Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Living The LB Loca

Bex, Martin, Jeremy, Lindsay and Devlin ponder the meaning of hot water.

Received a message the other day that Ben and Andrew were going to be in town for a day and perhaps we might be interested in having a look see at their LB-1 Water Delivery System prototype.

As you'll see in the photos, this iteration of the LB-1 is a bit more industrial looking with design cues that reminds me of the Slayer espresso machine. Large, brushed metal panels, polymer ribs and a style that looks chunky while remaining quite svelte. Spro Hampden is a muted space with cream colored walls, mahogany cabinetry and dark granite countertops but the LB-1's industrial look surprisingly did not look out of place on the brew bar.

The model we played with today is the second generation prototype. Being a prototype, there are some kinks to work out and who knows what the final production model will look like and feature. This one however sports large brush metal side panels and drip tray. The unit is essentially two pieces: the main body and the drip tray. Assembly is surprisingly easy and the unit lightweight and low-profile.

One of the ideals behind the unit is to make it easy for an existing shop to add a by-the-cup brewing device. All the LB-1 needs is a standard water line and a 125v 15a socket and you're good to go. Tapping a T off the hand sink water line took a couple of minutes, plug it in and we were ready to rock and roll.

Andrew and Ben talking the points.

Unlike hot water boilers in the coffee industry today, the LB-1 heats water on demand and we were pulling at temperature water essentially the moment the machine was powered on. Impressive.

Somewhere in the sleek casing of the LB-1 is the heating device, which will either run cold line water through the system or heated water to a tenth of a degree. Simply turn the dial, select the temperature and squeeze the nozzle-mounted button and away it goes. A full screen menu allows you to brew manually or select preset brewing profiles.

Beyond simply controlling water temperature, the LB-1 also allows you to control water flow rate from a trickle to 11 ounces per minute. I've been told there is potential to increase the flow rate but that would also require a power increase. The unit does not allow the operator to set a flow rate faster than the machine can heat the water accurately.

The cell phone import screen is bright, crisp and clear and is hands-down the current best control screen in the coffee brewing marketplace. If only other manufacturers would get into 2007 with GUI screens, then we might have something to get excited about.

Up close and brewing.

The LB-1 GUI is relatively simple and straightforward. A press of the main knob selects the menu options from Presets to parameters and then a twist of the knob inputs the values. A separate, mechanical knob controls the water flow rate - which is displayed on the screen.

A separate button controls additional timer and flow calculation functions but the button had been damaged in transit from Boston and wasn't operative today.

Currently, the presets are limited to straight time and flow. Brewing complexities such as 30 seconds, 2 ounces, stop, then flow 11 ounces for 3 minutes 30 seconds are not possible at this time. It would be a nice feature if the software allowed for complex brewing parameters at varying intervals. Ideally, a barista would be able to select from a menu of presets that are operator labeled. Then you could program the unit with parameters for methods like: "V60", "Clever", "Chemex", etc.

Devlin and Bex work the V60 pour overs.

During one of the tests, I was able to approximate a pseudo-complex brew by programming the unit to flow at a rate of 3.4 ounces per minute, which would result in a brew time of roughly 4 minutes for 12.8 ounces of water into a Beehouse pourover. It worked well enough and lent a good idea the potential for the unit.

The actual brewing is actuated by a button on the control nozzle. Click it once and the unit starts to brew either in manual mode (click once to start and again to stop) or preset mode (click once to start the preset and the unit stops according to the set parameters), hold the button down and it flows on demand - meaning that the flow stops when you release the button.

It's a good idea and works pretty decently but the prototype button demonstrated some difficulty knowing when to start and stop when wet. The nozzle features a nice, ergonomic contour but those used to using a Hario Buono (or similar) kettle will notice right away this prototype's need for a more refined nozzle tip. It's shape means the water stream droops and is a bit messy.

Dispersion of water across the coffee bed is achieved by manually maneuvering the nozzle around and saturating the coffee. This is where we started to see that the unit needs to be "higher" in clearance. Stack a scale, ceramic cup and V60 pourover on the drip tray and you're snaking your hand into the clearance between the lip of the V60 and the bottom edge of the LB-1's top. Want to brew a double 24z Chemex with the unit? Not going to happen - not enough clearance.

Though I should note that the necessity of a scale will probably not be an issue since the unit measures water volume - negating the need for a scale to weigh dispensed water.

Comparative Chemex Brewing.

While we're used to pouring water over the coffee bed by hand, I'm wondering if there is a way to create some sort of "showerhead" that will disperse the water over the coffee bed evenly. As we were brewing, I noticed different patterns in the "crema" of the brewing methods, as well as the way the coffee rested on the filters as the coffee drained through.

Our first test brew was to pit hand brewed V60 pour over of Barefoot Coffee's San Jose Rojo versus the LB-1. One of the potential problems we face in the current state of by-the-cup brewing is the constant loss of water temperature throughout the brew cycle. The LB-1 delivered water at a constant 92C for this test and the LB-1 brew was the everyone's choice as "better" than the hand-brewed.

