Dumb versus Smart Automatic Coffee Makers

Take a look at this photo. Don’t let the sign mislead you; it’s not a showroom for coffee machines. This is where coffee goes to die. It’s a funeral home and these are coffee caskets.

That statement may seem over the top, but these are what I call “dumb” coffee machines. They have archaic controls and were built with the amount of coffee produced per hour as their top selling point (a clear indicator of quantity over quality). If you’re currently using one of these machines to make coffee, you’ll want to use something else. The speed and volume of delivery is attractive for businesses. At best you’ll meet volume demands for a hot beverage that qualifies as coffee. Ultimately, you’ll end up limiting the success of your coffee business because your machine is built for quantity over quality.

There are times when these types of Bunn coffee makers do an OK job. If you clean the hell out of the urn, the machine, and the basket, as well as use the maximum amount of coffee the basket can hold (always a flirtation with disaster) and just the right kind of beans (usually dark roast, very bold coffee) only then does it produce decent coffee. Repeating that level of attention is not practical for every pot made. More often than not, the stars are not forced into alignment with a crowbar, sheer will, and altar sacrifices. The average business owner doesn’t have the time, the patience, or the knowledge of pagan ceremonies and proper rapport with the necessary deities. Ultimately, a hectic schedule and volume demand leads to a situation where the operator doesn’t have the time to maximize the limited potential of these machines. The result is disappointing coffee; the beans almost never reach their potential.

We’re in the midst of a coffee renaissance, or a resurgence of coffee culture, known as Third Wave). The accessibility of technology, information, and better coffee beans has increased dramatically in the US in the past ten or so years and there’s an incredible amount of detailed information, quality gear, and quality beans out there. If you don’t have time to make every batch or cup by hand (via Pour-Over, Chemex, AeroPress, French Press, Espresso, etc), you’ll need an automatic machine that can provide a similar level of care. If you’re a business owner, or even a private consumer with many cups to brew every day or week, don’t suffer with a dumb machine. Grab a smart machine, if you can.

For example, Fetco is an excellent company. Some of the top independent coffee shops in Philadelphia use these smart coffee machines: Fetco Coffee Makers

What you want in an automatic coffee machine is consistency with flexibility. You want to be able to hone in on the way you or your customers want the coffee to taste - and have the ability to repeat the feat. BUT, you also want to be able to adapt and respond to different beans or water as well as tastes. With the dumb coffee machines, there’s no flexibility: the coffee can be brewed one way and no other way - regardless of all other factors.

Contrast this with Pour-Over brewing. Making Pour-Over coffee offers a great deal of flexibility. You can easily adjust and control the water temperature, the type of water you use, the evenness of the brewing across all grounds, the strength of the brew - even with the same amount of water through a controlled pour - and more. There are many variables at play when using a the Pour-Over method.

A greater number of variables in a manual brewing method requires greater diligence on the part of the user to achieve consistency. However that flexibility allows the user to quickly adjust for taste. You can use the same technology to brew an espresso blend, a breakfast blend, or a single origin by adjusting the variables to get the most from those particular beans. Dumb machines can’t adapt to your beans. But, instead of making your coffee manually, you can achieve comparable results with a smart machine.

A parting thought: consistency is not the only goal. If your machine is rigidly consistent, stagnation sets in. Some machines promise the same result time after time. When they deliver on this promise, you’ll find yourself bored because you can’t ever change it. Consider the K-Cup machines. Have you ever tried to drink those day after day, week after week? Unless you’re constantly using different coffees from different brands, then you’re always getting the same experience. There is value in a certain degree of inconsistency. Inconsistency and quality are not mutually exclusive. Even when you do change K-cup selections constantly, you’ll begin to notice that they are each made with almost precise consistency.

Though this issue of consistency is beside the main point (flexible automatic brewing machines that can adapt) it should not be overlooked. How could a great cup of coffee made consistently great be bad? Consider this: perfect or near-perfect consistency no matter how good, after enough exposure, inevitably becomes boring. Using a coffee machine that adapts to different variables will allow you to focus on the quality end of the spectrum, which is lacking in the dumb machines. Those who drink the coffee you make will notice and value the difference.

James Falconi - 2.6.2014

Indy Hall Coffee Taste-Off 2013 (Part 3)


The Tasting and the Voting

On November 13th and 14th, nearly 40 members of the Indy Hall community participated in the 2013 coffee taste-off. On both days, pour-over brewed coffees waited in hot, thermal carafes and espresso blends were at the ready for any would be tasters. Most of the members talked about what they were tasting and gave general indications of how they were voting. Despite this openness, the members seemed to be voting independently and were not easily swayed by the opinions of other members. Like all Indy Hall events, this tasting was another opportunity for members to connect. While rating the coffees without talking about them may have resulted in slightly more independent voting, it would have gone against the grain of something that Indy Hall regularly encourages: collaboration.



The scoring was pretty straight forward as we used a simple 1-5 scale (where 1= “This is crap” and 5 = “Yes, I would bathe in this”). To help split hairs, we offered tasters the option of using .5 ratings, e.g. 1.5, 2.5, etc. We didn’t just give them a scale, though. We encouraged everyone to consider the different characteristics of each coffee and how they would describe it. We hoped those thoughts would come first and then, at last, they’d assign a number once they had come to a degree of familiarity with the taste of each coffee and how they compared to each other. From my observations, this seemed to be the predominant approach.

The Execution: Indy Hall Taste-Off 2013 (Part 2)


The Execution: Selection 

Five roasters eventually agreed to participate in the Indy Hall taste-off and send free samples. The participating roasters were: Dogwood, Green Street, Joe, Raven’s Brew, and Victrola. We threw in one of our current roasters for the sake of comparison (One Village Coffee) and a mystery company as a joke (Folgers). Ha! [Quick shout-out to Menagerie coffee for that great idea].

If the roasters sent us more than two different blends or single origins, we chose the two that would hold up best under the variable conditions at Indy Hall. Each coffee brewed at Indy Hall is subject to:

  1. Multiple people in varying states of consciousness brewing the coffee (inconsistent process)
  2. The urn being in different states of cleanliness (not being rinsed out or cleaned over a given period of time)
  3. A surly and aged Bunn auto drip machine that shows no mercy whatsoever (speed is its motto)
  4. The typical wide array of coffee drinkers with differing tastes
  5. A predominance of…cream-and-sugar people…

Indy Hall Coffee Taste-Off 2013


Indy Hall, a thriving coworking community in Philadelphia with a thirst for great coffee, has been brewing blends by One Village Coffee and La Colombe for almost two years. With a recent influx of new members over that same period 2012-2013 (doubling the total membership - now roughly 250) we decided it was time to hold another taste-off and see what the members would be most interested in drinking. 

The Plan

We invited sixteen roasters (some of the best in the US) to participate. They would have to agree to send us free samples of their most competitive coffees (for an auto drip brewing system and a semi-automatic espresso machine). We would hold a tasting event (blind) and then tally the scores. The winning roasters (2) would get guaranteed business from Indy Hall for the entirety of 2014 (to the tune of 10lbs/month). Here’s a copy of the message we sent to them…