In the past, high volume coffee was drip brewed with unsophisticated equipment and held in urns. The latest equipment offers more science to the art of coffee making.
Commercial coffee makers range in size from a single one-half gallon decanter unit to very large banquet urns. The small decanter, known as bottle brewers, have been around forever and are very efficient. Smaller operations often use shuttles, which are insulated, transport well and dispense product easily through a faucet. They're great for moveable buffets.
Another popular serving method is the airpot or thermal dispenser. Airpots are completely sealed, insulated and can hold temperature and quality for hours. Airpots are attractive, easy for customers to operate and can be used to serve a variety of specialty or flavored coffees. A group of airpots can be held on a rack for merchandising. These portable containers are often one to three liters but can be two or three gallons or more for extra-high volume needs. If you plan on holding coffee more than 20 minutes, use an airpot or thermal dispenser rather than a traditional decanter.
The move up in coffee volume from a decanter is an urn, most likely a double three-gallon size used in many medium- to large size restaurants. Some manufacturers have started making portable thermal dispensers for these larger urns. A common purchasing mistake is to buy too large a coffee maker. A twin three-gallon urn can make 600-700 cups of coffee per hour. A single brew in one urn can generally serve one seating for a 100-seat restaurant. If your serve decaf coffee or any other special blends or flavored coffees you'll need to consider having multiple portable thermal dispensers to accommodate the different brews.
To brew a great cup of coffee, you must start with a quality-roasted bean. To make the most of your roast, you need an optimal balance of flavor extraction from the ground beans. Some of the newer technologies include precise extraction control and water temperature monitoring. Water should be just around 200°F for the best brew. Accurate temperature control is a must. Specially designed spray discs like showerheads drip hot water droplets at the proper rate to have the optimum balance of brew strength and extraction. Some manufacturers have features that spray water intermittently over the coffee for optimal extraction. Others have a pre-wetting cycle to saturate the grounds and ensure a full, even extraction and the perfect cup of coffee. Calibration and fine-tuning of the timing and water spray are easy for the operator to do on many of the latest models. Look for these controls and understand how to use them.
If you want to make your operation known for a great cup of coffee, one item — water quality — cannot be overemphasized. About 98% of what is in each cup you sell is water, so it's imperative to treat your water like a valuable resource. If you don't, you can't provide the best cup of coffee even with the best coffee bean on the market. Getting a high-quality water filter that removes minerals and impurities is as important as getting good coffee beans or a good coffee maker. Compare equipment features when you buy. Fine tune your brew and make your operation known for its great cup of Joe! It will pay off in the end.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.