Specialty coffee keeps changing its mind – automation is cool again

  • Specialty coffee consumption has historically been associated with craft and artisanry
  • But with inflation reaching multi-decade highs, more coffee brands are looking to automation to cut costs
  • Is automation pushing brands away from their original values, or is it a natural evolution?

IT IS a widely held belief that specialty coffee was founded on principles of artisanry and craftsmanship.

As a result, most “historic” specialty coffee brands built their identity around values which stand in contrast to automation. Manual brewing has been a hallmark of the movement as a way to get the best out of each coffee.

Specialty coffee has also set itself apart by being more service-focused than big chains. In general, specialty coffee shops make more time for each customer and express more “humanity”, rather than focusing on speed and convenience.

However, this hands-on approach is slowly changing. For some, embracing automation in specialty coffee is at odds with what made the movement so popular. For others, it is a natural next step.

“The specialty movement known as the third wave, certainly extolled the values of craft and barista expertise, but it also placed much greater emphasis on precision and calibration in the preparation of coffee,” says Jonathan Morris, author of Coffee: A Global History.

“In as much as automation offers the second, it is certainly compatible with the goal of specialty professionals to produce the best expression of a particular coffee origin in the cup.  Similarly, the repeatability of automation promises levels of consistency that many baristas would find difficult to maintain.”

Ultimately, between savings and consistency, automation has been heralded as an unstoppable force in the coffee industry for some time. So, is it possible to reconcile that with what specialty coffee stands for?

specialty coffee used to be about craftsmanship

Automation is cool now

In recent years, new technologies like automatic tampers, milk steaming machines and batch brewers have been praised for reducing human error and improving workflow.

While the craftsmanship of specialty coffee has historically been opposed to automated equipment (i.e. superautomatic espresso machines), it seems that more are now embracing it – and trying to change that perception.

“I think a lot of brands fear automation being seen as ‘worse’ because they’re worried that the human element is lost,” says Mike Caswell, founder and chief innovation officer of Roasting Plant US/UK and inventor of the Javabot™, an automatic in-store roasting and brewing system.

Specialty coffee brands may also have a financial incentive to shift these perceptions. With inflation rates almost reaching 10% in the US this year, and exceeding that in Europe, presenting automation as “cool” can allow brands to navigate both rising costs and labour shortages without appearing to abandon their core values.

“I don’t think one can deny that cost, and more particularly a general shortage of skilled labour, has had a role in shifts towards automation,” Jonathan says. 

“The hospitality workforce has long tended to be mobile and transient, with the result that those who train their baristas do not necessarily get to keep them. Automated systems that can match the quality of the average (as opposed to top) barista are therefore valuable, and can be integrated into the production of specialty quality coffee e.g. by foaming milk.” 

specialty coffee shop making a pour over

What’s next?

Being “cool” has always been a hallmark of the specialty coffee industry, and has been a core brand value for many businesses. However, with brand loyalty declining – largely thanks to younger consumers prioritising price and convenience – leveraging automation may not damage a business’s reputation as much as previously thought.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people get a coffee for a pick-me-up or energy boost, so what kind of person doing this wants to be stuck in a queue for ages waiting for their coffee? We prevent that from happening, with the help of automation,” says Mike.

“As for customer perception, with shifts in technology across the board in every sector, whether that be using AI on computers, the high-tech gaming options available or other techy entertainment products, I don’t think brands like us need to try too hard at shifting consumer perception when it comes to automation.”

Whether it’s considered cool or not, there are no signs of automation slowing down in the coffee industry. For some, the response is simple – automation can help highlight the human aspect of specialty coffee, giving baristas more time to actually serve customers.

“The integration of automation into your business should be about improving the customer experience,” Mike says. 

“We believe that experienced, passionate coffee-loving baristas bring it all to life in our stores. Human interaction is core to coffee, so technology should be a tool to make it better and more personal, not to eliminate people or simply gain economic advantage.” 

In years past, many specialty coffee brands felt like all they needed to stand out from the pack was a gooseneck kettle and a burr grinder. But times are changing. For the most part, it won’t be too difficult to stomach – the general public is largely on board with automation, and many brands are happy to move with the times.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, when it comes to authenticity, many specialty coffee brands can take a lot of pride – something they may have to swallow if they want to survive.

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.