Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lost In Time: Marco Uber Boiler

Counter Culture's Tech Wizard Brian Ludviksen and the Uber Boiler.

Finally had the chance to play with the Marco Uber Boiler without the torrent of crowds at SCAA, and get a real feel for the boiler. Straight to the point, I'm not terribly impressed.

I've been anticipating the Uber Boiler since James Hoffmann started touting its virtues over a year ago. Almost a year ago, I contacted James and the Marco company for specifications on the updated Uber Boiler because I intended to use it in project hampden. In fact, the brew bar at Spro Hampden was designed and built to accommodate the Uber Boiler. Its interior cabinet dimensions are spec'd to house the Uber exactly.

Unfortunately, production delays and a general inattentiveness towards email inquiries led me to purchase and use a Fetco water tower instead. Guess if we're not world champion baristas we're not that important.

Then I heard about the Uber Boiler's cost: £3900 or roughly US$5,800. Good Lord - isn't this thing just a water boiler? Do I get fellatio for that kind of money???

The Uber Boiler in the early stages of boiler recovery.

Then I heard that Counter Culture was bringing their Uber Boiler up to the La Marzocco Out of the Box event for the hand brew Death Match competition and I was able to spend some time observing and playing with the Uber Boiler, sans fellatio.

First off, it's a gorgeous piece of stainless steel equipment. I long wondered about the wisdom of putting the buttons and screen on the surface of the unit because it's constantly getting wet and being exposed to all sorts of coffee debris but the unit seemed to hold up well.

One of the first questions I had about the unit was how difficult it is to clean under the scale slash drip tray. Because while everyone assured me that everyone would instruct their baristas and staff not to pour beverages and milk down the Uber Drain, that's no very reassuring because all of us know that the greater the pressure on the line, the greater the likelihood that those rules go down the drain - along with brewed coffee, milk and who know what else the harried barista will pour while under duress.

Happily, the scale platform comes off easily and while there are a number of creases, nooks and crannies for scum to build, they seem readily accessible and relatively easy to clean - though how often they will be cleaned by the typical Third Wave barista remains to be seen.

12.9C in over three and a half minutes.

Operation of the Uber is relatively straightforward. Press the Prime button and the unit shuts off the flow valve, refills and reheats the five liter boiler to the specified temperature. I'm not sure how to adjust the temperature but judging by Brian's reaction when I asked him about changing the temperature, I didn't think it was a simple matter of punching a couple of buttons or turning a knob.

Once in the Prime mode, the Uber refuses to do anything except fill and reheat. In fact, it renders the unit completely useless - unless you simply want to use it as a scale or drain.

Once at temperature, you hit the "Boost" button and the machine becomes operable again, though you want to wait until the unit equalizes the "Font" or nozzle temperature to the boiler temperature before using the Uber Boiler to brew coffee.

The use of both the integrated scale and timer are simple enough. Hold the buttons down to reset then hit again to start. Simple.

The Font nozzle itself is controlled by an offset lever that you use to oscillate the Font and direct the water flow over the coffee. It's an interesting feature but the throw radius of the water is not wide enough to completely saturate the side walls of an 8 cup Chemex leaving exposed coffee grounds and oversaturating the center of the filter cone.

Of course, you could physically move the brewing device around, which would destroy the sensitivity and usability of the built-in scale - of which you're depending on to accurately measure the amount of coffee you are adding to the brew, which leaves you stuck again.

In addition, the offset handle is difficult to control - because as any guy or girl knows, it's easier to control with direct manipulation than this weird offset handle.

Starting to equalize Font temp in Boost mode.

But to my mind, the real killer of the Uber Boiler is the recovery time. As a test, I dispensed a liter of water from the Uber Boiler (roughly 20 percent of the Uber's capacity) into a Chemex and then hit the Prime button just to see how long it would take to refill the boiler and recover temperature.

Bear in mind that the Uber for this example was refilling via an external pump fitted to a 5 gallon jug of bottled water at room temperature (roughly 70-75F).

The refill time took Three Minutes and Thirty-Five seconds. An eternity in the world of brew-by-the-cup bar operations.

