I have been thinking about manual brew for a while, spurred on mostly by assertions by some in the industry that manual brew is the only responsible way to present specialty coffees.
To keep things straight, when I refer here to a manually brewed coffee, I’m taking for given that it is a cup that is well executed and properly served. The grind is attended to, the barista cares, all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place. I think we can all agree that a manual brew program done poorly is, frankly, no better than snake oil, and probably is setting the industry back by building a distrust into the exact early adopters we would normally seek to impress.
I think that for some special coffees, especially 90+ coffees that come at significant expense to the roaster, and then to the retailer, do deserve to be brewed and served by the cup. I would agree that it would be irresponsible to serve a 92 Kenyan in a one-gallon batch, regardless of how good that batch brewer is. That is, I do not think it is irresponsible to the farmer – they have already received the higher cost of their higher-quality coffee (maybe, hopefully) – but rather it is irresponsible to your customer. If a customer is paying a premium for an excellent coffee, they deserve to get that coffee ground, prepared, and served exclusively to them. They deserve to have that cup at the very best that you can offer it to them, especially since they are willing to pay a premium for it. This is mostly due to the rapid decline brewed coffee (especially excellent brewed coffee) experiences stored in an airpot – stored in any pot. I acknowledge that airpot technology could improve! But right now, there are many top-flight coffees that it would be incredibly difficult to serve well and profitably using a batch brewer.
That being said, I believe that the vast majority of coffee, including an awful lot of coffee that is getting by-the-cup treatment today, would be just as well served using a batch brewing system. A well-tuned, properly-cleaned batch brewer with low (very low) hold times, can allow customers to enjoy good-to-great coffees at a reasonable price point. I think that if you have an 82-scoring coffee that does not diminish in a huge way by batch brewing, if you serve that coffee by-the-cup and charge $4 for it, you are doing a disservice to your customer. You could serve an excellent product at a lower but still profitable price point, serve more customers in less time, and split tips with at least one fewer co-worker.
I think that there are 3 ideal set ups (which are being done by many!):
1.) Pure Manual: All coffee is made manually. This type of cafe will only bring in the kind of coffee that deserves to be brewed manually. Bringing in lower-scoring coffees is simply not in the business plan. Slightly slower service and higher labor costs are accepted and expected. Their customers will leave home 5 minutes earlier, because the coffee is that good. (ie: SPRO, Intelly, MadCap)
2.) Pure Batch Brew: This cafe understands its context and customers will not allow for a manual program – they are in-and-out, and make this clear with their spending habits. Or, perhaps the ownership is simply not interested in the training and QC that goes along with an all-manual set-up – or whatever. This cafe brings in only coffees that they can make sing using a batch brewer – and these coffees exist! It is a bit tougher to distinguish these cafes from their less-specialty cousins, but they’re out there. They recognize that for whatever reason, they cannot responsibly serve high-quality coffees using their batch brewer, and as such leave that to their more maniacal brethren. (ie Seven Stars, Handsome (sort of))
3.) The Hybrid: This cafe works to bring in both coffees that can do well in a batch program, and sells them at an appropriately lower price point compared to the smaller by-the-cup menu. Their customers can include both the in-and-out crowd and the hang-and-sip coffee nerds who really are interested in what elevation their coffee is grown at. This straddling of the fence is complicated, but could pay off. (I don’t have a good example)
I think if I were to open a shop, #3 would be my choice. A tiered pricing structure, allowing for the morning just-a-coffee crowd to do their thing, and a higher price-point menu of next-level brews for those who are into it.