The bean machine

The groups are the key to a good machine, the experts agree.

The groups are the key to a good machine, the experts agree.

With coffee machines, biggest isn’t always best, as Michelle Starr found out when she spoke to the coffee experts

Death and taxes are life’s two certainties. When you’re running a food service business, though, you get one more: coffee sales. No matter what you do, you will always have patrons wanting to imbibe Australia’s favourite beverage—and, as popular wisdom dictates, it’s often the last flavour your patrons will experience in your establishment. So naturally it’s going to be in your best interest to equip yourself with the best possible machine for the job.

Depending upon the type of establishment you run, the kind of coffee machine you need to install may vary. Typically, most venues—both restaurants and cafés—will use a traditional machine, whether it be manual or fully automatic.

“The basic parts of the machine are all the same,” says Bernard Gostin of Amanti Coffee. “The critical thing is how the machine keeps the water at the right temperature to brew the coffee. The other critical element is the size of the group.”

The main variations in traditional machines lay in the size and number of group heads and the number of boilers. Older machines usually have just one boiler that heats the water for both the group head (the spout through which the hot water extracts the coffee itself) and the steam arm. Multi-boiler machines have two or more boilers—one for the group head and one for the steam, and more if it is a multi-group machine with a separate boiler for each group.

The advantage of a multi-boiler machine is that it allows you to play around with temperatures, experimenting for different flavours of coffee. But if you’re not going to use these features, then a multi-boiler machine is not going to be any better than a cheaper machine. “Multi-boiler machines are all well and good,” says Dion Cohen, owner and co-founder of Single Origin Roasters, “but I have a few customers who have those machines, and they set the temperature once and then never play with it. Technologically advanced machines that cost  $25,000 to $30,000 are great from a tech or geek point of view, but they’re not economical for people who want to set up businesses.”

Instead, he recommends something a little less complicated. At Single Origin, a dedicated roaster with a café in Sydney much lauded for the quality of its coffee, he uses La San Marco machines—traditional single boilers that, he says, may not be whiz-bang, but they’re reliable and come with great service from the provider, Segafredo.

Gostin, on the other hand, believes that bigger is most definitely better. “A huge machine makes a statement,” he says. “It says, ‘We are very serious about our coffee’.”

But Luca Giorgella, owner of coffee machine retailer Espresso Italia, disagrees. “We try to advise not to have a four-group machine—it’s just a show-off machine,” he says. “It’s preferable to have two two-group machines, one next to the other or on the same bench. You will have better quality coffee, and you will have a back up machine in case one goes down. If you just have the big four-group machine and something happens, it will shut down your business.”

Of course, the other advantage to this is that, even if most of the time you are only using one machine because coffee business is slow during certain times of the day, during rush periods you have the capability to output a higher volume of coffee. And, if you decide to go with a bigger, four-group machine, you have the same advantage. A single small machine can’t cope with rush periods as well as a four-group machine or a pair of smaller machines. But first, you have to figure out how much coffee you are going to sell.

Giorgella also recommends a machine with a raised group—meaning, the pouring spout is higher, allowing for taller takeaway cups and latter glasses, eliminating the loss of crema that occurs when a freshly made coffee is poured  from one cup into a takeaway cup.

All three experts are unanimous in advising wariness with roasters that offer free-of-charge equipment deals. “I’ve seen cases where a café or restaurant has prostituted the quality of its coffee for an old clunker that doesn’t make the coffee well,” says Gostin. Cohen offers a different perspective. “Why would you want to brand some else’s name in your café?” he asks. “If the product is not very good, all you’re doing is marketing a bad name for the company and a bad name for yourself—you don’t even have your own name on the door because it’s all about whoever has given you the umbrellas and barricade to put out front.” If you’re a serious establishment, he says, the last thing you want to do is to bring that down with bad coffee.

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