Three minutes, thirty-five seconds. I could have another cup completing brewing in that time.

Some of you may think that pulling one liter of water out of the Uber is an unfair test. With one liter of water, I can brew nearly THREE 12 ounce coffees. Three coffees is not an unheard of amount at a time when you're brewing by-the-cup.

Sixteen seconds to equalize Font temperature.

Remember, the Uber in Prime mode will do nothing except refill and reheat. This six thousand dollar boiler is dead in the water for over three and half minutes. Holy Crap, we would totally be screwed during the rush.

Add on the sixteen seconds it takes to equalize the Font to the boiler and you're talking Three Minutes and Fifty-One seconds - nearly four minutes to recover after expending only twenty percent of the Uber's capacity. Is this really acceptable???

Some of the other baristas remarked that you can get around this by adding additional Uber Boilers. Really? I'm already spending six times the amount of a Fetco water tower for one Uber and in order for me to handle the rush, I need to purchase an exponentially growing number of Uber Boilers??? That's insanity.

In order to handle Spro Hampden's current volume, we would need two or three Uber Boilers. That's upwards of Eighteen Thousand Dollars investment and we wouldn't have the counter space to accommodate that many Uber Boilers. I can't imagine how many Uber Boilers you would need to handle the volume of places like Intelligentsia Silver Lake - even though those cats could afford twenty Uber Boilers.

Yes, the Uber Boiler is a good-looking boiler. It would look sexy as hell on the brew bar at Spro Hampden. But the boiler recovery time from 80% capacity is simply too long. It would kill your service flow during a rush.

For six thousand dollars, the recovery time for the Uber is too long and needs to be nearly instantaneous to make it a no-brainer winner - and a more, ahem, "accessible" price would make it a killer. But for now, it's simply a sexy toy that's more suited to the home coffee geek with money and time to burn.


Peter said...

The boiler is 2.8kW, this means it will heat 1L of water in about 2 minutes. When plumbed to a mains water supply under normal pressure it takes about 10 seconds to let in 1L, so I suspect the external pump was causing a further delay of over 1 minute.

onocoffee said...

I can certainly accept that considering we didn't have the means to measure the flow rate of the Flojet pump feeding the Uber. Typical water pressure around here tends to be about 80-90psi.

That said, over two minutes is still a long time to wait while the Uber shuts itself down to refill and reheat both the boiler and the font.

If you've got an Uber handy, how about bleeding it down 1 liter and measuring recovery time and then bleeding it out 4 liters and measuring that recovery time? I'd be interested in further discussion.

Peter said...

Sorry for the delay. I did the 2 tests, voltage was the rated 230V This is another possible factor, if ran at lower voltages recovery will be slower and power does not drop proportionately with voltage. e.g. a 2.8kW 230V element ran at 115V gives only 700W, at 200V it gives 2.1kW.

My water pressure was 3bar/45psi. The tank was at the default 90C and I drew off 1L at this temp, took 5 seconds to fill and was finished reheating after 2min 2sec (this includes the 5sec refill). The tank was stable at 91.5C at this point.

Allowing it settle to 90C again I drew off 4L and it took 17sec to fill and was finished and ready to go after 7min 39sec (again including the 17sec) and settled at 91.6C.

These figures are pretty much what I would expect. The industry standard rule of thumb which you see on most brochures is that 1kW will heat 10L of water in 1 hour -these are just basic laws of physics based on the 99%+ efficiency of electric heating elements and typical heat losses and incoming water temperature. Using this basic rule 2.8kW will heat 28L in 1 hour or 466ml per minute, so the time is roughly expect to be 8.5mins to heat 4L of water. This literally depends on the weather as in winter you have a greater difference in temperature between incoming and target temperature. It took less than 8.5mins as it was heating to 90 (most boilers go to~96C) and since the tank is small and well insulated compared to many boilers.

2min may appear a long time but once you know the operation characteristics people will work around it, e.g. set it to intake water and heat when you are busy doing other preparations. For high output areas most will just use bulk brewers.