There’s change brewing in the world of coffee.
Over the last 10 years or so, an assortment of independent “third wave” coffee roasters has appeared in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Austin, and Boulder—in other words, the same high-tech hubs we cover here at Xconomy.
Each Xconomy editor has his or her favorite local coffee bars—we’ve listed a bunch of them below—and we’ve had fun watching the new generation of tattooed, eyebrow-pierced baristas attempt to reeducate coffee drinkers about the importance of how coffee is grown, harvested, roasted, ground, and brewed. These third-wave artisans offer a tasty alternative and a much-needed philosophical challenge to the ancien regime at Starbucks and Peet’s (who were, of course, themselves the rebellious “second wave” coffee purveyors of the 1960s and 1970s—the “first wave” being the generation of watery, mass-produced brews given to us by Maxwell House and Folger’s).
|Xconomy’s Favorite Third-Wave Coffee Bars|
Boston Common Coffee Company
George Howell Coffee
The Thinking Cup
Three Little Figs
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Zumbar Coffee & Tea
|San Francisco Bay Area
Blue Bottle Coffee
Four Barrel Coffee
Germack Pistachio Company
Great Lakes Coffee
Fremont Coffee Company
Milstead & Co.
Trabant Coffee & Chai
Buon Giorno Coffee
White Rock Coffee
|See also: Where Innovators Meet Up: The Greater Seattle Coffee Cluster|
But from a consumer’s point of view, third-wave coffee comes with its own problems. For one thing, it’s slooooooow. That’s part of the point, of course—but find me a person who actually likes standing in line for 20 minutes at Blue Bottle Coffee and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t have anything important to get done at work. Personally, I’m not even convinced that manually pouring hot water over coffee grounds, the way many third-wave drip-brew coffee shops do, always produces magical results. Sometimes I side with my Boston colleague Greg Huang, who says “the longer it takes to brew, the worse it tastes.”
Proprietors face challenges too. There’s the hassle and expense of training third-wave baristas, and the difficulty of achieving consistent results even after such training. On top of that, each variety of coffee bean should ideally be brewed according to its own special recipe—the combination of grind size, coffee/water ratio, water temperature, brew time, and stirring procedures shown to bring out that bean’s best flavor qualities. All of this complicates life on the barista’s side of the counter, and slows the process down even more.
All in all, it’s a situation that’s causing a few engineers who have peered into the third-wave coffee world to start whispering the A-word: automation.
I’m not talking about replacing baristas with robots—although that’s exactly what Austin, TX-based Briggo Coffee is doing with its networked coffee kiosk on the UT Austin campus, which lets you order a latte, Americano, or espresso from your smartphone and pick it up in 2 to 3 minutes. I’m just talking about countertop devices that digitize and mechanize some of the trickier parts of the third-wave coffee experience. If impatient patrons get their way, you might start to see such machines turning up in your local organic, shade-grown, direct-trade, single-origin, burr-grinding, microroasting coffee house within a couple of years. And that, in turn, might help the specialty coffee industry grow beyond its humble base. (By most counts, there are only a few thousand artisan coffee shops in the U.S.; by contrast, Starbucks alone has 18,000 stores with 150,000 employees.)
The coffee-machine company I’ve been following most closely is Blossom Coffee. Founded by a pair of mechanical engineers—MIT-trained Jeremy Kuempel and Cal Poly Pomona-trained Matt Walliser—the San Francisco startup is building an elegant, wood-paneled device that turns artisan coffee brewing into a repeatable science.
The Blossom One, which is currently in the beta-testing stages, connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi to download brewing recipes customized for each type of coffee bean. The recipes give baristas precise control over parameters such as water portioning and water temperature in the brew chamber.
“There are thousands of varietals of coffee, each of which requires its own unique recipe, but equipment manufacturers haven’t responded to that yet,” says Kuempel, Blossom’s president. “Current systems only have two modes, on and off. The response has been to throw those systems out the window and replace them with a single barista who knows what he is doing. But you can absolutely automate parts of the process.”
A couple of weeks ago, when I visited Blossom’s garage/laboratory space off one of the obscure back lanes of San Francisco’s SoMa district, several Blossom One prototypes sat around in various phases of assembly. Kuempel used one of the working machines to demonstrate how attentive brewing can bring out unexpected flavors even in a standard second-wave coffee—in this case, Major Dickason’s Blend, the flagship deep roast from Peet’s.
