How Costa Coffee's Smart Cafe Machines Compare To A Real Barista

For many Americans, coffee is a must in order to get a jump-start on the day. But making the best brew isn't a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Your morning ritual is a deeply personal matter, one you're likely not going to part with just because you're on the go first thing in the a.m. While specialty coffee shops — from big-name chains to locally owned joints — have stepped in to fill the caffeine void, labor shortages and supply chain issues have been known to wreak havoc on customized coffee needs from New York to Newport Beach.

In the face of these challenges over the last few post-pandemic years, brands like U.K.-based Costa Coffee have begun leaning more into tech to make customized coffee more easily available at 24-hour locations like airports and college campuses. Bought by Coca-Cola in 2019, Costa Coffee has been expanding its footprint stateside with a few brick-and-mortar shops in Atlanta (plus one Seattle airport location). But where it's really been making a splash is with its popular Smart Café machines. The brand claims that these next-generation coffee makers can prepare a cup of Joe as good as, if not better than, your neighborhood barista. We decided that we had to find out for ourselves.

So how does the posh machine measure up to the personal touch of a barista when it comes to pouring the perfect cup? We put our taste buds to the test to see which sip reigns supreme.

What is the Smart Café machine?

If you're familiar with Coca-Cola's Freestyle soda machines, then you have a fairly good starting point for envisioning the coffee-fied version. Like your traditional gas station coffee bar on steroids, the Costa Coffee Smart Café is a freestanding vending machine with a massive, user-friendly touchscreen that makes ordering your morning pick-me-up a breeze — especially because you don't have to talk to a single human being.

After selecting whether you prefer a hot or iced beverage and the cup size, you'll be able to choose your milk, your sweetness level, whether to add any extra espresso shots, and your flavoring of choice. It should be noted that this iteration of the machine is not able to serve both milk and milk alternatives (the threat of cross-contamination is too great), but there are other products in development that will be able to offer this choice. Once you've crafted your perfect cup from the more than 200 options on offer, the Smart Café machine grinds your beans and steams your milk fresh (yes, really) in just 90 seconds, all with an accompanying soundtrack of coffee shop sounds to round out the experience.

When will Smart Café machines be available?

Costa Coffee Smart Cafés have been around in various iterations since 2011, but they have just recently made their way to the states. As of summer 2024, there are 250 machines in commercial use across the country, including in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

If you don't happen to reside near a current Costa Coffee location, don't worry — the brand has major expansion plans. In the next year or two, coffee lovers across the rest of the South and up the East Coast can expect to see these sleek human-free coffee vendors popping up in venues that could benefit from a 24-hour coffee bar — think airports, hotels, hospitals, and college campuses. Costa also has designs on taking its Smart Cafés nationwide, so even introverts on the West Coast can look forward to grabbing a custom coffee without speaking to a single soul first thing in the morning. Travelers heading overseas are more likely to find versions of Costa Coffee Smart Cafés (or Costa Express, as they're known in the U.K.) with more than 14,000 machines available for use in 32 countries, including China and the United Arab Emirates. 

How does Smart Café coffee compare to barista-made coffee?

In order to put these next-generation coffee machines to the test, we had to first get a taste of Costa Coffee's barista-made beverages. We visited a brick-and-mortar location to try the brand's pure espresso as well as the shop's most commonly ordered coffee drinks: a cappuccino and an iced latte. According to Costa Coffee's caffeine-savvy crew, a premium cup of coffee (or espresso) should have a balance of three things: bitterness, sweetness, and acidity. With this in mind, we decided to test the barista-made beverages against the Smart Café concoctions using the brand's own methodology.

The hand-crafted coffees (i.e. barista-made) did indeed strike a nice balance. The espresso was particularly astringent but pleasantly mellowed by the addition of freshly steamed milk in a classic cappuccino (artfully dusted with cocoa powder in the brand's tri-bean logo) or over ice in the fan-favorite latte.

Heading into the Smart Café testing, we were fairly skeptical that a machine could measure up to the beautifully crafted beverages enjoyed at the shop. However, as soon as we smelled the freshly ground beans brewing for our machine-made cappuccino, we knew the baristas were in for some stiff competition. While the signature hot drink didn't come with the same stenciled flair, the drink itself was creamy and smooth with just enough of a punch from the espresso to remind you that this is real coffee. The iced latte also tasted pleasantly natural without being overly sweet.

Final thoughts

While both sets of sips were surprisingly sublime, at the end of the day, the barista-made coffees just edged out the machine-made cups. Even the most introverted caffeine lover has to admit that there's something special about having your perfect cup of coffee hand-crafted just for you by another human being. Even with its fun coffee shop soundtrack of whirring coffee bean grinders, spoons pinging against mugs, and light chatter, Costa Coffee's Smart Café machines are just lacking that human touch.

But when it comes down to the quality of the coffee itself, the differences are harder to pinpoint. Admittedly, if we were to try both sets of drinks blindfolded, it's likely that we wouldn't be able to tell you which cups were machine-made. Thanks to the freshly ground beans and steamed milk a la moment, both the human-brewed drinks and Smart Café coffees provide a prime product that we'd be much happier savoring over the black sludge typically served in an airport lounge or doctor's office waiting room. The difference comes down to who's adding the ingredients to your cup. As far as we're concerned, we're happy to have options.