Office Coffee: Espresso in the workplace?

More and more I see offices getting espresso machines and I ask myself, is this a good idea?

As specialty coffee has expanded, so has an appreciation for espresso.  Sure, the trend was started by Starbucks, but with great roasters making great blends, people have seen just how jaw-dropping it can be and not surprisingly they want more.  They want it at their cafes, in their homes, and increasingly, in their offices.  Some offices have found a way to do this successfully.  Google, for example, has a fully trained, full time barista as their office coffee.  That's great, but unless you own the internet (hyperbole), it seems a little impractical.

Other offices are pursuing the same goal, but have to make concessions to reality.  That's fine and inevitable, but I think that you need to ask if the concessions are ultimately elevating or debasing the quality of the coffee you can drink on a daily basis.  It is possible to get great coffee in your office, either by french press or pour-over or even an automatic brewer like a Fetco.  But that lacks the pizzazz of espresso.  So offices are getting espresso machines of one kind or another.

 A La Marzocco Linea EE, known as a cafe "workhorse" but for an office, they can be tough to manage.  

A La Marzocco Linea EE, known as a cafe "workhorse" but for an office, they can be tough to manage.  

I'm not talking about Nespresso (they have their whole own problems, like $40+/lb coffee and I don't even really consider them as making espresso), I'm talking about manual espresso machines and Jura.  Now I love espresso.  As a cup, there is a nothing quite like it.  It's subtle, quick and can be enjoyed at the peak of its quality.  When properly done, it can be like a draft of AC on a sweltering Manhattan summer day, and an epiphany.  For a roaster, it can give such a clear point of view on the specific bean that it stress the skill required to make a proper, balanced blend.  In a few ways, it even seems perfect for an office setting.  It's quick, it makes a single serving, it seems fancy and can impress a client.  It can steam milk, making it palatable to people who don't even really like coffee.  With all these elements going for it, I can see how it  seems like a perfect idea as the office coffee for a high-end office.

But there is also a good amount to say against it.

Manual Machines

Manual machines, be they lever, paddle, or button, make the best espresso, when paired with a proper grinder, such as a Mazzer.  Companies like La Marzocco and Rancilio, I would argue that if you are a coffee geek, it would be hard to view fully-automated machines as being even in the same league.  But as the office coffee machine, these are a nightmare.  Heres why.

1) Constant Adjustments- Because fo the very fine grind of espresso, combined with the pressure needed for a proper extraction,  espresso ends up being as finicky as a race car.  Changes in temperature, and relative humidity, not to mention elevation, all effect the rate of extraction.  To compensate for such changes, a skilled barista will change the grind settings by minuscule amounts.  Simply put, if you want to make an espresso, this means you are going to spend two shots at the absolute, bare and insufficient minimum dialing in, before you make a palatable shot.  Of course the next person in line will have a different tamp and technique, to they'll have to do this all over again, which brings me to my next point.

2) Multiple Users-  Even in the most crowded cafes you'll notice there is really only ever one person making espresso.  That is largely because of reason 1.  Once a barista hits their stride and gets the machine into its sweet spot (pursuing the ever-elusive and near mythical "god shot"), everybody knows to leave well enough alone.  Of course, adjustments will still be made, but in general, you're pulling 9/10 shots as good quality shots.  The same simply isn't true in an office setting.  First off, not everybody is going to have nearly sufficient training on the machine.  Even with automatic dosers (I recently had a chat with Jules, the NY barista trainer from Stumptown, and she told me this technology has cut training times in half) it takes hours and hours and hundreds of dollars of beans not to embarass yourself when you step up to brew.  These machines are designed to be used by professionals, and if you are an advertising executive, your profession isn't making great espresso.  Even were everybody properly trained, not everybody has the same tamp.  When dealing with a machine where such fine differences make drastic changes in results, the subtle nuances to a person's tamp is the difference between a 26 second (i.e. perfect) and a 34 second (i.e. bitter) shot.

