September 2, 2019 Can Robots Make Better Coffee?
We seem to be on the cusp of robots being able to drive cars without any human interaction and driving a car is clearly far more complex than making coffee.
If we are using driving a car as a comparison to understand if robots can make better coffee than humans the obvious answer would be a resounding yes.
We believe that robots can make better coffee than humans (if convenience is the most important thing) and there is one very simple reason – consistency and speed.
Robots can be programmed to do the same thing every single time and that is one of the fundamental key things about enjoying coffee, once you know what you like, you want that same thing the next time you go and the time after that as well.
Starbucks disagrees because despite the technology being available, they still invest a huge amount of money in their staff to make each and every coffee by human hand.
It is clear that they and the other big coffee chains believe buying and drinking coffee is an experience that includes human interaction.
What are people’s coffee needs?
The first need is to get a quick energy boosting fix on the way to work or at the airport or when you are rushing to catch a train or about to get to a meeting. This need can be classified as coffee convenience.
The second need is when you have more time and you want to sit back, savour and enjoy your coffee and read a book when you want a quiet hour to yourself or when you meet a friend for a catch up. This need can be classified as a coffee experience.
Depending on your need you will most likely be prepared to accept a different quality of coffee depending on whether you have time or no time.
If you have no time and your need is a convenience you will be prepared to accept a slightly lower quality drink because you just want to “grab and go” You don’t want to stand in a queue for five minutes if you are rushing to a train on platform five that leaves in four minutes. You want it now.
The problem is that up until now, coffee vending machines have churned out a beverage that is barely drinkable and tastes nothing like the tall dry cappuccino with an extra shot that you normally order at your local coffee shop.
A couple of companies have identified a gap in the market where they believe that they can provide a high-quality cup of coffee for the huge number of people that want a quality cup of coffee and they want it right now to drink on the go or take to a destination like their desk at work or the train or the plane. More about them later.
Their coffee had better be good though because they are asking a very similar price for a coffee that is made by a machine as the price you would pay for coffee made by a human.
Can a machine make a better coffee than a human?
The answer to that is no they cannot but there is a huge caveat to that. If the human making the coffee is trained properly and they truly want to create a coffee experience then they will be able to make you an infinitely better coffee than any machine.
But that is where the problem lies. Any “barista” that works in Starbucks will not even know what the difference is between a cappuccino and a latte. I’m not kidding.
You pay upwards of £3.00 for a coffee and when your double espresso reaches the person that adds the milk you will get something different every single time.
My drink of choice is cappuccino. If I am paying £3 for one then I expect it to be right. Call me a snob if you like but for some reason accepting a poorly prepared coffee is the norm whereas if you ordered a rare fillet steak and it came well done you would not hesitate to send it back.
Cappuccino is supposed to be served one part espresso, one part steamed milk and one part milk foam.
I can honestly say that I never ever get that when I go to Starbucks or Costa and only sometimes when I go to Café Nero. They almost always fill up the cup with milk and put a tiny bit of foam on top so you basically get a latte whether you want one or not.
When I send back my latte and ask for a cappuccino, I get a look of surprise and a lot of the time I get the same back again the second time.
For a number of years now I have invested in a really good coffee machine and make my coffee myself to get consistently great coffee exactly how I like it for a fraction of the price you pay down the high street.
I still go to coffee shops when I am out and about out or when I have to meet up with someone but I understand that I am not going to get the coffee just how I like it and I am going to have to pay over the odds for it as well.
This is where robots come in.
Will Robots replace human Barista’s?
Robots can provide consistency where humans cannot (or can’t be bothered to because they get paid so little and don’t care).
A lot goes into making a really good coffee. You need to get the amount of coffee just right. then it needs to be compressed with the correct amount of pressure to make sure that the water flows through the coffee grounds for 25 seconds to ensure that the optimum flavour is achieved.
Water temperature and milk temperature is important a well.
If you want ultimate convenience and combine that with best quality then the best you can do right now is to get a bean to cup coffee machine.
