We're in the middle of a swell of high-tech, entrepreneurial hardware design and manufacturing happening all throughout the country, as the maker movement moves out of the garage and into the startup accelerator. This boom in design innovation has started finding its way into the coffee world as well, with a number of small hardware companies working on brewing and espresso innovation.
The latest entrant into this field is a project called XTRCT, from Jeff Duggan, founder of our friends and partners Portola Coffee Lab, and Arman Bastani and Andrew Wright of Oval Integration. This weekend at the Big Western Regional Barista Competition they are demoing an early prototype of their first design concept, a pour-and-forget-it brew-cone system called the Amphora.
The coffee industry was early to the hardware startup craze with the launch of the Clover brewing system in 2008 (and its subsequent acquisition by Starbucks), but recently a new wave of small, designer-driven companies like Modbar, Alpha Dominche and Blossom Coffee have been making their own waves. A common thread through all of these companies is designers with serious experience in high-tech industries falling in love with coffee. XTRCT is no different–before starting Portola, Mr. Duggan was a chemist and then a systems and networking consultant, and the approach he has developed at Portola Coffee Lab in Orange County is heavy on the technical: their island bar setup holds three Bunn Trifectas, an Alphadominche Steampunk, a Kees van der Westen Spirit, two Kyoto drip towers, and a Hario V60 bar.
Arman Bastani was first introduced to third-wave coffee when he went to Portola to meet with a client of Oval Integration, the five year old design company he formed with Andrew Wright. Wright and Bastani are both veterans of the aerospace industry, where they made robotic measurement systems, and with Oval they have broadened their horizons to work on a broad range of embedded systems. Bastani is heavily involved in the OC maker scene, and Duggan first reached out to Bastani to get a design concept from one of his meetings with his QC staff prototyped on Oval's CNC mill, and they quickly discovered a shared interest in technical innovation in coffee.
The first problem they decided to approach was the complexity of many manual pour-over approaches. Duggan said that though they teach V60 classes at Portola, many home users either never take the time to make pour-overs at home because they are intimidated by the complexity, or the pour-overs they do make are disappointingly inconsistent. To address this, they decided to make a system that didn't need a timer or any sort of pouring technique. You simple place the setup on a scale, dose in your coffee, secure the top water-resevoir, and then pour your desired amount of water on top. The holes in the reservoir drip the water down onto the coffee bed, with the curves on the inside faces of the cone supporting a standard V60 filter.
The Amphora has been in development for 6 months, with a series of 3D printed ceramic prototypes being tested with a wide range of hole-sizes and brew parameters. The device is still very much in development, but Duggan says that they've been finding tasty cups across a wide range of brew recipes and have been able to easily target high extraction yields with their enclosed brew system. At this point in the process they are still keeping things vague, but they believe that their system will prove to be not only an easily accessible option, but also an approach that exhibits some “new things” when it comes to the extraction process.
Bastani and Wright have a lot of experience working with manufacturers, and they hope to bring the Amphora to a wide market–according to them, the device is perfect for both consumers who want to easily realize quality coffee at home, and coffee shops that want highly consistent, easy to operate brew bars.
Though their first product is all mechanical, XTRCT has plans to explore more high-tech approaches to coffee as well. When I visited their workshop, they were working on an experimental “closed control loop” Kyoto-style cold drip system, and other more automated experiments lay around in various states of construction. Duggan plans to use the machine-heavy bar at Portola as a “test kitchen” for these experiments.
For now, you can try coffee from of an Amphora prototype all weekend at the Big Western Regional Barista Competition, and watch for more XTRCT coverage on Sprudge as further prototypes go public. You can also find XTRCT on facebook here and on twitter at @XTRCTBrewing.