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9Barista’s jet-quality espresso machine is taking off

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Will Playford of 9barista with his espresso machine. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43525358)
Will Playford of 9barista with his espresso machine. Picture: Keith Heppell. (43525358)

Will Playford likes his coffee, in fact he likes it so much he has dedicated years of engineering expertise to making the perfect espresso machine.

“I started working full-time on the coffee machine in 2019 but the idea first started in 2013,” says Will.

The result of this relentless quest for brewing perfection is 9Barista, and the Cambridge-raised – he went to King’s College School and King’s Ely Sixth Form – entrepreneur’s company now has a production facility at Ronald Rolph Court which is geared to delivering the “first jet-engineered stove-top espresso machine”.

Will’s quest started when he got a lathe as an 18th birthday present, then “got interested in model and gas turbine engines” and went to Warwick University to study mechanical engineering. In the workshop there he made “a small jet engine, basically”.

There followed an internship at Airbus, then Will was off to the Whittle Laboratory for a PhD in heat transfer measurements in gas turbine engines: he spent five years there.

“It has really good workshops and technicians,” he says. “I got familiar with the design of components and how parts operate at high stresses and temperatures. Airbus, for instance, has ways of cooling engines: my PhD was to get a better understanding of how those cooling mechanisms work.”

All that was, of course, laying the foundations for a radically new take on the cafetière (with two patents on file).

“The design follows pretty traditional Italian techniques on how to make an espresso first developed in the 18th century,” Will explains. “The general guidance is you need nine bars of pressure, and the water has to be just a bit less than boiling – 93 degrees on average – and if the machine can deliver water at that pressure and with that temperature, with good beans...”

“But the engineering incorporates a totally new thermodynamic system, with the physical characteristic of pressurised steam and water harnessed to accurately control the brew pressure and temperature.

“It isn’t competing with high-use machines, it’s if you enjoy a certain ritualistic way of making coffee.

“The way we’ve designed the machines is to make it as easy as possible to maintain so customers can dismantle and replace any individual part, so it’s going to last a lifetime.”

The machines are “90 per cent made in the UK”. The brass casting takes place in Birmingham then sent to Telford for CNC (computer numerical control) machining. They’re then forwarded to Cambridge for a quality control assessment before being sent to Leeds for nickel plating. Then it’s back to Cambridge’s Ronald Rolph Court for final assembly, quality control, testing, and post and packing.

“They first come to us here in Cambridge as unplated machined castings,” says Will. “Every single one gets a quality check. It’s a high-pressure machine so it has to be machined right – and we have a very low scrap rate.”

The company then developed a specialist process to fuse the internal heat exchanger to the machine.

“We couldn’t get a quote to do it, it’s induction brazing, which involves a very high temperature, about 700 degrees: the two metals are soldered together and you end up with a very strong joint which seals very well.”

The team of six has been on the up since taking a working design to the London Coffee Festival last year and, following an excellent review by the influential James Hoffman (world barista champion 2007), they raised £50k via Kickstarter to build 200 machines. Sales are healthy in the US and the Far East, and 2,000 units have been sold this year.

At £295 the machines are not cheap, but they are beautiful, practical and durable. And brilliantly engineered.

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