Kuempel started by sending a few tablespoons of beans through a $3,400 burr grinder. (You should throw away the blade grinder in your kitchen right now; coffee writer Michaele Weissman says they “basically beat the crap out of the coffee. Not good.”) Then Kuempel downloaded a recipe that directed the Blossom One’s boiler to heat the water to 192 degrees Fahrenheit. Following the recipe, he let the ground coffee steep in the hot water for 120 seconds, gently ladling the life-giving liqueur with a spoon four times.
A special set of heaters around the Blossom One’s brew chamber kept the water at exactly 192 degrees throughout the process. “Other coffee brewers control only initial water temperature, but obviously coffee responds to whatever environment it is exposed to, and temperature changes over a period of time affect flavor,” Kuempel says.
Finally Kuempel pressed the liquid in the brew chamber through a filter into the cups, using a manual lever attached to syringe-like plunger that is the perhaps the Blossom One’s most striking external feature. (The plunger is modeled after the AeroPress, a single-cup coffee making gadget invented by Stanford lecturer Alan Adler—the same guy who invented the Aerobie flying ring.)
The resulting coffee was the best cup of Peet’s blend I’ve ever had. Though I added no cream or sweetener, the careful brewing process brought out cane-sugar flavors that I’d never tasted in coffee before.
Kuempel says the complex genome of the coffee tree gives beans more than 800 flavor components, compared to only about 350 in a glass of wine. “The job of the roaster is to develop these flavors in a way that you can appreciate them,” he says. “And a final step in a very long chain is the brewing process, and even in brewing there is a very high variability in our ability to bring those flavors to the forefront.”
Kuempel, who says he spent most of his MIT years monkeying with cars—he rebuilt a Volkswagen Rabbit to run on vegetable oil—discovered good coffee around his junior year, in 2008, at a Cambridge, MA, coffee bar called Barismo. He also bought an AeroPress, and was surprised that he could “put pretty low quality beans in it and still brew better-tasting coffees than I had had anywhere. I said, ‘There is something going on here.’”
Kuempel went on to internships at Tesla Motors and Apple, where he built a drop-test rig for iPads, but his curiosity about coffee had been permanently piqued. In June 2011, he and Walliser founded Blossom, which was one of the first four startups admitted to Lemnos Labs, a San Francisco-based accelerator for hardware startups. Kuempel says their goal wasn’t just to build a better coffee brewer—it was to invent a “platform” for understanding all the variables that go into the process.
“When I started with the design, I wasn’t even asking ‘why automate coffee brewing,’ I was asking how. How do these variables change the flavor of a cup of coffee? I knew what elements could be changed, but I didn’t know what boundaries they should be changed within. I created a system we could use to start answering that question of how.”
Over the course of two years, the Blossom team has bravely ingested liters of caffeine, trying different recipes on different beans and uploading them to the cloud. Blossom owners can download the existing recipes or make their own, then print QR codes for each one on their coffee bags. They retrieve the recipes at brew time by waving the bags in front of the Blossom One’s built-in camera.
“With the information we’ve gathered, we can really approach the question of automation from a new perspective,” Kuempel says. “There’s still a lot of discovery that the whole coffee industry is going through, all the way from seed to cup. [The Blossom One] is a very powerful tool because it allows you to profile a coffee across the whole phase space of possibilities.”
Blossom hasn’t said yet how much the Blossom One will cost, but it won’t be priced for purchase by individual coffee connoisseurs—it’s designed for coffee bars where “people are already making efforts to brew better coffee in any way they can get their hands on” and where there’s a premium on speed, consistency, and reducing the training time for baristas. “When you’ve got a line out the door, serving faster is a great thing,” Kuempel says. “And if you can take training from two weeks down to two hours, you can open more shops.”
Kuempel thinks there are a few thousand coffee bars in the U.S. that could use the Blossom One. (You probably won’t be seeing them inside Starbucks, which bought Seattle-born Clover, the maker of an $11,000 semiautomatic French press machine, back in 2008.) “It’s not a massive market, but it’s a high-value one,” Kuempel says.
But if Internet-enabled coffee brewing machines were to catch in on a big way at coffee bars, then there might be a narrower chasm to cross on the way to the broader consumer market, Kuempel acknowledges. “That is a great design problem to face: how do we reinvent coffee at a large scale and create tools that grow from super-picky early adopters to a slightly larger market to being the kind of thing you would get for Grandma at Christmas.”
For now, Kuempel says, Blossom is taking the Apple approach to that problem. “If we build this thing for ourselves, then guess what, millions of other people might like it too,” he says. “You are not looking at the market size or potential. You are saying ‘This is something the world needs and I am going to make it happen.’”
Right after the next cup of dark roast.
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