La Marzocco goes straight in with the KB90

La Marzocco KB90

The KB90 is La Marzocco’s latest gift to the market with its retro design and focus on creating the ultimate workflow. BeanScene discovers how baristas are adapting to the new straight-in model.

Once every decade there’s a machine or device that fundamentally reinvents the way we use existing technology: IBM computers, the iPhone, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Tap-and-Go payment. In the espresso machine manufacturing world, the La Marzocco KB90 can now be added to a similar list.

When the machine made its international debut at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo in February, curious spectators crouched underneath and looked up at what is arguably its most exciting feature, the straight-in portafilter. This new design is intended to revolutionise the portafilter action, reduce barista strain, and improve workplace efficiency. 

“Over the past five years, manufacturers have been improving machine performance, raising the standards in both physical design and technical features. But, I think the KB90 and the straight-in portafilter, among other innovative features, is almost a quantum leap in improved ergonomics, health and safety, and has helped create the ultimate workflow for the barista,” says La Marzocco Australian General Manager Barry Moore.

La Marzocco KB90
St Ali former Head Barista Kirk Pearson (left) with La Marzocco Chairman Kent Bakke, and St Ali CEO Salvatore Malatesta.

In the months following its debut, the KB90 was distributed to high-volume cafés to test its capability under physically demanding conditions and work environments. 

One such café was Kingswood Coffee in Sydney. Director Mikey Jordan says his entire team was so excited to be working on the KB90 that they installed not just one but two. 

Every day, two baristas stand behind each machine at the relatively small Kingswood Coffee, where Mikey says they are usually playing a game with space. 

“In a small café, every inch counts, and the less elbows flying around, the better,” Mikey says.

Now, baristas can work side by side pulling shots or even texturing milk at the same time without impeding on the other’s physical space.

Thanks to the efficiency of the KB90, Mikey says baristas pump out a high volume of coffee during busy periods when quick production is paramount. The automated group steam flush is one function that aids this efficiency. It purges the group with both steam and water to remove coffee residue, a task that baristas used to have to do manually in order to keep machines clean. Back-flushing during or after peak service times in now a thing of the past.

“Now, lazy or forgetful baristas won’t forget to do it. [It] leaves little room for human error,” Mikey says. 

Another innovative function is the drip prediction technology – a feature first utilised in the ABR Modbar. It measures the flow rate of the extraction to the cup and calculates for every shot how early or late to stop in order to hit exact target mass.

At St Ali in Melbourne, former Head Barista Kirk Pearson adds that these small yet important features have made a difference in the overall taste of the coffee they serve.

“Before we installed the KB90, customers said our coffee was excellent. Now they say it’s exceptional,” Kirk says. “It’s made us take a step up with a coffee. As an industry, we owe it to producers, consumers, and ourselves to make the best coffee we can – and in my humble opinion, the best coffee is made by a KB90.”

La Marzocco KB90
La Marzocco’s new straight-in design simplifies and eases the motion of locking-in the portafilter to the group head.

St Ali CEO Salvatore Malatesta adds that it’s thanks to manufacturers like La Marzocco and its attention to detail that elevates espresso machine design and functionality to a new level.

“La Marzocco is back with a project that is all about the barista’s wellbeing and ergonomics that are helping consistency and speed,” Salvatore says.

Kirk is also a big fan of the straight-in feature, which allows the barista to lock the group head into position straight on without the previous ‘twist and lock’ action. Already, he has noticed a significant decline in his wrist pain and is confident the new function will help prolong a barista’s career. Research has shown the repetitive motions baristas perform each day can lead to issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The KB90 removes a lot of the physical stress involved in operating more traditional coffee machines.

To date, about 40 KB90 machines have been distributed to cafés in Australia, many of which are going through upwards of 80 kilograms of coffee per week. 

“For the many companies trialling the machine, it was evident that once the baristas get used to the straight-in function and its other brilliant new features, they don’t want to give it back,” Barry says. “The fact that the KB90 has been taken up by many of the top roasters and cafés in the country tells us there’s a demand for a machine that can improve workflow and speed of service, plus provide consistency with the health of the barista in mind.”

The combination of the straight-in portafilter, integrated scales with drip prediction, performance touch steam wand, and auto flush functions may save only a few seconds when making each coffee, but over a busy service this soon adds to a considerable time saving.

The inspiration for the KB90 comes from La Marzocco’s hunger and determination for improving the lives of baristas. For some, it appears such a logical and easy solution, but it’s something La Marzocco has worked on for 25 years, with the challenge being its technology and creating a portafilter that seals correctly with high pressure.   

“When we started to work with Starbucks in the early ‘90s, their cafés were getting busier and busier and their baristas were running into problems with repetitive motion like carpal tunnel, so we started looking at how you could insert the portafilter in a different manner. We made a few prototypes and did some mild engineering, but it turned out to be a much more challenging project than we thought,” says Kent Bakke, former La Marzocco Global CEO and now Chairman of the Board. 

La Marzocco KB90
Kingswood Coffee in Sydney has installed not one but two KB90s.

“I’m not sure it would have been received in the same manner if we had created [the KB90] 25 years ago. I feel it’s a very important milestone for our company to continue to establish that we care about the baristas and the technicians.”

Naming the machine after Kent’s initials – hence the KB90 – is La Marzocco’s way of acknowledging Kent’s tremendous contribution to the brand. It’s also the first machine to have the initials of a non-founding member of the La Marzocco family inscribed on it.

“It still surprises me and is really flattering – it’s not every day you get a machine named after you,” Kent says.

For the past five years, the La Marzocco PB, named after Honorary President of La Marzocco Piero Bambi, has been “incredibly successful”, but Barry says the industry has been craving something more. It was again time to continue the company’s track record of aesthetically appealing design and focus on innovation with an even braver step forward. The result is a machine that’s turned espresso machine ergonomics on its head, and gone ‘straight’ to the point.

“We see ourselves as a member of the specialty coffee industry and like all in the coffee world, we continue to learn from each other. La Marzocco is listening to the evolving needs of the barista and embracing these at the factory in Italy to innovate solutions. Australia is truly a unique market in that it has the attention of the world when it comes to the continued success of the KB90,” Barry says.

This article appears in FULL in the October 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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