June 24, 2021

How are super-automatic espresso machines evolving?

Also referred to as “fully-automatic” or “bean-to-cup” machines, super-automatic espresso machines or “super-autos” can grind, tamp, and brew coffee for the user. Some models even steam and pour the milk.

But while these machines offer unparalleled convenience, some argue that they also automate much of the skill of the barista and the craft of coffee – something that specialty coffee is increasingly concerned with. This leads us to an important question: where do super-autos fit in specialty coffee?

To answer this question and learn more about how super-autos are evolving, I spoke with Ilya Klychkov at Eversys North America and Jai Lott at Blank Street Coffee. Read on to find out what they said. 

You might also like our guide to tasting espresso.

Super-automatic vs semi-automatic and automatic: An overview

In modern coffee shops, we have three main types of espresso machine: semi-automatic, automatic, and super-automatic.

Automatic and semi-automatic machines are largely quite similar. They both require the barista to grind the coffee and tamp the puck, as well as steaming the milk. The only difference is that with a semi-automatic, the barista must start and stop the shot themselves. Automatic machines, in contrast, cut off water flow at a set weight or volume.

These machines require constant supervision from the a barista to keep all variables in line with the recipe. As a result, despite the increased margin for error, these “traditional” styles of espresso machine are often associated with the craft and art of making great coffee.

In contrast, super-automatics eliminate the human element. Instead, the operator presses a button. The machine grinds the beans, tamps the puck, extracts the espresso and sometimes steams and pours the milk. The barista only needs to top up the bean hopper and fill up the water tank (if the machine is not connected to mains water).

Thanks to this increased convenience and the capacity for self-service, super-automatics have understandably become popular in non-café settings. Hotel lobbies, airports, and offices are all great examples. 

However, there are criticisms of super-automatic machines, which are largely geared around the lack of precise manual control the operator has.

Super-autos and increases in quality

While super-automatic machines have traditionally come under fire for not being able to replicate barista-quality espresso extraction and create perfectly-textured microfoam, the technology is changing and quality is getting better.

One of the best examples of this is Eversys. The manufacturer, based in Switzerland, has become associated with the increasing quality in super-automatic machines. 

Eversys machines track coffee doses and use machine learning to meet target parameters for espresso. Some models also include an internal air pump to create quality microfoam. As a result, they are increasingly appearing in specialty coffee shops.

Ilya Klychkov is the Managing Director of Eversys North America. “I feel we have earned acceptance and are acknowledged in the specialty coffee industry,” he says. “We have proven the ability to execute and represent clients’ specialty coffee exceptionally well on our machines.”

Ultimately, this is indicative of a wider trend: an increase in super-automatic machine quality.

What’s the customer perception like? 

So, now we know quality is increasing, we have other questions to answer. How do these machines function in the coffee shop? What do baristas think? What do customers think?

Jai Lott is the Head of Experience at Blank Street Coffee, a coffee cart in Brooklyn, New York City. Blank Street now runs largely on super-automatic machines. However, in his previous role, Jai says he debuted a super-automatic machine with a less-than-encouraging response.

“People were looking at it, watching us press a button to create espresso, thinking: ‘You’re not doing anything, why would I pay you four or five dollars?’ After that, we quickly backpedalled out of it,” he explains.

However, in his current role, Jai says he’s “doubled down” and now uses super-auto machines (including the Eversys Cameo) regularly at Blank Street Coffee. 

“[Pushback from customers] was my biggest concern going into this,” he says. “But to be completely honest, nobody has ever commented on the coffee machine. It’s extremely validating, because the coffee is good, consistently, every single day.”

Ilya points out that even if a customer spots a machine, they’re unlikely to be focused on a machine behind the bar. “The vast majority [of customers], in a high flow environment, don’t notice,” he explains. “They like what they like, things like the service that they get, the ambience within the store, the speed, the quality. 

“The brand of the machine or who is doing what behind the counter is mostly obscured for customers, in my opinion.”

Training and barista skill

It’s no understatement to say that in modern specialty coffee culture, the skill and craft of the barista has never been more important. The “seed-to-cup” philosophy champions and focuses on quality at every stage of the supply chain, which means training is important.

