You can offer a nearly perfect experience at your restaurant, but if you end it with a poor cup of coffee, you've blown the deal. Here's what you need to know about equipment that delivers high-quallity coffee.
A restaurant's quality is often judged by the coffee it serves. The equipment you use plays a big part in the final product. Not long ago, coffee was drip brewed with unsophisticated equipment and held in simple urns at a set temperature. Current machines are more sophisticated and allow you to achieve a desired taste profile with precise temperatures, brew times and product volumes. The latest coffee equipment offers more science to the art of coffee making.
Coffee can be brewed in large batches in urns or smaller batches in decanters or pots. Makers range in size from a single one-half gallon decanter unit to very large banquet urns. The small decanter or bottle brewers have been around for decades and will serve well. An alternative for smaller operations is shuttles, which are insulated, transport well and dispense product easily through a faucet. These shuttles are great for moveable buffets.
Another popular serving method is the airpot or thermal dispenser. Airpots are completely sealed and insulated like a Thermos and can hold temperature and quality for hours. Airpots are attractive and easy for customers to operate. They are excellent for serving a variety of specialty or flavored coffees since 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, three or more gallons for extra-high volume needs as noted below. Serving from an airpot is sanitary and easy for customers pouring their own coffee in a buffet or quick-service application.
If you plan on holding coffee more than about 20 minutes, use an airpot or thermal dispenser rather than a traditional decanter. While you can't hold coffee forever in an airpot, it will extend the serving life of your product.
A step 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. A few manufacturers make smaller urns, but the most popular is the twin three-gallon unit. 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 more than 600-700 cups of coffee per hour, while a single brew-in-one urn can generally serve one seating at a 100-seat restaurant. If your operation needs to deal effectively with 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. And to make the most of your roast, you need an optimal balance of flavor extraction from the ground beans. Some of the technologies you should expect in the newer coffee equipment include precise extraction control and water temperature monitoring. Experts say water should be at exactly 200°F for the best brew. And for the best coffee flavor, it must be held at no more than 185°F. 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. Programmable machines allow restaurateurs to change the flavor of different types of coffee by varying brew time and volume of coffee made. Look for these controls and understand how to use them.
Don't forget that there are two other factors you can't overlook if your goal is to serve the greatest cup of joe in your neighborhood — cleaning your equipment and water quality. The urn, pot or decanter should be rinsed after each batch of coffee made. Then after each shift, the machine must be thoroughly cleaned to keep the equipment in proper working condition and remove any possible contaminants that may affect coffee taste. Never allow coffee or grounds to remain in an urn or pot overnight. Deliming the machine's water tank periodically will maintain top heating efficiency.
If you want to make your operation known for a great cup of coffee, you can't overlook water quality. Coffee has just two ingredients — coffee and water. About 98% of what is in each cup you sell is water, so it is 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 ground product on the market.
It's vital that you get a high-quality water filter that removes minerals and impurities. It's as important as purchasing good ground coffee or coffee maker.
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. Bendall can be reached at 301-233-5226.