What will those wacky Swiss think up next? Apparently, it’s an espresso-tasting machine: A machine with a taste-for espresso.

Yes, it’s the latest invention from the people who brought us yodeling and clandestine overseas bank accounts. But with the Swiss, it’s not all good stuff. They have also brought us brain-dead, monkey-operated, superautomated espresso machines — such as those manufactured by Franke, Nespresso, the Schaerer. (The latter of which is responsible for the dreaded Verismo, part of a secret Swiss plot to bring about the downfall of Starbucks.)

So the nation that has built robots to do everything from stacking wheels of cheese to pumping out sickly cups of espresso has turned its attention to espresso tasting. (More sophisticated coffee industry robots that also wear hoodies and bike messenger bags, collect tatts, and listen to Cat Power on iPods are apparently still in the works.)

The machine operates by analyzing gases released by a heat­ed es­pres­so sam­ple. By evaluating some of the over 1,500 aromatic and flavor compounds in a brewed espresso, the developers hope to replace a lot of the human profiling that still goes on in coffee production. A study on the effectiveness of the device, which is rumored to be nearly as ac­cu­rate as a pan­el of trained hu­man es­pres­so tasters, is planned for publication in the March issue of An­a­lyt­i­cal Chem­is­try.

Robots to brew, robots to drink

The coffee industry still relies heavily on human senses for evaluating what makes a good cup. While some day a Swiss-made, espresso-tasting robot may put CoffeeRatings.com out of business, I was also struck by something James Freeman told me yesterday at his new Blue Bottle Cafe. He took a moment to sample his siphon bar coffee after serving it — noting how he was impressed with how the bartenders at his neighborhood Nopa often sample their cocktails from the ends of stirring straws as a way to keep tabs on the resulting product.

Technology can go a long way towards modeling the physical world. But until coffee is served by robots for robots, chances are that some things just can’t be replaced without the human touch.

UPDATE: Feb. 12, 2008
More news of this story is starting to hit the presses. This includes the Royal Society of Chemistry, which uses espresso-tasting profile charts as illustrated by the Centro Studi e Formazione Assaggiatori: Machines get a taste for espresso. There’s also the actual ACS publication: When Machine Tastes Coffee: Instrumental Approach To Predict the Sensory Profile of Espresso Coffee, where other blogs have excerpted some of its illustrations. Plus a weak, one-minute audio spot from Scientific American: Scientific American: Coffee Tasting Machine Stirs Industry.