Exploring the evolution of milk foaming technology in the coffee industry
Around the world, milk-based coffee beverages are enjoyed by many – including the cappuccino, latte, flat white, and more.
Many milk-based beverages also feature a layer of microfoam. As well as the unique texture that microfoam has, baristas also use it to pour latte art, which has now become commonplace in many specialty coffee shops around the world.
To assist baristas in preparing high-quality milk-based coffee beverages, milk foaming technology has evolved over the past few years – from high-powered steam wands to automated countertop milk foaming solutions.
I spoke with four coffee professionals who work with the Latte Art Factory automated milk foam system to learn more about the evolution of milk foam technology and the general shift toward automation. Read on to find out more.
You may also like our article on why milk foam disintegrates.
How has milk foaming technology changed in previous decades?
Today, steam wands and other milk foaming solutions are essential components of most espresso machines. However, when the first espresso machine was patented in the late 19th century, it contained only one boiler, which was used exclusively to extract espresso.
Towards the beginning of the 21st century, however, boilers became more of a focus in espresso machine design – as well as steam wands. Manufacturers started to include two thermostats in their machines – one for espresso and one for milk.
However, because many espresso machines still only had one boiler, baristas weren’t able to pull shots and steam milk at the same time. This had a major impact on workflow, service, and speed.
Now, multi-boiler technology is common in many high-end espresso machines, which allows baristas to use the groupheads and steam wands at the same time.
For many years, steaming was the only way to produce high-quality microfoam. Steaming incorporates both water and air into milk; using temperature-controlled steam, baristas heat up milk to create a stable and smooth layer of foam, with evenly-sized bubbles.
However, in recent years, milk foaming technology has evolved significantly.
Vadym Saichuk is a technical support engineer at Frank Buna – a commercial coffee equipment manufacturer and supplier in Germany.
He tells me that while milk steaming can produce high-quality results, it can be difficult for baristas to consistently prepare microfoam using a steam wand. Furthermore, learning how to steam milk takes plenty of training and practice – potentially distracting baristas from other duties.
“There are many variables involved in steaming milk, such as pressure, temperature, as well as the shape of the steam wand and the number of holes,” Vadym says. He adds that because of these variables, the likelihood of inconsistencies and human error can increase when using a steam wand.
As a result of this, other forms of milk foaming technology have started to become more prominent.
Lars Nørskov is the Head of Out of Home Coffee at Peter Larsen Kaffe in Denmark.
“Alongside an increasing focus on higher-quality coffee, the demand for producing great milk foam is also on the rise,” he says.
Ultimately, some of these alternatives only rely on air to produce milk foam, as opposed to steam, which uses water as well.
Automation & microfoam
Alongside the rising popularity of milk foaming technology, there has been a general shift towards leaning on automation to make sure microfoam is more consistent.
Michael McGurk is the National Service Manager at Bewley’s Tea and Coffee in Ireland.
“Over recent years, milk foaming has evolved from steam wands, which rely on a barista to correctly foam milk, to fully automatic systems which can provide high-quality milk foam and dispense it at the perfect temperature,” he says.
One example of these systems is the Latte Art Factory – a commercial countertop automatic milk foaming and dispensing system, which is able to foam two different types of milk simultaneously.
There are a number of reasons as to why automated milk foaming systems are becoming more prominent in the coffee industry.
Despite the weeks and months of training baristas undergo, automated milk foamers are categorically more likely to be more consistent. Not only can this help baristas pour better latte art, it can also improve productivity and workflow.
Furthermore, different types of milk foam have started to become more popular in recent years. This includes cold foam. Starbucks was one of the first coffee shops to introduce cold foam beverages on its menu in 2018. Since 2020, sales of cold foam drinks have increased 118% in US food and beverage businesses, according to Rubix Foods.
Some milk foaming solutions can produce microfoam at a range of temperatures. The Latte Art Factory in particular provides a temperature range of 4°C to 75°C (39°F to 167°F) – creating new experiences for consumers.
As well as different temperatures, automated milk foaming solutions are becoming increasingly inclusive as far as other milk types are concerned, too. This includes support for more plant-based options, such as oat, almond, and soy. Furthermore, with the global plant milk beverage market estimated to be worth more than US $71 billion by 2030, adapting will be essential for many coffee shops around the world.
