What do you get when you combine a knack for mechanical engineering with a passion for coffee?
Ask Liam Wilkie, a coffee specialist and mechanical engineer at Aabak and the front man for the Once Alike Coffee Robot in Collingwood. With over 10 years of specialty coffee knowledge from the ST ALi group, Liam is working closely with Melbourne’s first ever completely robotic barista to replicate the experience of a barista – customer relationship that he spent many years perfecting, and of course brew up some damn good coffee on the way.
What was your first ever job?
I worked at a fish and chip shop in my hometown of Sunbury. I’ve been working in the hospitality industry since then and making coffee while I was studying mechanical engineering so I guess this is the logical progression of combining the two.
What does a day in the life of a robot coffee man look like?
At the moment, we’re in a testing phase – we’re open from 7 till 10. After that, we resume testing on the machine. It might be adding a new software feature or adjusting robot movements. We’re not seeing mechanical failures, but we’re tweaking things that we learn from real customers.
What coffee trend do you love?
The trend towards understanding coffee and being objective. There’s definitely a move in the industry towards giving coffee the respect it deserves from growing, roasting, harvesting and brewing. The effort is being put into understanding why we do certain things in the process – like why do have to wait a certain amount of time after brewing an espresso and why does that affect the result of the cup?
What coffee trend do you hate?
The trends I don’t like are probably trends along the lines of rejection of ideas and almost anti-intellectualism – where coffee is treated as more of an art than a science. I don’t think that the actual brewing of the coffee needs a subjective angle – obviously, it has to taste good – but there are other objective ways to achieve that. There’s a lot of pushback from people within the industry against some of this more objective measurement, research and development and I think that is detrimental because it hampers all the benefits in the trends that I do like.
I don’t have anything against people who want a matcha latte or a dirty chai or whatever – I think that customer service is the focus. It’s not really up to the industry to dictate what the market wants – you just have to respond to what the customer is asking for.
Coffee of choice?
That’s a hard one. I really enjoy a lot of Colombian coffee. I find that the general quality of coffee that comes out of Colombia is really high, but it’s also really interesting to taste south American coffees because they’re so unique, fruit driven and not necessarily the type of coffee that you’d serve in the accessible, latte-based beverage. But they showcase coffee’s ability to provide a huge array of different flavours.
What’s the one food or drink you can’t live without?
MSG. It’s such a fantastic seasoning – there’s a lot of hate for it. It’s basically a naturally occurring salt but it’s such an all-purpose seasoning and it works on pretty much everything.
If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you’d done?
Probably a caffeine-fuelled high-speed police chase – they’d probably think I got behind the wheel with too many espressos in me.
Who is your coffee-crush?
I’d have to say Scott Rao. I remember buying The Professional Barista’s Handbook as a young barista when I was 17. Reading his approach and his methodical way of laying out processes and not just telling you what to do but being informed of the actual method of brewing coffee and going beyond the basics is great.
Robot coffee or human coffee?
Robot Coffee! I mean I have to say that obviously but honestly, it’s super consistent, it’s super tasty. When it’s on point, it’s flawless.
You’ve worked with ST ALi for ten years – what’s it like going from a hectic cafe scene to not dealing with human interaction all that much?
I’m a massive extrovert so I do enjoy that service environment from ST ALi North and South, Plantation and Dutchess. This is definitely a change of pace. In this job, I’m consulting with the engineering company and also working on mechanical aspects. I also get to consider what objectives we’re trying to achieve and what part of the user experience I would provide when I’m working in the cafe.
The goal is for us to be unattended and to transfer that knowledge of customer service to the robot. There’s a whole suite of elements to do with how users interact with the coffee experience.
What’s the funniest response you’ve had to the robot?
Holy F**ck! People just swear at it. They don’t believe what it’s doing.
I actually asked a regular customer the other day how his coffee was, and he took a sip and nodded and just said ‘same’. I think that was great because it was just so nonchalant about how consistent the coffee is and it’s like, well, what else is it going to be? The idea is that it’s going to be consistent.
I know that there’s a lot of people who want to change up their coffee experience every morning, but there’s also a lot of people who don’t want that – they find what they like and they stick to it. I think this is a great way to achieve that.
Do you think the future of robot coffee will give pods a run for their money?
When it comes to coffee pods and Nespresso, I think they’re a great product in that they are so consistent. Whether you like them or not, the consistency that they achieve is impossible to replicate. It’s naïve to think that ‘oh Nespresso is shit because it’s a capsule’.
We’re more trying to pitch ourselves towards the barista and cafe experience where we want to make coffee that’s equivalent to what you’d get in a cafe, and more consistent.
In that regard, they’re a different product. And that’s why we’re trying to replicate the barista process.
Once Alike is open from 7 am – 10 am Monday to Friday, serving up free coffees during their trial period. Visit them at 28 Rokeby Street, Collingwood.