of Bologna, Italy -- in an otherwise unremarkable industrial estate -- lies a small coffee shop. It has an outdoor seating section under umbrellas, where the stylish, young men of the city gather on scooters and in sports cars to hang out and look cool.
Inside the café are the regular necessities of an Italian café - a sassy waiting staff, the traditional free, energetic snacks, and a superb espresso made by people that have lived it and understand.
This is the Jakarta Coffee Bar, although it isn’t a coffee bar at all. It is the brilliantly imaginative frontage for the factory, La Spaziale. If you slip through the door that is behind the counter, you would find yourself on the factory floor. In this location, there are some remarkable espresso machines made.
Recently, two very unusual machines were being tested in that coffee bar. Only an espresso enthusiast would have noticed the unusual, technical features of them, which are due to arrive in America with the launch of the new La Spaziale S5.
|The new Spaziale S5 features individual temperature controls and the slider mechanism, instead of a dial for steam control
According to Maurizio Maccagnani, the president of La Spaziale, the company is distributing approximately a thousand machines in the U.S. each year, via the main offices in Connecticut and Seattle.
La Spaziale has a technical track record. The company was formed by a couple of guys that worked for Faema on the classic E61 Espresso Heat-Exchange System during the 1960s.
In developing their unique espresso systems, the founders of the company realized that one item in the espresso machine always remained at a consistent temperature -- the steam. They noticed that with a system based on steam, the water that is heated and passing through would always have a consistent temperature.
“One of the biggest mistaken beliefs in espresso is that you take the hot water from the boiler to make your coffee,” explains Steve Penk, the company’s sales director in the U.K. ”Well, you don’t do that at all. In most machines, you brew with cold water that has gone through a coiled copper pipe, which sits in the boiler, being heated by that hot water.”
However, he claims that this can cause a problem with consistency. “If you do not make an espresso for 10 minutes, you will then draw water that has been sitting in that copper pipe and has probably been heated to the temperature of the boiler. If you then make three more in a row, you are using water that has passed straight through the copper pipe, and is probably at a lower temperature than the first one. Your four espressos will be of different temperatures!”
With the new systems, there is a copper heat exchanger that is a secondary water chamber sitting above each group head. Penk continues, “The heat source for this secondary chamber is the steam. This means that the temperature of the water passing through to the group head is dependant upon that secondary chamber, and not upon the temperature of the water in the main boiler.”
The company utilizes this new feature with the S5, but takes the principle even further. “The S5 now allows for a different temperature for each group head,” explains Penk. “I cannot say this is unique, but I can say I haven’t seen it on other machines!” Penk claims that nothing else matters as much as the temperature of the water that hits your coffee. “There is a myth that one size fits all, and people have been taught that the sweet spot is 94°C, but it isn’t. It depends upon each roast, and you should have the chance to play with your machine and find the optimum temperature for your blend.”
|Outside of the Jakarta Coffee Bar, during a typical morning rush
The second unusual feature of the S5 is not exactly unique, but certainly uncommon. The system has a slider control instead of a control wheel for the steam, which for the less-skilled barista, this is thought to be a far more helpful type of control.
“A lever steam control is not new,” explains Maccagnani. “What we have done, which is unique, is the way the lever opens and closes the valve. Nobody has done it better. What we have done is make a control that does not wear out.”
La Spaziale’s attitude towards new technology can be taken to surprising extremes, especially with the fascinating aspect that every single employee is expected to know every stage development. This is because, unlike other factories, assembly here is not on a production line. There are about two dozen workstations in the assembly plant, in which only one person constructs a whole, entire machine.
Each operator can - on a good day - turn out three espresso machines, and every single one is made to order (to allow for any customization). That machine is then triple-signed by the assembler, the packer and tester. The company claims that this means that everyone is responsible. If you built it, you sign for it! Among other things, they also have to test the company’s boilers to a totally unrealistic pressure level.
“A boiler is effectively a bomb,” observes the company. “It has to be tested and certified annually, although very few people actually do. Since our tests are so high, the chances of one ripping apart are remote - but it is still the coffee bar owner’s responsibility to have that certificate.”
A Modern Blend
|Maurizio Maccagnani, President of La Spaziale, UK; Steve Penk, Sales Director of La Spaziale, UK
The unusual features of the range have progressed into computerized and remote control era. On the S5, it is possible to connect a computer and wireless modem, and transfer the parameters of a new coffee blend. This way, when that blend is used, the machine automatically resets to the appropriate settings.
La Spaziale has applied other characteristics to its range. For example, one machine has an alarm that is used for the extraction time. If it is significantly different from the norm for making espressos, a ‘beep’ alerts the operator that the grind needs to be changed. Another machine has a data card built in, which records everything the machine did and transfers it to a computer. This way, if something goes wrong, the mistake can be easily found and corrected. Rather more reassuringly, with such a system, it is also possible to program it to demonstrate the performance level of each barista or waiter.
“The emphasis of our work is to show that all espresso machines are not the same,” says Penk. “We have a situation where coffee roasters are taking their business far more professionally than ever before, spending good money with growers all over the world. They’re aware that they are selling to café operators, whose machines are producing the right temperature perhaps one time out of four!”
He continues, ”Only consistency of performance is going to give the barista and roaster assurance that the customer will receive a consistently good drink, which is what grows a business. The point of what we are doing is to create a vast number of little things, which will excite people when they get it right. Don’t be afraid of these things - embrace them!”
Ian Boughton is editor of Boughton’s Coffee House, the magazine for the British retail coffee trade. Its daily-update news service can be found at www.coffee-house.org.uk.