BKON: Bringing The Potential of Sous-Vide To Beverage Extraction

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Everywhere you turn these days in the coffee world, you hear the word “extraction” on people’s lips. Extraction is a daily reality for baristas, and yet also a much imagined and puzzled over goal, being hotly debated and feverishly chased in myriad ways. The VST/MojoToGo extraction measuring tool is everywhere, novel brewing approaches are being touted based on previously unheard of raw extraction potentials, and all over the show floor here at the 2014 SCAA Event, “extraction” is being tech-ified in every way imaginable. One of the most interesting examples of this is the newly announced BKON brewer, a sleek automatic machine that could possibly do to beverages what the sous-vide mega-trend has done to high-end cooking.

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The BKON (pronounced beacon) is being marketed as a single-serve tea brewer–and Dean & Lou Vastardis, the brothers behind the company, have gotten some of the biggest names in the business signed on with them, including equipment giant Franke and high-end tea gurus Rishi. But the potential of their vacuum beverage infusion and extraction technology extends far beyond tea. Their innovative, patented system allows them to precisely manipulate the pressure within a glass extraction chamber, which can be filled with any sort of organic matter.

Everything about the extraction process that is applied is programmable, from length and number of water dosage cycles, to vessel and water temperature, to the length of time and depth of pressure during each vacuum application. This control gives the BKON the ability to extract multiple infusions of a tea in quick succession over around 60 to 90 seconds, allowing for impressively full-bodied and complex expressions of a given tea combined in one ready to go cup.

The same possibilities for controlling extraction are available when applying BKON to coffee. There are even people interested in trying to employ the vacuum tech to make on-demand cold infusions of spirits, oils, and other liquids.

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Dean Vastardis has always been a tinkerer, from getting a BFA in Sculpture at Temple University, to working as a fine art fabricator and developing the prototype BKON technology in his garage. The system he designed uses what they’ve dubbed Reverse Atmospheric Infusion (RAIN™), which boils down to applying and then removing negative pressure in a beverage extraction chamber in order to open up the extraction matter’s cell structure, allowing trapped gasses to escape, and air and the liquid medium to enter. They say that this approach allows them to extremely efficiently extract the full potential of different substances–the dry ginger that Rishi uses in their hibiscus tea blend takes seven minutes to fully extract using standard brewing procedures, but with the BKON, they can extract the full sweetness and aromatic complexity in just 90 seconds.

Despite this extreme extraction potential, they say the actual extraction process is comparatively gentle. Instead of using forced bursts of air or steam for agitation as in other automatic one cup brewers, it is possible to achieve a natural low temperature boil (pictured at the top of this feature) in the extracting liquid thanks to the drop in atmospheric pressure.  I tried a number of teas from the BKON booth, including the hibiscus and an Iron Goddess Oolong, and every cup I had was impressively sweet and full in both mouthfeel and flavor. BKON has a nice animated explanation of the whole process up on their website.

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The potential of this technology is already attracting a lot of attention, with a handful of units currently being tested out in the wild. This includes one at Counter Culture Coffee‘s New York City Training Center, and two in Starbucks’ stealth-branded Teavana tea concept stores, one of which is located in University Village in Seattle and the other on the Upper East Side in New York City. Here at the SCAA Event in Seattle, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was on the show floor to take a look himself.

An interesting turn of events, since what started the Vastardis brothers down the BKON track was their purchase of the last Clover brewer manufactured before the brewer startup was acquired by Starbucks. This was when the brothers were working on a new fast-service concept at Lacas Coffee, the roastery started by their great-grandfather. The Starbucks acquisition halted their roll-out of the machines, and sparked Dean’s interest in building his own machine. Six years later, the brothers are working with Franke, the $3 billion dollar a year equipment conglomerate, to manufacture, distribute and service their new brewer. BKON could easily find its way into any number of Starbucks or other beverage company concepts.

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The actual technology of the machine is rather complex–BKON says they are quite happy to have Franke, a leader in producing complex super-automatic espresso machines, helping with engineering and production–with the current version using a series of three thermoblock heaters, regulated by a series of temperature probes throughout the machine, being used to ensure on-demand water dispensing at extremely precise temperatures. A separate vacuum pump system manipulates the air pressure, with a ball valve in the spout of their portafilter device ensuring a tight seal.

They’ve designed the system with a series of different filter inserts for rotating through both coffee and different teas quickly on the same machine, thanks to the integrated rinse cycle. The color-coded baskets are matched to colored recipes on the touch-screen interface, and they have the ability to use many different filter materials that customers might desire. These recipes can be uploaded to their Craft Cloud online network, allowing people to exchange precise recipes and develop best practices.

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The first 100 machines are entering into production right now, rolling out to select retail partners in June, with full production beginning in the Fall. BKON will retail for around $13,000, a steep price for what is being initially marketed as a tea machine, though not out of the ballpark from other high-end auto brewers on the market. The Vastardis brothers said that they are focusing on tea right now because it is the beverage market most in need of disruption, and provided this quote from Rishi Tea CEO & Founder Josh Kaiser to explain their excitement:

“I have seen practically every brewer that claimed it would unlock the opportunity for tea the same way the espresso machine transformed the coffee industry. Until BKON, nothing has ever been able to deliver on the promise. I am really amazed with the performance of this technology, even with the most complex teas.”

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As if you needed more evidence of buzz, the BKON brewer was named Best New Product at this year’s SCAA Event. Clearly, people are excited about this technology, and with revolutionary tea extraction being only the beginning, it’s easy to see how systems like the BKON could be a powerful tool for creative professionals across a wide range of beverage industries.

Alex Bernson is the Assistant Editor at Sprudge.com. You can read more Bernson here.

All photos by Joanna Han (@joannakarenina) for Sprudge.com. See more Joanna Han on Sprudge.