However, when a machine can automate much of the “traditional” barista skillset, how do you adapt training accordingly?

Jai says: “We partnered with Parlor Coffee, an amazing roastery in Brooklyn [to train staff]. When they join us, our teams come in, meet us, and spend a day there before training with Parlor.

“At Parlor, staff do a cupping, they start to understand how to dial in, what bitterness is, what sweetness is, how to analyse that, and so on.”

Jai says that after their training at Parlor Coffee, Blank Street baristas take an in-depth look at their super-automatic machine. This helps to illustrate all the different steps they’ve been taught, and how the machine executes that.

However, he also notes that it’s important in the hiring process to let the candidate know more about the kind of coffee they’ll be making, and how they’ll make it. To ensure they don’t suffer from barista pushback, he makes it clear that there’s less control than there is in the “traditional” setup. 

Ilya, however, makes the counterpoint that training with super-automatic machines allows baristas to focus less on extracting espresso and more on other soft skills, whether that’s latte art or customer interaction. 

“The main focus now is moving from mechanical to interactional,” he says. “We’re now focusing more on the barista level, looking at human interaction and making sure the product is now delivered with more interaction and [better customer service].”

Reflecting automation in the wider industry

Even though super-automatics are starting to become more prominent in specialty coffee, it’s important to understand that automation in specialty coffee is nothing new. In the last few years we’ve seen the introduction of other products which “automate” barista skills – everything from grind distributors and auto-tampers to automated pour over coffee brewers.

It’s interesting to consider that while many of these innovations were met with the same level of concern about the barista’s manual input, they are now broadly commonplace in specialty coffee.

“There are all kinds of little automations,” Ilya explains. “Auto tampers, dosing funnels, ergonomic portafilters, and so on. Not too long ago you couldn’t find these in a traditional café.

“In reality, [it’s important to know] what you really want. Are you training your barista to be a speed demon? Or are you training an ‘artisanal crafter’? The reality is, in a smaller neighbourhood specialty coffee shop, you have the opportunity to do this, you can take a lot of time and effort making every coffee with precision. However, in larger high-speed operations, you really ought to focus on automating the barista’s routine day-to-day processes.”

While automation removes some of this “craft” with super-automatic machines, it’s also worth considering that this might allow them to pick up other skills. The time they save not pulling shots or steaming milk can be better spent learning about how the different coffees on your menu taste, which beans might appeal to which customers, how well-textured milk should taste… the list goes on.

“If you are running a retail operation, there is always, always stuff to do,” Ilya says. “There is always something you can be improving, whether it’s handling food, talking up a customer, or promoting the latest offering.

“It allows baristas to focus on what they do best, right? And that’s being human. Our machines are there only to ensure the high quality of product is consistently repeatable.”

Are super-automatics right for you?

So, super-automatic machines offer greater consistency, can help you eliminate waste, and give your baristas the chance to focus on better customer service.

Jai says that as a result, Blank Street “only needs one barista to run the operation for the whole day”. He also notes that the cart business has seen a huge reduction in waste.

But despite these advantages, and the fact that quality is broadly increasing, super-automatic machines might not be perfect for every coffee business.

For smaller coffee shops trading on their skill and craftsmanship, super-automatic machines are naturally less appealing. There’s also the financial investment of an expensive new piece of equipment to consider. Outside of more commercial, high-traffic environments, they may not be the fit for every market.

“[If] the clients come there to communicate with the barista, talk about TDS, compliment them on their technique, and participate in the process, [it’s different],” Ilya explains. “When this is the core of your business, then [traditional espresso preparation] is a part of your identity.” 

While traditional machines will likely remain the centrepiece of specialty coffee shops for the foreseeable future, this doesn’t mean that there’s no room for super-automatic machines in the sector.

They might not be the go-to choice for smaller specialty coffee shops, but Eversys has shown just how much potential there is for super-autos to deliver great-tasting high-quality coffee. After all, there’s every chance we could be using super-automatics to introduce new customers to specialty coffee in high-traffic environments when speed and precision are important. Even if it isn’t perfect for everyone, it still means more people drinking better coffee.

Enjoyed this? Then try our coffee tasting exercises to improve your palate.

Photo credits: Duan Mackenzie, Blank Street Coffee, Eversys

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