But technology in coffee was recently taken to the next level with the launch of the first robotic café in the US, thanks to Cafe X Technologies.
Located in a San Francisco shopping centre, the café has no tables or chairs, no staff and, allegedly, no lengthy queues. Instead, every coffee is prepared in seconds by a robotic arm named Gordon.
By cutting overheads and staff wages, a cup of coffee from Gordon will set customers back a measly US$2.25 ($2.97).
So is this the start of a new, robot-driven direction for the industry?
Probably not, according to Alex Williams, co-founder of Sydney café Dachshund Coffee.
“I don’t know if Australia is quite there yet, I think what people relate to with coffee, particularly within the speciality coffee industry, is the people behind it,” he says.
“As much as you’re enjoying the experience and you’re enjoying the product, I think a lot of the time people are investing in other people. It’s the people making the coffee that customers keep coming back for, that kind of relationship.
“It would be the same for the craft beer or wine industry, anyone with a focus on provenance, the art of actually creating a product. I think the human component that is involved in that is what makes it so special.”
Angus Lindsay, head barista at coffee roaster and café business Single O, agrees, saying robotic cafés are “just glorified super automatic coffee machines”.
“Does the addition of a robotic arm and an ordering app change the game that much? I don’t really think so.”
Lindsay says while Australia is bound to see robotic coffee shops open in the future, cafés will prevail.
“There is too strong a culture surrounding the ritual of café-going for people to give it up that easily.”
Tim Morris, the in-house industrial automation expert at Wolff Coffee Roasters in Brisbane, says while there’s definitely a place in the market for robotic cafés, it’s important to understand their limitations.
He says not only do robotic cafés lack human interaction, which many consumers crave, the technology isn’t all that different to the automatic coffee machines you’d find in homes and offices.
“It’s largely just a push button coffee machine with a robotic arm. So what you’re automating is the convenience of a quick coffee. There’s definitely a place for them, but they’re basically vending machines.”
However, Morris understands the benefit in cutting staff out of the equation for Cafe X.
“Having staff is good in our particular sector because we’re more interested in the specialty and the hand-crafted nature of coffee,” he says.
“But from [Cafe X’s] point of view it’s good because you can sell someone a coffee at 3am. You might only get one sale in that one night or morning but if you were paying a person to do that there’s a lot of idle time that you’d be paying for.”
While Australia might not be ready for robotic cafés just yet, there are certainly other ways the industry is embracing technology.
Williams says technology within the industry is “somewhat inevitable”.
“All you’ve got to do is look at even the last seven years just through digital technology and how it’s integrating into the way that we interact and engage with cafés,” he says.
At Dachshund Coffee, pre-ordering mobile apps like HeyYou are used to streamline the customer experience, removing the in-store payment transaction completely and rewarding customers for their loyalty.
“Depending on the consumer, they can almost remove the human element altogether if they don’t want to say hello – and that works for some people,” says Williams.
“But HeyYou has recently recognised that so much of the enjoyment that comes in belonging to a coffee shop is knowing the people, so they’ve actually put more of a focus on the relationship.
“So they’ve changed their application to include names and faces for both retailers and consumers to try and foster that sense of belonging.”
Williams says the app also enables the café to directly target consumers in the area and send notifications to their smart phone, reminding them to come in for a coffee if they’re nearby.
“That engagement point is no longer constrained by the physical space, we’re able to talk to people outside of the café itself,” he says.
At Wolff Coffee Roasters specially-designed technology is used to identify the ideal roasting temperature profile for each different type of coffee bean to ensure every roast is consistent.
“This is not maintaining the beans at one temperature throughout the entire roast process, they’re actually driven through a curve,” says Morris.
“We have at least four different temperature probes throughout the machine measuring the temperature all the time.
“The software and hardware I’ve developed takes those readings and measures them. It then allows us to save that, then automate it and replay it over and over again.”
The company’s most recent development is the introduction of a silo system that will help automate a normally labour intensive part of roasting.
Morris explains one of the company’s coffee blends, the Big Dog Blend, is made up of several beans from different origins which are each housed in separate silos.
“The roaster will be at the machine using the automated roasting software and he’ll have his schedule of what roast he’s doing for the day and the machine will automatically call up the recipe for that blend, weigh out 25kg of that ratio, move it across the factory and put it into the roaster,” says Morris.
“The roasting machine does 25kg batches, all day, five days a week, so you basically need repeatability.”
At Single O, technology is used in almost every aspect of the business, according to Lindsay.
“Most recently we have started using espresso machines with inbuilt scales that weigh our espresso shots. This helps us with consistency so that our coffee tastes great no matter what barista is on the machine,” he says.
“On the roasting side, we use software that logs every detail of our roast, manages inventory and quality control all within the one system. This helps with consistency of our product and makes it easier for us to make small changes and review what we’ve been doing.”
While technology helps to improve quality and efficiency in the roasting and brewing side of things, Lindsay says face to face relationships are still essential in the industry.
“Our most successful relationships with coffee farmers rely on us travelling to the origin and dealing with the farmers directly,” he says.
“As it goes down the line, we have strong relations with every aspect of the coffee business including our espresso machine manufacturers and wholesale accounts.
“At a café level, we rely heavily on regular customers. They come to Single O because we like to make them feel comfortable and they know what to expect. I think any good café will do this and this is why the café scene in Australia is so strong.”
Looking to the future, Lindsay says technology will undoubtedly evolve to make it easier for growers, roasters and tasters to make an even better quality product.
“What it looks like we’re heading towards is a world where baristas are more of a curator or programmer,” he says.
“There will still be a desire for human interaction and the need for a human to dictate what tastes best.
“Even if robots do take over, we will still need people to taste the coffee and program the robots to make it. Unless robots develop tongues. Then I’m out of a job.”