Like the drummer in a band, Corey Waldron—an ex-barista from Fort Wayne, Indiana—was tired of hiding behind a hulking metal instrument. So, he set out to create a new type of espresso machine, one that is hidden from view. Modbar, short for modular brewing systems, is a set of three individual chrome "taps" (think of a bar with beer taps) that sprout up from a counter and dispense espresso, steamed milk and pour-over coffee. What’s new is that the once manual barista job now pairs with slick electronic components under the counter that can be endlessly programmed to control details like pressure, temperature, cleaning and more.
Modbar has been around for over two years and, despite a $17,000 price tag and wait list through January 2016, dozens of cafés are cropping up across the country with its unique build outs. In New York City alone, top drinks hubs like Little Collins, Budin, Gotan, City of Saints, Matcha Bar, and the Counter Culture's Training Center have all adopted the technology.
Newcomer to the list is Padoca Bakery on the Upper East Side, opened by Brazilian baker Marina Halpern. She explains, "I did not understand the taste of coffee and I got really interested in why it tasted so different." Halpern chose to work with Nobletree, a specialty coffee roaster in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and there they turned her on to Modbar. "It's a lot more fun," Halpern says. "You can change a lot of the settings like how many seconds you want to strike the coffee for. You can go from one side to the other. It feels dynamic. It’s more simple than other ones."
While most espresso machines come from Italy, this brand is manufactured almost entirely in the U.S. Modbar co-founder Aric Forbing states that almost 90 percent of their components are made within a thirty mile radius of their factory in Fort Wayne. This means they can drive out at a moments notice to discuss technical issues, and (bonus) it helps support the local economy. The Indiana native adds, "We definitely didn't want to send anything overseas where quality could be a problem. The local angle works for us."
Despite their small-town roots, the company has a big-name partner in La Marzocco. According to Forbing, the revered Italian espresso machine maker has been instrumental in their success, helping with business and marketing support and, despite the overlap in coffee equipment, there doesn't seem to be a whiff of competition.
Forbing founded Modbar in 2012 with Waldron (who is no longer part of the company) after their first invention, Jet Steam Espresso, failed. Originally they built an all-in-one machine, but "everyone wanted different configurations," says Forbing. They struck espresso gold when they figured out how to split up the coffee making from the electronics so that customers could "design it anyway they want."
Inspiration and design for the hardware came from several areas: a chemistry lab, vintage stereo equipment, and the unsung hero of the computer world, server racks. Forbing says he spent far too much time in his basement trying to come up with all the right answers, but hardware aesthetics were still easier to construct than the visible arms. "We really struggled with the design of the taps," he says, referring to the three-month period where he was "beating his head against the wall." In search of organic inspiration he and Waldron Googled "nature images" and came across a whale leaping out of the water and ran with it for the design of their espresso module. "It was definitely the most intensive design project I’ve worked on," says Forbing.
It may sound a bit automotive, but under the Modbar hood the coffee mechanic will find highly configurable controls like gear-pump driven pressure profiling; dual boiler technology with an active thermoblock brewhead; a 3-zone PID temperature control; real time pressure and temperature readouts; plus auto back flush, rinse time and cleaning reminders. The ambidextrous spouts work for lefties and righties and, we’re told, are extremely rugged in their handling. Last but not least, all of the programming and information occurs on a fancy little 3.2 inch full-color touchscreen display. Modbar even has power saving abilities. The system, designed to be turned on and off with ease, only takes five minutes to heat to operating temperature. Compare that to an old school machine, which might take up to an hour.
The small Modbar team is currently producing about twelve units a week—or about fifty a month. But since they’re modular, that doesn't mean fifty cafes. "A typical setup is three modules [two espressos and one steam], so we’re producing for about four cafes a week," says Forbing. Despite the backlog of orders, the company is staffing up on its production team, but Forbing is clear that they’re "trying to do it in a sustainable way," which is why there's a six month wait list for customers in the U.S. and U.K.
Steadfast, a Nashville café with low-profile counters and clean lines, also features Modbar. Co-owner Nathanael Mehrens explains that he chose Modbar because he "...wanted to open up the space in between the barista and the customer and make it accessible and professional." Another upside to the system for Mehrens was that the highly programmable settings could be changed on the fly.
"People love the look of it," he says, describing their Modbar setup of two espresso modules and one steam. "The way we have our service set up, the first person you talk to is the barista, and instead of having a machine in front of you, you can act as a host and walk people through the process."
Cuvée Coffee, an Austin café that just hit its one year mark, is taking a stab at re-inventing the coffee bar experience. "It’s a weird analogy," Cuvée proprietor Mike McKim says, "But the first time I went into a Chipotle, you know, where you’re picking your tortilla, and then your ingredients. I thought it was cool, and why don’t we do this in a coffee shop?" Modbar's components allowed McKim to split up functions with ease. When customers walks into the Austin café, the first thing they do is pick a cup size, then select beans, choose a type of milk, and finally decide on a coffee style, moving along a low counter with unencumbered baristas at every step.
What’s next for Modbar other than filling its backorders? Maybe conquering the cocktail bar. (Hint, hint.)