This Robot Barista Promises a Perfect Cup of Coffee

An Austin-based startup has automated the espresso-to-body delivery process. 
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Briggo

Starbucks’ 95,000 baristas have a competitor. It doesn't need sleep. It’s precise in a way that a human could never be. It requires no training. It can’t quit. It has memorized every one of its customers’ orders. There’s never a line for its perfectly turned-out drinks.

It doesn’t require health insurance.

Don’t think of it as the enemy of baristas, insists Kevin Nater, CEO of the company that has produced this technological marvel. Think of it as an instrument people can use to create their ideal coffee experience. Think of it as a cure for “out-of-home coffee drinkers”—Nater’s phrase—sick of an “inconsistent experience.”

Think of it as the future. Think of it as empowerment. Your coffee, your way, flawlessly, every time, no judgement. Four pumps of sugar-free vanilla syrup in a 16 oz. half-caff soy latte? Here it is, delivered to you precisely when your smartphone app said it would arrive, hot and fresh and indistinguishable from the last one you ordered.

Kitchens are just factories we haven’t automated yet

In a common area at the University of Texas at Austin, the Briggo coffee kiosk, covered in fake wood paneling and a touch screen and not much else, takes up about as much space as a pair of phone booths. Its external appearance was designed by award-winning industrial designer Yves Behar, with the intention that it radiate authenticity and what Briggo says is its commitment to making coffee that is the equal of what comes out of any high-end coffee shop.

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(Briggo)

The kiosk at the university is the second version, the one that will be rolling out across the country in locations that are still secret. It needs just 50 square feet (4.6 sq m) of floor space, and it can be dropped anywhere—an airport, a hospital, a company campus, a cafe with tables and chairs and WiFi just like Starbucks. It’s manufactured in Austin.

Inside, protected by stainless steel walls and a thicket of patents, there is a secret, proprietary viscera of pipes, storage vessels, heating instruments, robot arms and 250 or so sensors that together do everything a human barista would do if only she had something like perfect self-knowledge. “How is my milk steamer performing? Am I a half-degree off in my brewing temperature? Is my water pressure consistent? Is there any residue buildup on my brewing chamber that might require me to switch to a backup system?”

The Briggo coffee kiosk knows how to make a perfect coffee because it was “trained” by an award-winning barista, Patrick Pierce. He’s since left the company, but no matter: as in the techno-utopian Singularity, whose adherents believe that some day we will all upload our brains to computers, once a barista’s essence has been captured by Briggo, his human form is just a legacy system.

Besides, baristas, especially the ones at America’s favorite “high end” coffee shop, don’t often stick around long enough to become as good as Pierce. Turnover at Starbucks, which is typical of all demanding retail environments, leads to what Nater calls “variation,” and not the kind that’s exciting—the kind that coffee connoisseurs frown upon, because it means coffee isn't being extracted from beans in the optimal way.

“What we’ve created is in essence a small food factory that absolutely replicates what a champion barista does,” says Nater. Briggo roasts its own beans—sourced by a pair of coffee supply veterans who between them spent a combined 40 years at Starbucks. “We have calibrated this machine to pull espresso shots to the same specification as an Illy or a Stumptown or an Intelligentsia. We've just done it without the human element.”

It’s 2020, and waiting in line for coffee is about as popular as waiting in line for bread

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(Briggo)

Ever stood in line at a Starbucks or some other cafe and wondered why, in the year 2013, you can’t just send in your order 10 minutes early via an app on your phone, and pick it up as soon as you walk in? Briggo has such an app. It asks you to log in, so it can memorize your order and payment information, which enables one-click coffee ordering. Or you can order a coffee for a friend. And use the app to check out how long the wait is for a drink. Fifteen minutes? Just complete your order now, while you’re walking across campus—it will be ready by the time you arrive. Hit another button to announce on Facebook that you’ll be at the Briggo kiosk by 9:30, and hey, who wants to meet up?

Some experiences viral-market themselves.

“What we find at [the University of Texas] is that we have a younger generation of consumers who have no inhibition about ordering remotely and having self service,” says Nater. “Coffee shops are a great social interaction point, but so is social media.”

Had a great experience at Briggo? Why not tweet that? Invented a new combination of syrups and brew temperatures and other elements that yields the perfect drink? Tweet that, too. Briggo will make you an espresso, a latte, even an iced coffee made with a cold-brew process, something even many coffee shops don’t offer because it’s time consuming to produce. Not a coffee drinker? How about a chai latte, an iced-chai latte, hot chocolate, or milk steamer?

High-end restaurants automated coffee production and no one noticed

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In France, Italy and the UK, more than 135 Michelin-starred restaurants serve their customers coffee brewed from capsules. (Illy)

In 2012, Julian Baggini, a British philosophy writer and coffee aficionado, wondered why dozens of Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants were serving guests coffee that came out of vacuum-sealed plastic capsules manufactured by Nespresso. So he conducted a taste test on a small group of experts. A barista using the best, freshly-roasted beans went head to head with a Nespresso capsule coffee brewing machine. It’s the tale of John Henry all over again, only now it was a question of skill and grace rather than brute strength.

As the chefs at countless restaurants could have predicted, the Nespresso beat the barista.

Capsule coffee systems make consistent only two steps in the coffee-making process, but they’re the most important ones: Roasting and brewing. Beans roasted in a factory don’t change from the moment they’re vacuum-sealed into a capsule, because oxygen is the agent that causes food to go stale. (By contrast, beans roasted “fresh” are oxidizing continuously, until they’re brewed.) And the coffee-brewing process is complicated enough that achieving its most perfect expression requires a machine free from human interference.

“With a pre-dose capsule, it’s always the right grind,” says Mark Romano, a senior director at Illy coffee, which makes its own line of capsule coffee systems. “And with a self-contained extraction chamber, you can consistently get to 80-90 [out of a quality scale of 100].”

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Saturating all the coffee grounds at just the right temperature and pressure is something its capsules do every time, says Illy. (Illy)

Capsule brewing systems can now control more variables in the brewing process—the relevant ones being temperature, pressure, and the way in which water reaches the ground beans—than even the best machine at an average Starbucks, says Romano.

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Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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