December 3, 2014

A bespoke espresso machine

In 2012, Café Culture ventured up to Kingscliff in northern New South Wales and discovered an old but rather significant project by Benjamin Haymes. We now catch up with Ben again to find out how his inventions have been progressing.

In the Beginning

My brothers and I grew up in an extended family of book-dealers and our father, John, was a structural engineer. Suffice to say, our early lives were consumed with pulling things apart, repairing and restoring old machinery, electronics, and furniture. And the hunt was always on for the most “precious” thing – the rarer, more antique, more bizarre, and weirder something was, the more it claimed a prize position in the household.

Of course, this strange childhood indoctrination has never quite left any of us. And now, as we are all in our 40s, the siren call of that next “precious” thing is still something that haunts all of us. Either during idle chat at a dinner party, driving along a suburban street, or casually searching the web – something in the periphery of the conversation, or the landscape speeding by has tweaked the urge. My pulse races slightly, and I stifle an almost innate urge to pounce, or get out of a moving vehicle.

A couple of years ago my brother, Sam, who had left school and followed the family tradition into book-dealing when he was just 15 – acquired one of the ultimate artefacts. Sam had recently moved to the far north coast of New South Wales and opened his new, second-hand bookshop. We had always been great coffee drinkers, growing up in the little Italys of Sydney’s Leichhardt and Darlinghurst. It was decided even before the first box of books was opened that he needed a good espresso machine to offer refreshments to his good customers.

Gen. 1

I was looking at espresso machines on eBay for Sam, when I came across something truly unusual. There was this incredible machine for sale in Innisfail, Far North QLD – made of brass, copper and timber – it had been salvaged out of a disused Sugar Mill and was strapped to a pallet. It looked like it weighed a ton. The seller’s only other merchandise was tractor parts and machinery. It looked completely hand built.

Of course, we bought it and shipped it down the coast to Kingscliff. The machine required some restoration, and we set about getting it working – pumps, regulators, pressure testing, balancing, electrics. Finally Sam installed the machine is his bookshop in Kingscliff and began offering customers coffee.

The machine was a complete jaw-dropper and everyone who saw it had to ask the question – what, how, and why?  Eventually, he got so sick of telling people the story, that he wrote it up on a sheet of A3 paper and stuck it to the wall.

Sam fell in love with the machine and began to concentrate on offering coffee. In a small section of the shop he set up a café, where he offered an exceptional coffee.

The machine made excellent coffee; however, there was the issue of volume. With only two group heads and an unusual pump and boiler configuration, the extraction process was time consuming. The machine just couldn’t pump out the coffee like a modern commercial set up.

As the holiday season approached, we began discussing that another machine was necessary to act as a back up and standby for the enormous volume of coffee that was shortly to be sold.

Gen. 2 (the Bespoke Machine)

I began the hunt for a reliable old machine that I could quickly modify to stand alongside our Gen. 1 machine. I bought a Cimbali machine locally and began stripping it down for reconditioning. As I began disassembling the machine, it was evident of how dirty it had become. It took 12 weeks of thorough cleaning and replacing worn parts.

In the process, certain things just didn’t make sense – the electronics were too complicated, too much to possibly go wrong, and there was so much unnecessary dressing.

I am not a fan of the dosage control on most modern machines; simply put, the dosage control allows for consistent extraction when a person lacking the knowledge of espresso extraction operates the machine. So, I got rid of the dosage control and replaced it with a simple on/off switch. To do this required replacing the rather complicated circuit board (computer) with a simple and conventional Gicar auto-fill control box, and a new Hager 25A Contactor combined with a couple of 10A relays. There is now a simple control over water and pressure levels within the boiler.

I began to redesign the external part of the machine. I wanted to create something similar to the Gen 1., and at the same time completely unique. Having stripped the machine to its skeleton, it made sense to expose all the copper pipes surrounding the group heads, because they look like old images of espresso machines. I also discovered that the group heads were chrome-covered brass, so I had them polished to reveal the brass. I decided to use more copper sheet and copper pipe to draw attention to the group heads’ character. To encase the back of the machine, I chose to use wood and make it look like an over turned wine barrel (wood and copper look good together). On further scavenging expeditions I found a large pressure gauge and an old voltmeter that now jut up out of the barrel.  A few other little bits for handles, and here it is – in September 2014 I have now completed the Bespoke Machine.

So many people in Australia love coffee.  Home espresso machines, hundreds of varieties of coffee beans, boutique roasters, the science of heating milk, and on it goes. I am interested in creating a bespoke coffee experience – something unusual, individual, and hand-made, making the espresso machine a collectable artefact. I have now begun designing the Generation 3 machine.

Story by Ben Haymes


MPM Advertisment