Mill City Picks: Cafe Equipment

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Our founder, Steve Green, tends to refer to Mill City Roasters as a small business incubator. What he means by that is we’re a place where people start. We help them with equipment, training and education, and all the little questions they have along the way. Our instructors teach students to roast, which is fitting since we build roasters, but they also teach our students how to taste, brew, talk about coffee, choose greens, and find their own customers. Our four-day roasting school is a crash course in the business of roasting, selling, and serving coffee, and we know that people finish the course feeling way more prepared than they did when they got here.

Still, there will always be questions that come up and when folks need answers to their coffee questions they usually come back to us. One conversation we field frequently is about making the right choice for espresso and brewed coffee equipment. Whether you’re looking to open a full service coffee shop, a kiosk at your local farmers market, or just want to serve great drip coffee at your roastery, here are some of the brands and models that we recommend.

1. Bulk Grinder

Even if your business plan never includes a cafe or retail outlet, you’ll need a great grinder to prepare coffee for cuppings and to pre-grind bags of coffee for customers. What we use in our lab and recommend most of the time is the Mahlkonig EK-43. This grinder has been a trusted workhorse for many companies for years, and with good reason. It’s powerful, easy to use, and comes equipped with premium cast steel 98 mm burrs which are able to grind through 14,000lbs of coffee before they show signs of wear.

For a more affordable option, consider the Bunn G-Series Grinder. With smaller burrs that aren’t quite as precise as the EK-43, this grinder still does a great job and is a particularly good option if you’ve got huge bags of coffee to grind through for cold brew or massive pre-ground orders. 

2. Batch Brewer

No matter how nice your drip coffee maker is at home, it’s not going to cut it for a line of customers. Commercial batch coffee brewers need to have high powered water heating elements with well designed shower heads delivering an even downfall of water for ideal extraction. If you’ve been around coffee shops for a little while, you’ll know three brands: Bunn, Fetco, and Curtis. Price points for brewers from each brand will be comparable, so decide what kind of vessel you want (shuttle or airpot), and reach out to them directly for a quote.

All things being equal, I like the Fetco Extractor Series brewers which feature an easy to use and totally programmable touch screen control panel. If you go with a shuttle that has a “smart” funnel, like the InnoTherm Dispensers, read the care instructions carefully – most will stop working if submerged in water.

3. Espresso Machine

Here’s where the field of options widens considerably. Most people are shocked to find out how expensive espresso machines are. Faced with that initial sticker shock, customers will turn to the cheapest option, choosing an off-brand or (worse yet) used and poorly maintained piece of equipment that will cost them a lot more money in future maintenance and upkeep. Don’t do this. Invest in the right machine for the job, and take care of it along the way. Espresso machines should have quarterly or bi-annual preventative maintenance visits by a machine technician, and remember to get a good water filtration system set up first – commercial equipment’s warranties are voided if they are installed to an unfiltered water source.

Second, do your research. Learn the difference between automatic, semi-automatic, and fully-automatic machines. Figure out if you need the ability to practice pressure profiling (you don’t). Compare gravimetric and volumetric technologies. After that, come back here and go with one of these great options:

The La Marzocco Linea EE is a classic for a reason. Simple, sleek, and timeless, you’ll find it on cafe countertops from Italy to Austin. The semi automatic EE model is unfussy and teaches baristas to watch and time their own shots, keeping them engaged with the coffee and the first to know when it’s time to adjust their grind.

The Nuova Simonelli Aurelia series is available as a volumetric model, dosing pre-programmed amounts of water so baristas only have to watch their timers to know when things are speeding up or slowing down. In addition to being the machine sponsor for the US and World’s Barista Competitions, Simonelli also features the best steam wands in the industry (says one career latte slinger) with two-position ergonomic lever that’s high powered and easy to clean.

4. Espresso Grinder

Yes, you need a dedicated grinder just for espresso. In fact, you need two; one for regular and one for a decaf option. Some shops even have three, reserving one for single origin coffees or a rotating offering. But let’s start with your primary grinder.

Almost everyone is going with a doserless, grind-on-demand option these days, and for good reason. Doserless grinders like the Mahlkonig K30 Peak offer precise dose control, stepless adjustments, and the ability to toggle between two preset dose outputs. Consider the K30 Twin as your all-in-one grinder with a second hopper attached to the same body for your decaf grinding needs.

Another great option is the Mazzer Kony E. Though smaller than its big brother Mazzer Robur, the low RPM and conical burrs result in a low dose variance between shots, and its small footprint makes it easy to fit on your counter.

You may be asking, “Is that it? Am I all covered now? Can I open my shop?” The answer is maybe. There will always be decisions to make. Hot water towers, small wares, a linen service, milk provider, a solid blender for your frappes and smoothies, a Turbo Chef for breakfast sandwiches, the right Point of Sale system. Coffee shops are, unfortunately, so much more than just great coffee. The good news is we’re here to help.

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