MPE industrial coffee grinding: on technology and trends

Dan Ephraim, President of Modern Process Equipment (MPE), has seen quite a few changes in the coffee industry since he  and his brother, Phil, purchased the company in 1981. He tells Global Coffee Review, however, that no change has been quite as remarkable as the increase in the quality of coffee – a welcome shift that’s benefitted the industry as a whole. “We used to see that coffee consumption was stable, even declining. Coffee was just seen as a commodity, and everyone was looking at how to make it cheaper,” says Ephraim. “Now we’ve seen the bar raised with a new level of quality coffee, and it’s really lifted the playing field for everyone. And as the market’s been driven to higher quality, it’s increased coffee consumption as a result.” As the quality of coffee has increased, Ephraim says roasters have inevitably required an improvement in production processes. MPE has seen demands for better roasting, packaging and grinding  technology increase to keep up with a sophisticated industry. “Our application of scientific and technological advancements in grinding has certainly evolved to a higher degree,” he says. “From temperature control and PLC (programmable logic controller) control to density control, it all has to be fine tuned to the greatest possible extent.” Ephraim points out that no coffee trend requires greater precision than Turkish coffee grinding. In this front, MPE carries a strong standing, as the first company to build an industrial Turkish coffee grinder using modern technology 18 years ago. “That really started a revolution,” says Ephraim. He notes that MPE currently produces around 90 per cent of the world’s industrial Turkish coffee grinders. The main challenge in grinding Turkish coffee, Ephraim explains, is that every coffee bean must be divided into around 30,000 particles. Since MPE’s machines can grind at a capacity of 1000 kilograms of coffee an hour, this equates to an astounding 145 billion particles an hour. “Because Turkish coffee is put directly into the water, of those billions of particles, we need to ensure there is not even one that is oversized, or it will float and result in a poor brew,” says Ephraim. “That’s a pretty big challenge.” The advent of single-serve has posed an additional challenge to coffee roasters everywhere looking to take advantage of the fastest growing segment of the industry. Scott Will, Director of Sales for MPE, says that the refinement of single-serve systems, in terms of short brewing times and less coffee needed to brew each cup, has further limited the “room for error” in the grinding process. “It’s the difference between walking on a tightrope versus an open sidewalk,” says Will. “You have to be perfect in your execution in grinding. You’re dealing with exact brewing times and very small amounts of coffee in a fixed volume at high density. Everything has to line up perfectly.” This exactness, Will explains, must start from the coffee being ground for the very first capsule at the beginning of the day down to the very last. Any errors could result in a loss of capsules, which equates to a loss of capital not only from wasted roasted coffee, but expensive capsule material as well. Quality equipment, Ephraim adds, is the key to this smooth process, with the potential for the entire production line to be thrown off if the grind isn’t properly set. In addition to advanced technological settings and controls, the grinder must be made of durable and advanced materials. In this space, MPE offers a vast array of materials to suit different budgets and needs. The two most popular include a unique nickel-chrome-magnesium-cast iron alloy, which is bound together using a centrifugal casting method. The second material is one developed by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This proprietary material is ideal for the precision of very fine grinding, with limited wearing and long lifetimes.    As the precision of grinding increases, and the size of particles shrinks, the need for effective temperature control in the grinding process is augmented. In this end, Ephraim says that MPE’s cooling devices are highly effective. Another challenge that stands out with capsules is the particular need for density control. Every capsule not only needs to be filled with the right amount of coffee, at exactly the right grind, but the density must be carefully controlled as well. For this purpose, MPE has pioneered the patented ‘Vortex’ Normalizer. This device is able to increase the density of ground coffee by 100 per cent more than it’s normal capabilities. This means that capsule manufacturers can increase the strength of a brew – for instance, to brew espresso – without increasing the capsule size.  To service all of this advanced equipment, MPE employs engineers across almost every aspect of the business, from management right down to salespeople. “Customers feel comfortable working with us,” says Ephraim. As to where the company’s ideas come from for all these new innovations, Ephraim says customers are a key inspiration. “They come to us and say they wish they could do something new or different, and this inevitably leads to a new project for us,” says Ephraim. “We’re always receptive to our customers. With a staff full of engineers, we are very attuned to the needs of the market.”
In determining what is the best technology for each client, Will says MPE first works to understand potential customers’ operations to the highest extent, to get a good idea of their needs and provide a solution. “We get pretty involved on the sales side,” he says. “We find out the specifics of the brew method, the packaging and so on. All this will determine the optimal configuration.”  Ephraim echoes these sentiments, saying that a deep understanding of the customer’s goals is the best way to fulfil their requirements. “You have to be intimately familiar with the end product,” he says. MPE operates a full-scale pilot plant, where the staff can work directly with a customer’s product to test and evaluate what equipment works best to provide them with a solution. Will notes that customers will sometimes send thousands of pounds of coffee, so that MPE staff can optimise their offering. Equipment is fully set-up and tested at MPE headquarters before it’s shipped off, and it is all fully guaranteed. MPE sales and service representatives around the world keep an active line of communication with its customers. That communication is about gaining inspiration for the next innovation as much as it is about serving customers. If this is the case, then the next innovation from MPE is likely just one suggestion away. 

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