3) Maintenance-  If you have ever worked at a cafe, you know that properly maintaing an espresso machine is really a process.  You have to scrub the grouphead, the screw, and the screen.  You have to soak the portahead in purocaf/water and then green-side-of-a-sponge until perfectly clean.  After that you have to use a blank portahead to back-flush the machine.  Meanwhile you're getting rid of the milk scum from the wand.  Now ideally, the wand is whipped down after every use (yeah right, in an office setting) but even so, you need to go through the cycles to get everything properly done.  Then, you have to reassemble the machine without making the screen to tight or it gets stuck when the metal cools.  In a cafe, this is part of someones job.  The $10,000 machine is a fundamental part of your business and you'll keep it in shape.  need to empty, and brush out the grinder.  To do it properly takes another good 10 min to get all the bits of finely-ground coffee out.  In the office, nobody is going to do it out of the kindness of their heart.  It's annoying and half the time you burn yourself.  Even if an office helper has the job of cleaning the machine, it takes a good while to do properly and a good amount of training to perfect.  You also

4) Cost- Espresso machines are expensive.  Good espresso grade conical burr grinders are expensive.  But lets say they were both free.  To make the same number of cups of coffee (even an 8oz cup v. a 1oz espresso or 20z dopio) it takes significantly more beans.  This means that not only are you paying more for the machine, the ongoing cost of using it is greater.  Additionally, without an electronic doser, there is a good amount of waste associated with dosing the espresso in the first place.  While this might seem insignificant, when beans can get to $20/lb, and you are going through 50lbs+ per week (which a large office could easily do), your talking about significant sums of money.

5) Mess-  A fundamental part of any barista's uniform is a rag.  Steaming milk is a messy process, dosing coffee is a messy process.  In fact, the whole thing is just messy!  You're moving tiny little baskets of finely ground coffee around and theres dripping going on and even in a commercial setting, without a skilled and attentive barista its a mess.  In an office where clean up is ultimately viewed as someone elses job, I've seen nightmares.

So it seems like a manual espresso machine has significant drawbacks.  Lets look at the Jura.  Some of the problems are the same, but some are different.  The jura requires no training, is significantly easier to maintain and isn't as messy, but it still has drawbacks.

Jura

1) It doesn't make very good espresso-  This seems rather straight forward and is really the deal breaker here.   Just like no race car driver has an automatic transmission, there is a reason no cafe worth its salt has an automatic machine.  The machine lacks the nuance of a manual, has a built in grinder that is near impossible to clean, and doesn't have as accurate a temperature gauge and can't adjust for humidity.  Even if you used the best beans in the world, you wouldn't be getting nearly the quality, nor the subtly they could provide.  You can drink it, but why?  I personally would always prefer a  good cup of drip to a mediocre espresso and mediocre espresso is exactly what a Jura makes.

2) Cost-  Again we come to cost.   A jura is not a cheap thing ranging in price from around $800 to almost $7000.    Again, espresso is less efficient than drip coffee so you end up with a higher cost to daily use.

3) The steam wand is terrible.  A while back I had to teach an office with a Jura how to properly steam  milk.  It was nearly impossible.  The machine simply lacks the steam pressure required to properly steam milk.  Even worse, it has an automatic duration that is simply too short to make anything.  The best you could do is push twice and hope for the best.  With a bit of practice I was able to make a distinctly sub-par latte, but I was very disheartened.  Manual machines are expensive for a reason.  That kind of pressure and temperature isn't easy to maintain and adjust.

Conclusion.

So there you have it.  Either you get a neurotic and high-maintenance machine, or an expensive but unimpressive one.  I hate to say it, but I feel like espresso is best left to professionals or fanatics.  I'm not saying that there is no place for it, but by its very nature, it is best done repeatedly, by the same person in a setting where it can be properly adjusted and maintained.  An office simply isn't that setting.  It seems harsh to say, but its true.  Even in the home there are many of the same problems.  For my friends wedding, I, along with his brother, got him a Gaggia G3 (a nice little machine if I may say so) and a Mazzer Mini.  This is a solid espresso setup.  What does he make on a daily basis?  Chemex.  Why?  It is annoying to wait 15minutes to heat the machine up first thing in the morning.  It is expensive to dial in to make two espressos.  It is a pain to clean after using.  Also, a chemex was a damn fine cup of coffee.

So what is the alternative?

If I were a coffee geek in an office with bad office coffee,  I would have Joyride (that is, us) put in a Fetco.  These machines are as reliable as a honda and they make great coffee.  Maybe it lacks the flash of espresso, but when you use good beans, like a single origin Mordecofe, or a single varietal, you can get a cup that is nuanced, delicious and best of all, anybody can make it without any real training.  As far as I'm concerned, these simply make the best, most consistent office coffee.

What if my office didn't want a machine or has (shudder) K-cups?  I would get a hot water heater, a chemex and a burr grinder.  It may take 4 minutes to make coffee, and people would come to get a cup, so you would have to brew all the time, but its tasty and its pleasantly focusing thing to do throughout the day.  Looking back at this, I seem grumpy as hell and like I hate espresso machines.  I really don't.  I love them in all their   Sorry about that.

By Joyride Co-Founder, Adam Belanich