Why Coffee Shops Closed During The Austin Water Boil

Austin, TX was on a Water Boil Advisory from October 22 to October 28. The preceding heavy rains caused flooding that stirred up water in the reservoirs. This brought too much silt into the water supply for the water plant to process sufficiently. 

This meant that water from the tap was unsafe. It would have to be boiled for three minutes before it was considered safe to consume. The other alternative: bottled water.

While this is not a huge deal at home (it was still safe to wash hands, shower, laundry, etc.), it had major effects on restaurants, and particularly coffee shops.

But why?


Coffee is 98% water. If you start with bad water, you’ll end up with bad coffee. This is one reason why coffee tastes so much better in coffee shops than at home. Coffee shops have excellent filtration systems. They start with the best water they can (if you’re just using tap water at home, think about upgrading). 

However, this filtration system does not remove microbiological contaminants. It’s made to take the unwanted materials out of water and maintain the minerals and impurities that naturally bring out flavors in coffee. Distilled water removes all the impurities from the water (leading to a poor extraction). This is the same reason why it’s not recommended that beer is brewed with distilled water.

Secondly, the water should be boiled for three minutes to be considered safe to drink. While coffee is brewed at hot temperatures, it’s not hot enough to kill the potential bacteria. The ideal coffee brewing temperature is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Just below the boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Water for brewing coffee isn’t boiling, therefore it’s unsafe to use.

Coffee shops use machines with internal temperature settings to brew coffee and make espresso. Adjusting these settings is not safe for the machines and difficult to undo. Besides that, there is the likely chance that they will be brewing at too high a temperature (resulting in bad tasting coffee). Coffee brewers and espresso machines are tied into the tap lines with the water filtration in between. Coffee shops use a massive amount of water. 


Coffee Shops

use a massive amount of water.

Thirdly, there are several more ancillary devices in coffee shops that use water from tap lines. At Illuminate Coffee Bar, we boiled water to use for dishwashing and sanitizing. We stopped using our house ceramic mugs and plates and opted for disposable ones. The water needed to wash all our reusable dishes would have been too much for us to keep up with.

One of the best devices in a high volume coffee shop is the pitcher rinser. A device that works on a spring hooked up to arms spreading out from a high pressure faucet. When the arms are pressed down by a milk pitcher turned upside down, the faucet shoots water in several directions. This rinses out the milk pitcher and cools it down to be ready to use for the next latte. This device allows the milk pitchers to be quickly rinsed out and ready to use again. 

Some coffee shops opt for having more pitchers and sink to wash them in instead of a pitcher rinser. However, with the water boil advisory, this situation would also not work. 

At Illuminate Coffee Bar, we were able to stay open by bringing in water in 5 gallon jugs and hooking it up to our espresso machine. Espresso machines have motorized pumps with them that can pull water from a tank and create the pressure needed to extract espresso. Pitcher rinsers, and coffee brewers work with the pressure from the tap line itself, therefore, they are unable to run on a tank without a motor. For brewed coffee, we made tons of chemexs - large, manual brew pour overs. It was a headache, but it worked. And lastly, to replace our pitcher rinser, we used a water boiler and a bin of cold rinse water to rinse out used milk pitchers.

We love serving coffee to our people and we did everything in our power to make sure we kept it going. 

Tom Snyder