Are modular systems the future of espresso?
Champion barista John Gordon chats to Matt Haw about the rise of modular coffee machines and the pivotal role they could play in the future.
For more than a century, innovators have been pushing the boundaries of espresso machine design and technology. As such, modern examples are packed with a whole host of features that allow baristas to consistently pull perfect shots through even the busiest rushes.
However, despite greater emphasis being placed on espresso machine energy efficiency, some in the industry believe that the real route to sustainability is to reinvent the espresso machine entirely.
Enter, modular espresso systems.
Characterised by their smaller size and the absence of traditional features such as boilers and pumps, modular systems are essentially “deconstructed espresso machines”.
Each unit or “module” is designed to perfectly execute a specific task involved in creating a cup of coffee, including extraction and milk steaming. They can be positioned in whichever way suits the user, with multiple modules added to aid workflow. For example, a single espresso module could have two milk modules.
“With modular systems, it’s about breaking down the espresso machine into its specific parts and then maximising that equipment,” former UK barista champion and Heylo Coffee consultant, John Gordon, explains.
“So for example, an espresso module focuses solely on espresso, whereas a milk module focuses solely on milk. That way, you aren’t compromising where you might with a regular small espresso machine. Each unit is at the top of its game.”
How can modular systems help coffee shop businesses?
Since bursting onto the scene, modular systems have caused a lot of excitement in the coffee industry.
Their primary advantage is the flexibility they offer over all-in-one machines and the way this affects coffee shop workflow.
The modules can be effortlessly positioned and repositioned to optimise workflow within any space. They attach to one another magnetically, meaning a coffee shop can position two group heads alongside each other to replicate the multiple group head setup found on larger machines.
Heylo’s espresso modules also run innovative software that can store up to 100 unique brew profiles. Not only does this ensure that all group heads brew using the same telemetry, it also means that recipes can easily be shared between a roastery and its clients – or between different locations, even ones across borders.
“I can dial in a coffee here in New Zealand and then send you that coffee and the recipe,” John says. “All you have to do is play with the grinder to match my recipe.”
This has a threefold effect: it improves consistency, reduces the strain placed on baristas, and creates more time for valuable customer interaction.
Heylo’s technology also includes boilerless technology, which the company states can reduce energy consumption compared to a traditional espresso machine setup.
“We’ve got an induction tube in there that does all the heating for us,” John explains. “By negating the need for a boiler and external pumps, a modular system can become essentially plug-in and play.”
Catering to a post-pandemic market
The obvious benefit of modular systems – both in terms of improving workflow and customer engagement – is their smaller size and profile.
Because compact machines are less likely to get in the way and impede workflow, the impetus has been to make equipment smaller. However, it’s also about striking a balance without compromising on the quality of the machine.
John realised the importance of this during the Covid-19 pandemic. For him, it became clear that many espresso machines weren’t always designed with the businesses that sell coffee in mind.
“I noticed that people needed more flexibility when it came to their espresso machine solutions,” he explains. “When designing the Heylo modules, we thought not only about putting it together, but also breaking it down again depending on their requirements.”
Specifically, the reduced food traffic brought about by lockdowns and social distancing meant that cafés found their bulky, multi-group espresso machines surplus to requirement.
“By taking a group away, you’re saving energy and saving money, and of course you can build it back up whenever you want,” he adds.
Not only does this offer the flexibility of resource management, it also allows new businesses to add more modules as and when required.
“I have seen wholesalers put in a three-group machine for 10kg-per-week clients,” he continues. “It’s too much, but that’s all they’ve got.”
Ultimately, a modular system can be tailored to the needs of specific customers: smaller cafes might only need two espresso modules and a milk-frothing module, while others can completely justify using larger, more traditional multi-group machines.
John therefore believes that the Heylo system can respond to volume and functionality in a way no other espresso machine can.
“What I teach as a consultant is to look at the volume and what suits that volume and is actually going to be functional,” he adds.
Although the Heylo is yet to be officially launched, John hints that the company already has clients who are excited about their equipment.
With the precision, consistency, and flexibility offered by this and other modular systems, it might not be too long before they become commonplace in coffee shops around the world.