Bean to cup coffee machines require the press of one button and it will grind fresh whole coffee beans, tamp the ground coffee and pump the water through the coffee and a double espresso will be delivered into your cup and you only had to use one finger.
If you like cappuccino or latte then you can even get one with an automated milk carafe and it will heat and froth the milk and add it to your espresso and you have a fully automated coffee beverage of your choice.
That works for a lot of people and bean to cup coffee machines are hugely popular with millions of units sold worldwide annually but here’s thing………
Effectively, expensive bean to cup coffee machines are robots but we call them coffee machines but even the most expensive ones don’t do a very good job of parts of the coffee making process. You can easily pay £1000 one and find that it doesn’t tamp the coffee very well so your coffee is weak and bitter because the coffee was delivered in 10 seconds instead of the required 25 seconds.
Or the milk was not heated up to the optimum 65 degrees to perfectly compliment the coffee that should have the water delivered at 92 degrees but it wasn’t.
That’s why Starbucks and the other coffee giants haven’t moved to a fully machine automated process.
Because just like robots can’t quite drive cars like humans nor can robots make coffee just like humans can. There are too many variables to take into account.
That’s why we believe the best way to get the perfect cappuccino or latte is to do some of the work yourself.
A semi-automatic espresso machine will grind the beans for you but you need to check the dose and tamp the coffee so that 60ml of water is delivered through the coffee in 25 seconds.
And when you heat the milk you can add just the right amount so that the strength of the coffee is just how you like it.
That’s why Starbucks has expensive machines to deliver the coffee but they still have humans manually tamping the ground coffee and heating the milk. Because people like it just the way they like it and machines can’t do that yet – Not yet. It will come but it’s a way off yet.
Investors are betting on robot coffee
That said there are a couple of start-ups in the USA that have managed to attract significant investment for “robot” coffee outlets that allow you to tailor your coffee more than a domestic bean to cup coffee machine can but effectively it is still a great big coffee machine.
They use fully automatic coffee machines to create coffee quickly with some added options you don’t normally get. What their “robot” can’t do is make a coffee using a semi-automatic coffee machine which as we describe above is the only way to get a truly great cup of coffee.
These guys have been around for a few years now and when you take a look at what they do it is difficult to see exactly what they bring to the party that differentiates them from say a Costa Coffee machine that you find in service stations up and down the country.
Basically, they put on a show more than they deliver quality speciality coffee.
What makes them a little different is that you can choose from a small range of different coffees which is definitely a good thing because at Starbucks or Costa or Café Nero there is no choice, you get the house blend which is a dark roast coffee that everyone has become accustomed to but is definitely not a great quality coffee.
You can also choose different milk types and select from things like 3 different levels of sugar so you get more variety and choice to tailor your coffee but it still gets made by a fully automated machine that is effectively a giant bean to cup coffee machine.
Next is the weird bit. Once the machine makes the coffee, a big robotic arm picks it up and moves it onto a mini elevator that drops it down to an outlet where you can access it from.
We really don’t see what the robotic arm brings to the table other than to create some theatre that makes it seem cool.
We are not convinced but you can make your own mind up by checking out this video:
These guys are similar to Café X except they don’t have a flashy robotic arm in full view for everyone to see. it all takes place behind the scenes and then a door opens and your coffee is there.
There are a decent amount of customisation options and we like that you can order from their app and then go and collect your coffee within a few minutes from what amounts to an unmanned coffee kiosk.
Again, it’s basically a big fully automatic coffee machine that’s made to look techy so you are not going to get the same quality as you would if you made it yourself at home using a semi-automatic coffee machine where you can control all the variables.
Café X and Briggo are kind of touted as robots that make coffee but really they are just big coffee machines that give you more customisable options than current machines do.
It is clear that there are no robots that can currently replace humans if you want a true coffee experience but if convenience and speed are super important and you are willing to compromise a little on quality then they do a pretty good job.