Here’s an equation for you: the better the coffee we all drink, the longer we all have to wait to drink it. At craft coffee bars, where artisanally roasted beans are ground and brewed to order using low-tech equipment like pour overs and siphons, a coffee break can be quite the time commitment. Have you been to any of the Blue Bottle locations in San Francisco? The line can stretch out the door. What’s a coffee geek to do? Ride the third-wave right into the future, says Khristian Bombeck, founder of the new Steampunk coffee and tea brewer.
Bombeck was a café owner and craft roaster in Bozeman, Montana when he started to wonder if there was a better way to deliver great coffee to his customers. A vintage scooter mechanic, he started tinkering around with the boiler of an old espresso machine, a siphon brewing chamber and a few other odds and ends he had lying around. Soon, and with a little help from a friend, he had a prototype for a semi-automated machine that acts like a siphon or vacuum pot, but eliminates the long waits and brewing inconsistencies associated with this infusion-style coffee brewer.
There is still craft involved, Bombeck asserts, despite the automation. The machine features four brew chambers, each of which can make a different coffee at the same time. The automated part is a touch-screen computer that allows the barista to input recipes for each type of coffee. The craft comes in as the recipes are developed: the barista can customize the temperature, brew time and how the grounds are agitated, tweaking the recipe to bring out more fruit or acidity in the coffee. Four different filter options deliver a more robust or delicate brew. Once a recipe is programmed, the coffee will come out the same each time it’s brewed. With all four chambers working at the same time, turnaround time can be as low as one minute per order.
Like a siphon, the Steampunk makes a clear, aromatic cup of coffee. Bombeck believes it’s the hot steam forced into the brew chamber (instead of the usual halogen or other heat source used with a siphon) that brings out many of the subtler notes and nuances in a Steampunk coffee. The machine won the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Best New Product Award last year, before it was even commercially available. Several coffee bars around the country are now using it, including Philadelphia-based La Colombe. CEO Todd Carmichael was in New York for the Steampunk’s official launch last week. He says the machine is just what he’s been waiting for.
“We serve two things: coffee and people,” says Carmichael. “Like everyone, I want to show off our ability with single-origin coffees. But to do that, you can either have a café that’s really slow or not care about people standing in line. The V60 pour over makes a good cup of coffee, but it’s eight minutes end to end.”
He says La Colombe is putting the Steampunk in all its cafés. In fact, he bought the first five fresh off the manufacturing line – no small investment, at $15,000 a pop. Carmichael goes as far as to say that, in a few years, he believes the Steampunk will be standard equipment in busy craft coffee bars around the country. In addition to speed, he and his team like that it improves consistency of cup quality. And, surely, the cool, clean lines of the design don’t hurt.
“If you have the same person making each cup, like this guy in Japan who has been doing pour overs everyday for 75 years, then the cup quality is going to be consistent,” says Doug Wolfe, a partner in La Colombe’s New York City cafés. “But we have young baristas who have been working with us for six months. This machine eliminates a lot of human variables that can result in a bad cup of coffee.”
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