With that in mind, it's easy to think that the LB-1's flat temperature profile is the trump card, but I'm not so sure about that. Differences in agitation, water temperature and flow rate may have skewed the results. One of the biggest concerns I have with the Hario V60 is probably the reason why baristas nationwide seem to prefer it: it can brew coffee faster than the Beehouse.

The V60's large orifice and turbofan design means that you can brew a 12z cup of coffee in under two minutes. The restricted orifices of the Beehouse forces a longer brew time. Certainly an argument can be made that a skilled barista will time their V60 brew out to 3-4 minutes, but the pressure a line can too easily translate into fast brews.

Presetting Beehouse brew parameters.

The difference in taste between the two cups was dramatic and I have to admit that it was the first time I have ever thought that the Extract Mojo would have come in handy. It would have been helpful to test the brews and see the differences in solids extraction.

Before anything definitive can be stated, it's going to require more thorough investigation and testing with the unit, but the results so far are at the very minimum "interesting" if not outright "promising."

Bringing the LB-1 into a working service environment proved useful in a number of ways. Not only were we able to "play" with the machine but we were also able to brew coffees for customers under the pressure of a surprisingly peppy afternoon service.

Letting it flow at 3.4 ounces per minute.

While we only had the machine on the brew station for a couple of hours, some thoughts come to mind specifically for service at Spro. Since my experience with the LB-1 at SCAA Anaheim and the Uber Boiler at LM Out of the Box, I've been a bit skeptical about the applicability of these brewing units in our service environment.

First off is cost. At just under six thousand dollars and a boiler that takes 4 minutes 16 seconds to recover after dispensing only twenty percent of it's capacity and rendering the unit useless during the recovery period, the Marco Uber Boiler can prove to be a customer killer. It's simply an eternity in the heat of service for a machine to be down for that long - and since it's unlikely that a barista will recharge the system after only using a liter's worth of water, chances are that the barista will run the boiler down to 10% capacity before recharging. And if 20% took just over four minutes, I cringe to think how long 90% will take to recover.

Here the LB-1 has an edge. Current estimates project the LB-1's MSRP to be roughly half that of the Uber Boiler. Add the on-demand water feature with no recovery time and the LB-1 has another edge over the Marco. Smaller footprint and lower power requirements both best the Uber Boiler again.

But this really isn't about the LB-1 beating the Uber. Compared to a Fetco FWB-5, they're both expensive and a considerable investment. Neither can match the flow rate of the Fetco (or any standard water tower, for that matter), but they do offer greater control.

Ben and Andrew with Matt from Gizmodo.

One of the biggest problems with either the LB-1 or the Uber is that they can only brew one coffee at a time. If you're a shop offering only by-the-cup brewing, you could be screwed. The pundits will tell you that it's easy to overcome by purchasing more units. At six thousand dollars a pop for each Uber Boiler, that's craziness. Not everyone has Intelligentsia kind of money.

And where counter space is a premium (read: every shop I know), does anyone really have the space to drop two or more Uber Boilers into their operations? Consider that the Uber demands not only the counter space but the cabinet space below it as well.

In these situations, the LB-1 might have the edge as well. It's sort-of modular design means that they can design a multiple head drip tray and you simply bolt the additional brew units into place. It could be narrower saving counter space and since it's completely tabletop you don't lose cabinet space below. While cost is always a factor, the theory is that you could get two LB-1s for the price of one Uber Boiler. I don't know if that's really a bargain but it sounds pretty good.

The concern here is whether or not these kinds of brewers can keep up with service. In an environment where one (or two) brew methods are utilized, this can be a considerable problem.

Let's say that your shop offers all coffees brewed with a V60 pourover, and let's say your brew time per cup is four minutes. We'll presume that each cup is brewed to order using either the LB-1 or the Uber Boiler. Now let's say that there are ten people in line who want a brewed coffee. My first thought is: you're screwed.

The simple math says that tenth person is line is going to have to wait 40 minutes for his coffee. God help him if anyone in line orders more than one cup. Add two brewers and his wait is cut to twenty minutes. Tell someone in line that they're going to have to wait twenty minutes for their cup and chances are they're going to walk out the door.

Even if you don't say anything and they do wait, you'll quickly get the reputation that it takes a long time to make their coffee at your shop. At least Starbucks has coffee on demand.

At Spro Hampden, this potential problem is mitigated by the fact that we offer seven different brewing methods, with only a few of them that can take advantage of the LB-1 or Uber Boiler. Methods such as French Press, AeroPress and Vac Pot have no use for those kinds of boilers and take the pressure off both the boiler and the barista.

Our mix of brew methods lends itself well to the notion of placing one of these water delivery systems on the brew bar. However, in our situation, it does not replace the existing hot water tower. At least the LB-1 looks good and fits comfortably on our brew bar.

That said, the LB-1 is still in the prototype stage and there's so much more to develop and refine before the unit is ready for public release. One of the things I'm most intrigued about the LB-1 is its ability to deliver consistent water temperature. Our community has always discussed the "need" for temperature stability but it's been pretty much non-existent until now. Initial tests prove interesting and I look forward to playing around more with the LB-1 to see just where it might be able to take us.