An increasingly hot topic is technology and the changing role of the barista. So who or what makes better coffee—machines or humans? Meg Crawford
Aussies are coffee snobs with cause. In a cafe obsessed culture we’ve come to expect a good brew and we pride ourselves on our capacity to make superior coffee. However, with advancements in coffee-making technology it’s time to consider the source of our bean-based joy. Specifically, who makes the better cup—a barista or an automated coffee machine—and which provides the better return on investment? Three industry experts weigh in.
Cost versus wages
Automatic coffee machines make coffee, froth milk and dispense auxiliary products like chocolate powder—much the same, on the face of it, as baristas.
However, when comparing wages against the cost of an automatic coffee machine, the latter comes out in front. According to job search site neuvoo, the average annual salary for a barista is $48,750, whereas the cost of a top-end automated machine sits in the vicinity of $40,000, with the average price for a commercial machine hitting $20,000. That said, automated coffee machines need to be maintained well, which comes at fairly steep price. “Automatic coffee machines do have a higher servicing cost,” says Carmelo Corallo, business development manager for Coffee Machine Technologies, which sells, repairs and services the largest range of coffee machines nationally.
“A barista with a traditional machine has a lot less running costs than an automated machine.”
While romantics and coffee purists might vehemently disagree, the reality is that a coffee from a top-end automated machine is good, but is it better than one made by a competent barista? “It’s a hard question, because the enjoyment of coffee is always very subjective,” Corallo reflects. “And it depends on what you’re basing it on, but if it’s appearance, they can be identical. If you have good coffee, good protocols and the machine’s set up well, there’s no reason it can’t produce as equally a good coffee as a barista.”
“AI hasn’t quite got there in terms of taste and choosing the recipe and choosing the expression, so the barista still has that key role.”
Matt Lewin, ACT state wholesale manager, Ona Coffee
David Gee, owner of the Australian Barista School, disagrees. “A great traditional espresso machine with a great barista who’s adjusted the grind and got everything right to extract the perfect espresso we think would produce a better espresso, at this stage anyway.”
Barista vs machine
Matt Lewin, Australia’s reigning top barista for 2019 and ACT state wholesale manager for Ona
Coffee is quick to see the benefit of automation, particularly in terms of reducing the margin for error.
“Coffee is one of the most complicated things to get right—there are so many steps and variables in every moment that can produce a good or a bad cup of coffee,” he says. “It’s not like a bottle of wine—the winemaker might be very artisanal in approach, but once it’s in that bottle and it’s stored correctly, all you have to do is age it right, have it opened up by the sommelier and you can pretty much guarantee that the flavour will taste the way the winemaker intended. Coffee has a million more potential steps to go wrong, and automation solves so much of that.”
The limits of machines
However, the most lauded benefit of an automated coffee machine is that it reproduces multiple drinks quickly and consistently.
“If you have good coffee, good protocols and the machine’s set up well, there’s no reason it can’t produce as equally a good coffee as a barista.”
Carmelo Corallo, business development manager, Coffee Machine Technologies
The flip side is that a machine can only do what it’s programmed to. “A top barista is able to manage all of the factors that go into a great cup of coffee,” notes Gee. “They can adjust the grind based on humidity, temperature can be adjusted throughout the day, they’re able to froth milk regardless of the type they’ve been given and they can give the customer exactly what they want, so if a customer wants a latte less milky, they can deliver that. It’s changing, but generally most fully automatic machines are standardised and they can’t.”
Plus, a machine can’t exercise its discretion. “AI hasn’t quite got there in terms of taste and choosing the recipe and choosing the expression, so the barista still has that key role,” Lewin explains.
Customer expectations are also essential. “In airports and places where a person is just after a quick coffee shot and not overly concerned about quality and there’s high customer churn, machines might make sense,” Gee muses. “The expectations in cafes and restaurants differ though. The theatre of making a coffee and having a barista is critical. People go in wanting to interact with a barista, and to know that the coffee was made by hand.”
“It’s that human element—they can talk to customers, share nuances about how to get the best out of the coffee, especially with speciality coffee,” Lewin adds.
Corallo concurs. “In a restaurant and cafe environment people want to be involved in the experience,” he says.
“They want to see what’s going on, they want the noise, the smell, the interaction. It’s all part of the theatrics. It’s someone making it personally for you rather than a vending solution. In that regard, in a cafe the better return on investment is a barista 100 per cent.”