Oakland-based coffee equipment-maker Voga Coffee has been making strides lately, expanding their presence in specialty coffee shops around the country, and snagging an award at the recent 2018 SCA expo. The company has been gaining attention for its commercial batch brewing machine, the Ground Control, which recently made its North-Atlantic debut at Bogotá-and-New-York-City based company Devoción’s new Downtown Brooklyn cafe.
The machine, according to Voga co-founder Eli Salomon, uses a “patented, totally new brewing science that allows us to selectively extract the flavors we want through a series of carefully controlled mini-brews,” producing a “noticeably sweeter, less bitter, more consistent, and more nuanced coffee than even a well-executed pour-over.”
I visited the new Devoción on a spring afternoon to chat with Scott Norton, Voga’s director of sales and marketing, and to see the brewer in action. The process looked simple enough: A barista adds fresh coffee grounds into a brew basket at the bottom of the machine, then taps a few buttons on a touchscreen keypad. While she tends to other tasks, the machine quietly gets to work: The grounds are saturated and stirred, and the brewed liquid is pulled up into the glass vacuum chambers. “Once the liquid is fully extracted, essentially leaving the coffee grounds dry, the process is repeated, with the grounds undergoing multiple immersions and extractions,” Norton explains. “Each extraction reveals new layers of flavor and nuances of the coffee, then the extractions are blended together, resulting in a highly complex and balanced batch of coffee.” The closed-system process eliminates any “odd” flavors that can arise from oxidation, and the aeration releases aromatics that can only be achieved with a vacuum system.
The brewer was invented in the kitchen of Salomon’s San Francisco apartment, where he experimented with chemist and Voga co-founder Dr. Josh Avins. Salomon had the idea of using a vacuum pump to create a large siphon, and Avins pointed out that “in chemistry labs, they never do a single extraction—the theory of extractions shows that three mini-extractions, using fresh solvent, is typically ideal.” They eventually came up with the idea of brewing the coffee multiple times while substantially drying the grounds, and the Ground Control was born. “The idea was initially received with skepticism amongst industry experts, but it’s become more widely accepted,” Salomon says. “For example, drying and re-extracting a bed of grounds was an integral part of 2016 Brewer’s Cup World Champion Tetsu Kasuya’s winning ‘Four Six’ recipe.”
Voga's team showcased the machine at an SCA Expo, where they met Steven Sutton, founder of the Colombian coffee roasting company Devoción. “I loved the concept and wanted to learn more, so I asked for a demo,” Sutton says. “We trialed the brewer at our Williamsburg cafe, and the amount of control the machine allowed over our coffees immediately blew our minds.” Sutton promptly ordered one for their new downtown Brooklyn location.
The Ground Control is currently used at about a dozen coffee shops around the country, and Voga’s new single-group brewer, the Cyclops, won Best New Product (Commercial Equipment) at the 2018 SCA Expo. The machines are 95% made-in-America, 100% hand-assembled in Oakland, and require about three minutes of training time for baristas. “Our staff and clients love it,” Sutton says. “We’re now able to batch-brew any coffee we want, achieving optimal results, and we’re able to offer special-edition coffees in our batch brewer, which is something we rarely offered before.”
Voga is also hard at work on a new home-brewing machine, and are currently in discussions with investors and partners to bring it to life. “There are so many opportunities for bringing new science into coffee brewing,” Salomon says, “and we have a lot of other ideas that we're extremely excited about.” But for now, coffee drinkers in New York City can order a cup of Ground Control-brewed coffee at Devoción’s new space—while taking an unexpected break from Downtown Brooklyn.