Man vs the machines

Australia’s coffee culture has long lionised the barista. Does the phenomenal success of  the coffee-capsule machine threaten the hero of the espresso? By Sue Nelson.

Good coffee is an essential part of the dining experience. This is the case not just at the specialist cafés that stake their name on it, but also at every eating establishment that wants to attract a certain kind of diner. So is there a place for the new-generation coffee-pod machines in Australia’s crowded and discerning coffee market?

Coffee entrepreneur and expert Phil di Bella likes the concept, but doesn’t think capsule machines are going to replace baristas anytime soon. “I think there’s a place in the market for capsule machines, but I see it as a domestic and not a commercial place,” says di Bella. “People don’t want to be paying good money for a coffee that’s not made by a professional.”

Di Bella is founder of Di Bella Coffee, a leading specialty coffee wholesale and retail supplier to Australian cafés and restaurants. Since the patent expired on capsule machines, Di Bella has also supplied its coffee in pods. But di Bella doesn’t see the machines becoming the norm in the restaurant industry.

“For us, it’s about high quality; importing the world’s best coffee direct from individual farmers around the world, roasting it to perfection and then delivering it in store,” he says.

“If it’s then going to be put into a capsule and stored for three months and then put through a machine, well, that sort of defeats the purpose. It would be similar to buying the world’s best meat and then overcooking it or serving it two days later.”

There are a number of reasons why restaurants might choose to use pod machines. Some bars use them to make espresso martinis and other beverages; other restaurants might not have the space for a commercial coffee machine. Still others might be looking to reduce the payroll costs of a decent barista.

“The fact is this: if you’ve got a bad barista, then you’re better off using an automatic machine,” says Di Bella. “But if you have a half-decent barista—not even an expert, just someone who understands the concepts of grinding fresh, filling the grip handle, tamping and putting it into the machine—you will always make a better coffee than a capsule machine.”

And this, says Di Bella, includes those restaurants that have built reputations around cuisines not especially linked to coffee. “I don’t think that matters. The key word is ‘experience’,” he says. “If I go to a great restaurant and I finish on a capsule coffee that you’ve charged me five dollars for, that’s not the ultimate dining experience.”

Australians have a sensitive palate when it comes to coffee, and that refined taste is what shifts units of coffee in restaurants around the country. “What we find in these restaurants that don’t focus on coffee is that diners don’t order it,” says Di Bella. “If you believe in having your customers finish their meal on a high, and you serve good coffee, you have higher volumes. You might sell five hundred coffees a week, whereas a restaurant that doesn’t serve good coffee is lucky to sell a hundred.”

Capsules are limited in their capacity to produce a good coffee by the very nature of their engineering. The way a capsule is designed, you can only put around five grams of coffee in it, whereas most baristas are tamping down around nine or ten grams, which means capsule cafés start at a disadvantage because of dosing and volume limitations. There are also questions about the environmental sustainability of the staggeringly high packaging-to-product ratio.

Another reason these machines might not work in the Australian environment is that Australian coffee is usually ordered with milk. “In Europe, 90 per cent of the coffee is drunk black,” says Di Bella. “And black coffee from a capsule is quite good. It doesn’t have to cut through 170ml of milk. Secondly, they only charge the equivalent of a dollar or two for it. In Australia coffee costs more, so customers expect more from the purchase.”

When all these factors are weighed up, it would appear that Australian restaurants aren’t particularly receptive to pod machines. Indeed, I was unsuccessful in my search for a restaurant that uses one and was prepared to discuss it. “Automatic or capsule machines are not going to take over the restaurant world,” says Di Bella. “Because what will simply happen is people just won’t order coffee, and then people just won’t bother having coffee at all at those establishments.”

If anything, there appears to be a diversification in methods of coffee brewing that includes more analogue methods of filtration. Drip-filter coffee and even plunger coffee, only recently shunned by trendy restaurant-goers, are making a comeback. “We’re seeing the rise of what we call alternative brewing,” says Di Bella. “And what’s great about the industry is that people are experimenting now. Five years ago someone wouldn’t want to drink a filtered coffee, whereas now filter has become the next sliced bread.”

Whatever the industry attitudes towards capsule machines, they have flooded the consumer market; there are now more than three million machines in the country.

“Nespresso was a smart idea. The company identified the public shift away from instant coffee, and they found a way to bring those customers across,” says Di Bella. “By doing this they were cutting into their own market, but this ensured they weren’t losing the market to anybody else. And I applaud that innovation.”

Coffee is now appreciated in sections of society where it has never had a foothold. “Any innovation that introduces new markets to the idea of coffee allows us to follow in their wake and offer a better alternative.”

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