When it comes to coffee culture in Seattle, it takes a special level of innovation to generate a buzz.
On Monday night, at its cafe located inside KEXP’s radio station headquarters at Seattle Center, La Marzocco unveiled a new espresso machine meant to showcase its longtime expertise in making such specialty hardware.
The KB90 is named in honor of La Marzocco’s Kent Bakke, former international CEO and now chairman of the board, who they called “a Seattle coffee pioneer.” The red and chrome machine is full of style on the outside and improved capabilities on the inside.
Makers of espresso machines since 1927, with its U.S. headquarters in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, La Marzocco designed the KB90 to represent both the curves in the shield of the La Marzocco lion emblem and iconic muscle cars of the 1970s. The machine has the same interface as the Linea PB — the previous update to its classic model — and it’s built for the barista, with faster work flow, easier cleaning and advanced ergonomics.
At a time when home appliances and many other types of machinery are headed toward even more automation, it was important for Bakke and La Marzocco to continue to respect the touch that baristas bring to a customer’s experience.
“This is something that is an innovation on the machine. It’s more a mechanism than an automation and we’ve made a conscious decision at La Marzocco to not enter enter into the world of super-automatic machines,” Bakke told a crowd of a few dozen people. “They have a place, no question. But we still believe that that relationship between the consumer and the barista and the machine is critical. That’s where I want to live. I want to live with people; I want to live with the story; I want to live with sharing coffee with people. So I’m doubly proud that we have continued to maintain that philosophy and commitment to the baristas and the consumers.”
That’s not to say the KB90 isn’t high tech. While its look may be modeled after vintage automobiles, the machine is decidedly 2019.
La Marzocco’s Scott Callender, vice president of marketing and consumer strategy, was working the roughly $22,000 machine most of the night and showing off its features. He said the KB90 includes what’s called “drip prediction,” an algorithm that improves the consistency of the shots that are coming out of the machine.
“One of our engineers in Italy named Lorenzo pulled over 10,000 shots and graphed them at different brew ratios, different grind size and different flow rates,” Callender said. “By graphing all of those 10,000 shots, he was able to create an algorithm that would allow the machine to predict, once a shot would start, it would understand what curve it was going on so that it could stop the shot at the right time and produce completely consistent shots. So over time this machine doesn’t need to learn anything. It’s already learned over those 10,000 shots.”
The most striking advancement on the KB90 (the 90 is for the Florence, Italy-based company’s recent 90th anniversary) is the “Straight-in-Portafilter.” Anyone who has ever visited a coffee shop has probably watched a barista’s arm-twisting motion as that person snaps the device holding espresso grounds into the machine. The KB90’s portafilter slides right in and a simple lift up creates the necessary seal.
The company believes this simple motion will eliminate strain and stress injuries on the wrists and elbows of busy workers in the industry. And the solid components make it feel like you’re shutting the door on an expensive car rather than snapping closed the plastic office coffee maker.
The improvements on La Marzocco’s design have been in the works for years. Bakke said they first started trying to do a straight-in-portafilter in the early 1990s. “It’s not easy to do,” he said.
Melissa Dixon worked as a barista and managed cafes in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., and moved to Seattle four months ago. She now works for Visions Espresso, a distributor of residential and restaurant espresso machines and parts.
Dixon was one of numerous people with experience working high-end espresso machines who smiled and said “wow” as they got the chance to put their hands on the KB90 and learn about the differences in how it works.
“This is like the Transformer version of the espresso machine,” Dixon said. “But I think there’s always going to be a place for the hand-crafted version of everything because even the really good super-automatic machines, you still need a person there tweaking it and telling it what it needs to fix because it can’t make adjustments for taste, only a human can really make those adjustments for taste.”
Dixon thought the machine would eliminate a lot of the errors that baristas struggle with during a busy shift, while also making for a cleaner espresso bar.
“I am quite impressed,” she said. “I don’t know all of its capabilities yet … but I will sell lots of them.”