RIP pour-over coffee: Coffee machines are making a comeback at fancy cafes across the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. For the past decade, baristas shunned machines that made coffee by the gallon, favoring brewing methods they called more precise: Siphon, Chemex, and pour-over became standard terms, with even Starbucks joining the club a few years ago.
But now that the majority of America’s largest craft coffee roasters (Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle) are owned by larger companies — JAB Holdings, Nestlé — and as the country’s taste for craft coffee has gone from niche to mainstream, a desire for efficiency is upstaging the time-consuming ritual that is pour-over. As the Awl predicted a couple of years ago, the machines are back, and at least some of the country’s top baristas are here for the revival.
“We realized that a lot of customers loved getting a cup brewed for them,” James McLaughlin, CEO of Chicago-based Intelligentsia, told the WSJ. “But in today’s day and age they’re not willing to wait five to seven minutes to get it.”
It’s an irony that the most prized rituals surrounding coffee, a beverage that contains a stimulant, are slow: the leisurely coffee break; the act of watching hot water filter through coffee grounds and into a cup.
Kyle Glanville, co-owner of G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles, says the idea that individualized brewing methods are more precise is untrue. “Robots that are precision-built to do just one task are better than distracted humans,” he told the WSJ. His shops did away with pour-over completely and now only brew coffee in large batches.
But not everyone is on board.
Nestlé, the biggest food company in the world, bought San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee last year for just under half a billion dollars — but don’t expect Blue Bottle to automate just yet. Founder James Freeman told the Journal he’ll switch over to machines that brew coffee in large batches “when hell freezes over and there is a skating party.”
Stumptown Coffee Roasters out of Portland, Oregon, is trying to capture the best of both worlds. The company installed Modbar, an automatic pour-over system, in its cafes. The filter-lined cones are there, and baristas still grind the beans to order, but the machine pours the water.
This system is not new, and is not unlike a typical coffee machine, except that it’s all out in the open. It still looks like a science lab, and takes the same amount of time as a traditional pour-over coffee; but because the barista is mostly hands-off, it saves on labor costs and cuts down on customer waiting times in the long run.
“Selecting coffee, roasting it, getting the brew parameters correct to get best tasting coffee out of a bean — that is definitely a human job,” says Suyog Mody, co-founder of Driftaway Coffee based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “There’s no machine that can taste and then tell you how you should brew it — at least not yet. But once you know what the parameters are, the machines can be programmed to do it a lot better, without human error.”
Mody doesn’t get hung up on the meditative aspects of pour over, and strongly believes that cost is an essential factor. The average barista can make about nine pour-over coffees per hour; a machine can make 100. “Depending on the shop’s real estate costs, if you’re only selling nine pour overs an hour, and you’re in a high traffic location, you’re losing money: No one wants to see a line out the door. They’ll go to the next place, they won’t come back.”
Mody agrees that the changes happening at Intelligentsia and Stumptown are likely a result of from pressures their new parent company, JAB. “It’s a little surprising to me that Blue Bottle is holding out,” Mody says.
So is pour-over over? In addition to Blue Bottle, a few independent shops are still hanging on. Philz Coffee, which is known for its pour-over brews, has no plans to install machines. Its CEO, Jacob Jaber, is focusing on the human elements of slow craft brews. “In a world of automation and speed,” he says, “there need to be things we can do to slow people down and just be present."