Modbar coffee machine: third wave espresso's new poster-child

The days of mysterious espresso brewing behind hulking machines may be over, if one coffee startup, Modbar, has its way, burying all but the glamorous end of the process under the counter. Revealed today at the opening of the SCAA's (Speciality Coffee Association of America) annual expo, Modbar is a striking, modular series of espresso groups, pour-over taps, and steam arms which can be hooked up in multiple numbers and configurations, with the promise of greater temperature control, a cut in prep time, and even geek-friendly features like touchscreen operation and support for temperature monitoring in Kelvin.

Traditional espresso machines are sizable affairs, packing one or more boilers into a huge countertop appliance that effectively hides the brewing process from the customer, or alternatively forces the barista to turn their back to them. That, Spudge reports, isn't something that affects the Modbar: by shifting the boilers and other components under the counter, there's a clear viewing path to all parts of the drink preparation area.

Visibility isn't much good if the hardware itself falls short, but it sounds like Modbar has thought about that too. The system supposedly goes from cold to operating temperature in just five minutes – figure on at the very least 30 minutes (but more like an hour) for a typical commercial machine, a time-consuming process that means many cafes simply leave them switched on 24/7, making them hardly eco-friendly – while an actively-heated stainless steel grouphead uses a thermoblock (to raise the temperature itself, rather than wait for hot water to do that) and special boiler controls to achieve 1-degree F temperature stability.

Everything is controlled by a 3.2-inch color touchscreen, a single panel operating all of the interconnected modules. As well as temperature, there's control for volumetric dosing (i.e. where the machine pushes out a set quantity of water) and current espresso fashion pressure profiling, where the pressure of the water at the grouphead is varied during the roughly half-minute brew so as to adjust the overall extraction. A display on the espresso group itself shows volume, and everything has overrides for tinkering with the particular shot in progress.

As for the pour-over – something else that's fashionable in coffee right now – that gets a sleekly designed dispensing wand with a choice of outlet heads with different hole patterns, to suit different brewing methods. A braided wand dispenses a set amount of either liquid volume or time.

The coffee world hasn't been short on attempts at innovation, and not all of them have found success in the market. However, Modbar does have some notable support from an industry heavyweight: La Marzocco, founded in Italy in 1927, and a brand you'll find on high-end coffee machines in cafes all over the world. The company's portafilters (the bit where the ground coffee goes) are used by Modbar too, and production of the modular system has already begun, albeit in limited numbers.

As for pricing, a single espresso module will be $5,399, while the steam module will be $3,995, and the pour-over module $3,687. If that sounds expensive, then consider a Slayer – notable for being one of the few machines that supports pressure profiling – comes in at around $18,000 for the three-group model.