Alex Bernson’s SCAA 2013 Tech Wrap Up
The 2013 SCAA conference felt like a big one. The quality-focused portion of our industry felt more mature and robust then it ever has, and there was a sense that we are moving into the next phase of responsibility and growth. The Symposium delivered a truly astounding amount of information on coffee rust, coffee genetics, and the need for collaborative approaches to these systemic challenges facing our industry. In the competition realm, the Cup Tasters and Brewers’ Cup competitions, now fully integrated into international competition frameworks, enjoyed new levels of enthusiasm. The Barista Championships saw both an exciting new wave of serious competitors, alongside established old-guard competitors demonstrating the depth of their skill. In the light of all this growth, what really defined the show for me was the feeling on the show floor that entrepreneurship in the quality-focused sector is reaching a new level of expansion and viability.
Quality-focused retail has been seeing a huge boom in entrepreneurship recently, with tons of new shops opening all over the country, and many more established brands looking to expand or having already expanded their operations. Most interesting for me though is the increasing entrepreneurial viability of quality-focused ventures outside the retail sector.
In my design round-up article I discussed the impressive success relative new-comer Bonavita has had in responding to customer demand and rapidly bringing new products to market. The Modbar system, subject of such explosive excitement at the show, was developed under an agile start-up model, backed by big name investors like La Marzocco and Marco. Though not shrouded in the same secrecy, this hardware start-up approach is also being pursued by two different brewers, the Alpha Dominche Steampunk and the Blossom One. It’s now been about a year since the big reveal for both these brewers, and so I decided to check in with them and see how the process of getting to market is going for them.
I had a chance to check out the Alpha Dominche Steampunk at last year’s SCAA, and was left with a positive impression of the technology but worries about cup quality and usability. It made me happy, then, when my talk with Alpha Dominche started off with them talking about how they had addressed each of those concerns. They’ve clearly been taking people’s criticism to heart. In the last year AD has produced three interchangeable metal filters with various hole sizes, as well as paper filters, allowing the ability to target an increased range of cup body and clarity. They’ve also introduced a new piston that is much lighter and easier to maneuver and provides gentler agitation. Khristian Bombeck, the lead designer, said that they initially created a machine that was as manual as possible, but based on roaster feedback they’ve made the system more automated. Internally, they’ve made the system easier to service with a very cool, easily-removable boiler and electronics system. They also introduced a new version that mounts the boiler under the counter, leaving just the brew chambers attractively mounted above.
Alpha Dominche has obviously been reacting to customer feedback in a flexible and responsive way, and I think it will pay off well for them. They’ve spent the last year growing the company to three times its original number of employees, setting up distribution relationships and getting ready to go into full production right after SCAA. The machines just launched nationally at Verve Coffee Roasters, La Colombe Torrefaction, Portola Coffee Lab’s Seventh Tea Bar, and Nobrow Coffee Werks.
Blossom also had a busy year, going from two to five employees, working to initiate distribution relationships and taking their brewer from early prototype to a more final product. Though they were still making coffee on their Dev2 prototype devices at the show, they had a very pretty final physical design on display that was just waiting on some internal finishing touches.
Jeremy Kuempel of Blossom says that in the last year he’s been really focusing on coffee brew science, learning everything he can from the community and working on ways to bring that knowledge to a wider audience. In this pursuit, he sees the Blossom as a “Porsche 911” that really lets you hone in on the effect of temperature as a variable. Compared to Alpha Dominche’s full launch, the Blossom is clearly a bit further away from market, but it sounds like they are making good progress finalizing their design and setting up manufacturing.
Talking to attendees about Alpha Dominche and Blossom, a lot of people questioned the idea of a $10k+ brewer. To be honest, I too am a little skeptical of our industry’s current ability to support two competing brewers at that price point. But regardless, it says big things about the growth of the quality-focused coffee sector that people are even trying for that market, and I’ll be interested to see where brewing equipment like the Steampunk and Blossom wind up out in the wild – top end cafes, sure, but maybe QC labs as well, or curious home users with money to spend.
Modbar, Baratza, Bonavita, Breville, and Alpha Dominche all launched new high-end quality-focused products on the SCAA show-floor this year. With the new Linea and Swift, La Marzocco showed serious interest in making their quality innovations accessible to a wider swath of the market. Unic and Stella diCaffee had a strong showing at their Barista Nation Satellite Cafe with their Stella DCL. Nuova Simonelli demonstrated an increased interest in positioning their products for the high-end customer with their Mythos modifications and the upcoming Aurelia physical refresh, rumored to include a sleeker, lower profile.
A focus on absolute premium quality and presentation used to be seen as the purview of a relative lunatic fringe in the industry, but the explosion of new entrepreneurial activity targeting this market at SCAA 2013 shows that this segment is increasingly becoming big business. We here at Sprudge are obviously big believers in the importance of an increasing focus on quality and the potential it has to create a more sustainable, vibrant community of coffee producers, consumers and professionals. SCAA 2013 was packed full of information, attended by pretty much everyone I wanted to see. The energy and excitement going on in quality coffee right now is literally amazing, in that I am amazed by it. Here’s hoping that the raft of new products on display are a good indication of this industry’s continued potential for growth.
Photography by James Hanna for Sprudge.com.