Todd Carmichael, founder of La Colombe Coffee and host of the Travel Channel show Dangerous Grounds, competed in the 2014 US Brewers Cup championships this weekend in Seattle. He did so as the Northeast Regional Brewers Cup champion, which is notable enough, but Carmichael is not one to merely, meekly meet expectations. Instead he used his time on stage, under the big lights and a national audience, to unveil a brand new manual brewing device, invented by him and his team at La Colombe and dubbed “The Dragon.” Minds exploded.
We chatted with Mr. Carmichael to find out more about this “manual pour-over syphon” device that helped him to place second in a highly competitive national championship field of brewers, using our friends and partners at La Colombe’s roast of a naturally processed Perci Red geisha coffee from Ninety Plus.
Carmichael’s regional Brewers Cup win made waves within coffee geek circles for his use of a classic Chemex coffee maker, modified with custom glass rods. He began practicing for the national championships using the same method, but this was quickly scrapped in favor of what would become “The Dragon.” Carmichael described the Brewers Cup itself as a stage that progressive coffee types look to for innovation, and a great place to “try new, avant-garde things.”
After some in-depth mental visualizations–and “sketching it out twice on a chalkboard”–Carmichael met with glassblower Christopher Bock, a talented scientific and artistic glass craftsman based in Vineland, New Jersey, and commissioned three of the wild-looking devices. Carmichael found Bock after watching this beautiful video of Bock making a double-walled glass mug. The device itself is a riff on the centuries-old vacuum coffee maker tradition, albeit with a decidedly 21st century perspective and a far-out look. Carmichael told his judges at Brewers Cup–and the watching world–that “The Dragon” had already been nicknamed “Todd’s series of bongs” by other, unnamed members of the La Colombe team.
The Dragon deconstructs and rearranges syphon-style brewing in order to give increased control over brew parameters like temperature, as well as manual control of the vacuum effect used to draw coffee through a syphon filter. In a standard syphon, the vacuum is created by applying, then removing heat from a lower sealed chamber. This is sometimes done with butane or alcohol heaters, and sometimes with heat from an adjustable halogen bulb, as is the case with these Yama Brewers.
Over the years, people have developed all sorts of methods (involving temperature probes, quenching with wet towels, and other involved processes) to regulate heat for syphon brewing, with the goal of achieving the “draw-down” effect they want in the appropriate amount of time. The Dragon uses a syringe and set of vacuum seals to create the vacuum draw-down effect of a syphon independent of heat application.
Carmichael says that the syringe system also gives much more control over the vacuum, which allowed him to practice the precise number of pumps necessary to reliably create the draw-down effect at exactly the speed he wanted. This is crucial because it allows precise control of the length of the overall extraction. The BKON brewer that was launched at this year’s SCAA also focuses hugely on vacuums, so it’s interesting to see another brew approach reconsidering vacuums as well.
The second main technology of the Dragon is the glass sleeve that surrounds the upper pour-over brewing chamber, which Carmichael says allows him to more precisely control brew temperature. The brewing approach is similar to “pour-over” in that hot water is poured directly on to the grounds in the top chamber, as opposed to the water bubbling up from the bottom in a standard syphon.
In most brewing approaches, there is a focus on maintaining a high, even temperature in the coffee slurry–the mixture of hot water and coffee where extraction happens–throughout the brewing process. Carmichael said that he wanted to lower the temperature of his brew slurry over time, to achieve “decreasing energy through the brew process,” hoping to affect the solvency of his coffee and decrease extraction of less desirable flavor compounds that can happen towards the end of an extraction. To accomplish this, part way through his brewing routine Carmichael poured cold water into the outer sleeve jacketing the brew chamber, though hot water could certainly be applied to raise or maintain temperatures as well.
Todd Carmichael is characteristically quite excited by his new brewer, and sees it as much more than a one-time competition gimmick. We spoke to him in the zoom and rush of the competition, where Carmichael told Sprudge he’d like to see a day when “seeing multiple people using Dragons during Brewer’s Cup” is not unusual. To that end, he said that he is thinking of commissioning 500 of the devices and “putting them out into the community.” As per Carmichael’s Twitter, The Dragon will be “Available at LaColombe.com Summer 2014.” Whatever the hell happens next, it’s likely this won’t be the last time you read about The Dragon.
Photos by Charlie Burt for Sprudge.com.