The coffee-bar operators have led the British public to an appreciation of "real" coffee, dragging them away from instant and soluble brews. As a result, customers are now disappointed if they are offered poor coffee in a catering situation. Instant coffee may rule in the home, but it's no longer acceptable in the served cup.
The king now is espresso-based coffee, which includes cappuccinos and lattes. In specialist coffee shops, these are made from powerful machines which cost several thousand pounds a time - but what's the strategy for the small-bar operator who may have to serve only 20 or 30 coffees in lunch or evening sessions, when the customer expects them to be really good ones?
Espresso coffee is made by forcing water at high pressure through finely ground coffee beans. The result is a fluid ounce of dark liquid topped by the crema, a thick layer of golden foam. Cappuccinos and lattes are made by adding foamed and steamed milk to the espresso shot. If this is what customers want, what's the most economical way of making them? It can't be ignored, because cappuccino is profitable - up to £3.50 in some places - but based on 7g of coffee which could have cost 7p.
In manual machines, a barista (Italian for bartender) is skilled in knowing how fine to grind his beans, and how to force exactly the right amount of water through those beans for the right amount of time. Get any one of these things wrong, and you get an unsatisfactory drink.
Helpfully, a bean-to-cup machine removes the manual skill. The operator heaps the beans into the hopper at the back, and the machine does the rest. The end result is never as perfect as a handmade coffee, but from many machines, the result can now be remarkably good.
However, customers do like the theatre of real espresso, with the hiss of steam and the knowledge that the drink is made to order for them by someone skilled enough to do it.
The top espresso machine makers all now offer machines for smaller caterers. For the high-volume coffee trade, two-group or three-group machines are needed, but for a bar doing 50 espressos or so an evening, a one-group is perfectly adequate.
La Spaziale is the British arm of a famous Italian maker whose attention to technical detail is exhaustive. For the small caf or bar, the S1 Vivaldi is La Spaziale's new one-group machine. This incorporates two separate boilers. One is a pressure boiler, used only for the production of steam and hot water, and the second is used for the production of espresso. The reasoning behind this is that a small machine which uses only one boiler for producing both the steam for frothing milk and the water that brews the coffee will have to work harder and slower. List price is £1,295.
The Coffee Machine Company in London is the importer of another famous Italian espresso machine, the Rancilio, and makes an important point for caterers - just because a home machine and a small commercial machine are the same size, don't confuse the two. A home machine used in a small-bar environment will be destroyed distressingly quickly. However, the Rancilio Epoca can still be used with a 13-amp plug, and with a water tank instead of being plumbed into the mains, which makes it extremely portable. List price is £1,215.
The only completely British company making espresso machines is Fracino, from the industrial heart of Birmingham. Fracino devised the Heavenly, which is a remarkably high-powered machine for small-venue use and which has been taken up by many bars and small hotels, at £575. It has now added the Little Gem, which it describes as a compact cappuccino machine, which again features remarkably high power in a very small body. This has a tank capacity which will serve for 70 espressos, and features either a built-in tank or the facility for mains supply.
Making espresso may not be entirely about theatre, but the spectacle counts for a lot. There are perhaps no machines as eye-catching as the Elektra, in its distinctive copper and bronze, surmounted by its famous eagle figure. In some traditional coffee bars in the USA, giant Elektra machines are used which dwarf the operator - but mini versions are available.
The Elektra Microcasa Semi Automatica is only 58cm high, can be operated without being plumbed in and is available in copper and brass, chrome, or a chrome art deco finish. The price is about £950, but for just over £1,000 there's the Mini Verticale, a little bigger all round and featuring a cup-warming dome.
Now, the great art of making espresso requires the user to take 7g of coffee, pour this into the portafilter - the handle which goes under the water spout - and tamp it down until it makes a firm cake. But there is a way round this. It's called the pod system, and it involves something which looks like a circular teabag, with a very solid puck of coffee in it, and which is simply slipped into the holder. Espresso machines sometimes require a special holder, but this is usually no problem, so long as the user remembers to ask about it.
At one time pods were scorned by the purists. Now they're accepted, as it's recognised that they have practical applications in food service. Apart from the speed of use, it would be almost impossible to take a request for a straight espresso, then a decaf, then a Fairtrade, then a flavoured one, since the beans would have to be changed in the grinder for each one. Using pods saves the trouble.
Probably Britain's most comprehensive supplier of pods is Cafco, in Edinburgh, with a variety of Ethiopian, Costa Rican, Italian blends, decaf and extra-high caffeine. Then there's the company's range of flavoured coffees - adding flavours to a latte is a love-it-or-hate-it matter, and is usually achieved by adding a flavoured syrup. These range from the generally acceptable coffee additions to those which rouse coffee purists to anger, such as sticky toffee and strawberries and cream. Cafco has achieved a range of flavoured coffee pods, particularly successfully with vanilla and amaretto flavours. Cafco has also now had its own pod machine made under licence in Italy.
his is the Verona, a twin-boiler machine which it reckons is ideal for the small-bar environment. A Verona, with an initial supply of 300 pods, costs about £399.
There have been several recent advantages in what are known as "one-cup" machines. One which uses a kind of capsule, similar to a single-serving milk portion, is the Nespresso. This uses a similar kind of brewing method to espresso, in that hot water is forced through coffee grounds, but the machine has to pierce the capsule before it brews the drink.
Nespresso's launch was aimed at office and small-hotel use instead of concentrating on the home market. Now a machine has been developed for larger restaurants, and Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred Fat Duck uses several of the machines, with the chef arguing that he has neither the time nor the space for a conventional espresso machine.
The company offered variety - six Grand Crus blends, divided into four families: ristretto, espresso, lungo and decaffeinated. A ristretto is an espresso made with less than a fluid ounce of water, and a lungo with more.
Next up could be a professional version of Europe's most popular one-cup machine, the Senseo. This was devised between Philips and Douwe Egberts, and it's said that half of all Dutch households now use one. This is a conventional pod machine, and it can operate with both branded Douwe Egberts pods and 62mm pods designed for any espresso machine - although this isn't strictly an espresso machine in that it brews at a considerably lower pressure.
The Senseo can create a very quick cup of coffee with a touch of a bite. It will produce a black coffee with the espresso crema quite well, but is at its very best for the quick cuppa with milk.
As one American coffee man has observed, your coffee machine is the artificial heart of your beverage business - if it stops working, so do you. In this regard, the Senseo is still a domestic machine - but at £50, this is the machine to have sitting in the kitchen as your back-up.
- Caféco, 0131 653 3366
- Café du Monde, 01322 284804
- Coffee Machine Co, 020 7327 6862
- Elektra/La Macchinetta, 01274 589693
- Fracino, 0121 328 5757
- La Spaziale, 01246 454400
- Nespresso, 01603 457159
- Senseo/Douwe Egberts Coffee Systems, 020 8236 5000