However, plant-based milks come with their own unique set of challenges. Because they contain less protein and fat than cow’s milk, it can be difficult to achieve the same high-quality results with plant milks. While baristas can certainly be trained to steam plant milks, automated milk foaming solutions can make the process much easier.
As part of this, cross-contamination with cow’s milk can be a concern for some consumers. However, many automated foaming solutions, such as the Latte Art Factory, have reliable self-cleaning systems, especially where they work with multiple milks simultaneously.
How can software improve the quality of milk foam?
There has been a significant focus on data and software in the coffee industry in recent years, for a number of reasons. Both are especially important for the modern barista, however.
“Software and data collection help to enhance the barista’s interaction with the machine,” Vadym says. As well as preset recipes for espresso, this can also include presets for different types of microfoam to make a number of milk-based beverages.
Each type of milk-based coffee beverage requires a different texture of microfoam, which means baristas must steam the milk in a certain way. For example, a cappuccino will generally call for more microfoam than a flat white.
Automated milk foaming systems, however, can be preset to produce specific quantities of foam based on the drink, as well as the type of milk.
“[By using software], it can be easier for coffee shops to change their milk foam recipes quickly, especially for cafés with multiple locations,” Lars tells me.
Camiel Wenning is the Sales Manager and National Key Accounts Manager at Verdi Koffiegroep in the Netherlands.
“[Software and data collection] ultimately help baristas to provide better, more streamlined service to customers,” he says. “These technologies also support baristas to produce the best quality milk, [as well as being able to quickly change the preset recipe according to the order.]”
The benefits of using automated milk foaming technology
There’s no doubt that milk foaming technology provides a number of benefits for coffee shops.
“The quality of milk-based coffee beverages has significantly improved as a result of the technological advances in automated milk foam systems,” Camiel says.
“Instead of using a steam wand, baristas can engage more with consumers or perform other duties,” Vadym explains. This can ultimately support baristas to provide better quality service.
During busier periods, or when dealing with staff shortages, Michael says automatic milk foaming systems can also help “baristas prepare orders more efficiently and consistently, while still meeting a high standard”.
On a similar note, Vadym adds that automated milk foaming solutions can also support less experienced baristas to prepare high-quality beverages – making sure beverages are consistent for all customers.
When it comes to using automated milk foaming solutions, you should also consider your different menu options. More and more coffee shops are now including a range of new beverages on their menus, such as signature drinks and coffee cocktails.
Vadym says that milk foaming solutions, such as the Latte Art Factory, are able to “dispense soft ice cream-like foam and cold foams, as well as working with other ingredients besides milk”.
“[Coffee shops can serve milk-based drinks and nitro cold brew during the day], and then switch to other drinks in the evenings, such as espresso martinis,” he adds. This allows coffee businesses to diversify and offer new experiences to consumers – important in an increasingly competitive market.
Energy consumption and waste are also other concerns for coffee shop owners. Steaming is not especially energy-efficient, as it requires water to be boiled to and maintained at a specific temperature just to heat milk. Moreover, statistics show that some coffee shops can waste up to US $15 of leftover milk every day – amounting to US $5,000 every year.
“When baristas prepare milk by hand, there is usually some leftover milk in the jug,” Lars says. “With automatic milk dispensers and foaming solutions, baristas can use the right amount of milk for each drink.”
For some coffee shops, the initial investment in an automatic milk foaming solution, such as the Latte Art Factory, could pay itself off within a year as a result of reduced milk waste.
“The machine is ready to dispense and foam milk in less than a minute after switching it on,” Vadym says – which helps to reduce energy costs even further.
It’s clear that automation will be a prominent topic of discussion as the coffee industry evolves, and milk-based coffee beverages are certainly not an exception to this rule.
By working with more alternative milk foaming solutions, coffee shops can produce more consistent microfoam texture and quality, while also reducing energy consumption and waste.
Furthermore, while new technology like this might not be able to replace the person manning the coffee bar, they do allow baristas to do what they do best: helping coffee professionals provide high-quality service to every single customer who walks through the door.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on reducing your coffee shop’s milk waste.
Perfect Daily Grind
Please note: Frank Buna is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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