discussion on this subject with Marco from Simonelli, he told me about something they have developed for Starbucks Reserve stores which reminds me just how easily those guys can kick our arses if they want to (you know they just purchased all of Brazil COE #1). So simple and brilliant I can’t get over this idea.

What Simonelli have done is to put just a normal steam wand that has a temp probe there to cut off the flow of steam when it gets to temperature. 14 years ago when I learnt how to make coffee, if you were cool, you would put the air into your 30ouncer, then put it down on the drip tray, go off and do something else, then come back when it was done. Now all that’s back! I know I can’t personally hit 55 degrees in the cup every single time I steam. Kaori Takasu can, one of our senior baristas never fails to hit the target, as do most of our baristas after a few weeks but the few weeks is definitely a non zero period for the customers. I can’t quantify how many customers might have slipped away after one too many tepid drinks in a row but I lose a little sleep over it. In London cafes, you still get the intransigent Auzzie guy serving 40 degree drinks like it’s the Gold Coast, and if they are not able to hit a standard serving temp or unwilling, I love that we can have a more precise bit of technology to do that for us. Even as an health and safety thing, it’s better for the baristas tender fingertips; they won’t need to scorch them 400 times a day.

To counter what I perceive to be a barista lead steampunk-like reaction against automation in the speciality coffee industry, we have put together an event with Sage that should be highly educational and remunerative to at least one or two lucky baristas. Sage’s auto-steam wand, much like their Dual Boiler wand is really surprisingly fantastic. It’s not quick and that must surely be part of why it is the only auto-steam wand on the market at the moment that is producing first class micro-foam. But it is a front runner in this sector of technology that could really help bankroll better barista wages, and make small speciality coffee businesses in London £quiteafewK more sustainable each year.

Sage have fronted an Oracle machine valued at £1600 as a prize for the winner of a latte art throw-down to be held at Prufrock in July. Sage are putting up a grinder as the runner up prize. All milk will be foamed on the Oracle auto-steam wand. There will be a professional judging panel and any tie breaks will go out to the audience for a people’s choice. Sign up commences 17th June.

We anticipate some interest in this, the UK’s second richest coffee competition (James Bailey!) Sign will commence one month prior to the event and will involve tweeting out a photo of your latte art with a hash tag TBC (something we all secretly want to do all the time but feel we mustn’t do it too much). The photo most favourited by the end of each day of the month will win a qualification space. Don’t worry if you are short on followers as Sage are on board for plenty of retweets. More details to follow. Doors at 6:30pm on Friday the 17th of July.