History was made on February 19, 2014, when man competed against machine in a highly publicized coffee brew battle at the LAMILL Roastery in Alhambra, California. The stakes were high as provocateur Nick Cho manually brewed against Alpha Dominche president and CEO Khristian Bombek and his flagship Steampunk machine.
It all started with “The State of the Art: What's New In Coffee Equipment,” an article written by Cho and published on Serious Eats in late December of last year. In it, Cho criticizes new automated brewing machines: “Yes, there are people who are happy with what these automated single-cup machines are producing,” Cho writes. “I'm here to tell you, it can taste better.”
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for Nick's ability to hand brew coffee,” Khristian Bombek told Sprudge. “Nick is, undoubtedly, one of the best known manual brewers out there.” Bombek went on: “I read the article, enjoyed the writing style and analogies used to describe the equipment the author was criticizing. I was, however, surprised to see that the author of the article was Nick Cho, because I was under the impression he was a supporter of our push forward in coffee technology.”
Mr. Bombeck sent a formal request to duel via direct message to Nick Cho on Twitter (they follow each other.) “He responded immediately and said sure,” says Bombek. “Nick honestly did not believe in the Steampunk's ability to brew fantastic coffee.”
Once the battle was called, the coffee Twittersphere took notice, and Sprudge signed on as a media sponsor of the event. (We're proudly partnered with Alpha Dominche; Mr. Cho is a longtime friend and advisor to Sprudge.com's editorial staff.) Stakes grew to a fever pitch as the event grew closer. “Rumors of ‘Nick the Brewing Legend' kept pouring in,” Mr. Bombek tells Sprudge. “We knew we had a legitimate challenge on our hands.”
Nick Cho has an extensive CV in coffee — noted podcaster, Kalita slinger, videoist, influential cafe owner, and now Serious Eats coffee columnist – but his direct involvement (some refer to him as “lead architect”) in the World Brewers Cup arguably gave him the biggest advantage. His knowledge of brewing is buttressed by an encyclopedic knowledge of Brewers Cup rules and regulations that he helped write. Mr. Cho knows exactly what judges look for in a perfect brew.
In spite of all that, he was genuinely on the fence about the challenge. When asked if he was prepared, he flatly answered “no.” When asked why, he simply said, “The last time I competed with coffee was a completely ill-prepared run at the SW Regional Barista Competition in 2010. I’m actually not familiar with any such head-to-head challenge in the coffee industry.”
“This challenge represented a chance to prove the Alpha Dominche concept in definitive terms – to show that the Steampunk is a tool that enables one man to replicate his creation – and the creations of others,” Mr. Bombeck remarked. “In current times and popular culture all things done by handcraft are in vogue. With the introduction of any new technology, there are misconceptions.”
What kind of misconceptions? The idea that an automated machine removes the craft from the brewing process. Khristian Bombeck is quick to retort that the Steampunk does just the opposite: “The Steampunk is to a master barista like the litho stone and press is to an artist – a creative platform to replicate one’s art and the ability to share it with the world.”
Mr. Bombek elaborated in a thoughtful email to Sprudge:
The battle itself was attended by well over 150 coffee enthusiasts. While the promotion and razzle-dazzle had many believing it was a battle against humanity, replete with Terminator imagery and dire language, in reality this was a battle between two coffee nerds and their brew profiles.
For support, Mr. Bombeck enlisted the help of a team to develop brew parameters. Alpha Dominche “Master Brewer” Josip Drazenovich, Todd Carmichael and Carmichael's La Colombe team of “Brew Street Bullies” all rallied in support. “His crew think outside the box and are masters of brew theory,” Mr. Bombeck gushed.
Carmichael offered his team $2,000 in cash to top, in his words, “Khristian's best cry baby recipe.”
“It can't be denied, I'm entirely partial to immersion brewing. The body and sweetness achieved through immersion slays me, a combination one can best hang the acids of our better coffees,” says Todd Carmichael, himself a noted character in the coffee world. “As for the Steampunk itself,” Carmichael told Sprudge, “hands down what makes this device exceptional over any other is that it executes immersion and drop in precisely the way I ask. It behaves according to each specific recipe I create, exactly. Ultimately this is what explains the better cup of coffee.”
Nick Cho competed on Kalita Wave 185 drippers, Kalita Wave Pots for pouring, a double induction range, and Baratza Forte grinders. competed against Khristian Bombeck's Steampunk paired with a Malhkonig EK-43 grinder.
Five coffees were brewed in fifteen minutes – LAMILL Ethipia Nekisse, PT's Coffee Ndaroini Nyeri, Wrecking Ball Coffee Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Commonwealth Coffee Panama Milagrosa, and Peet's Coffee Major Dickason's Blend. Assistants were on hand to test the brew's TDS using Extract Mojos. Three judges — Ted Lingle (CQI Executive Director), Ricardo Pereira (Q Grader, Brewers Cup judge, manager at Ally Coffee) and Lynsey Harley (2012 UK Cup Tasters champion) — were tucked away in a back room. They blind tasted and scored the coffees based on World Brewers Cup scoring protocol.
In the end, though Nick brewed three of the five coffees better, Khristian Bombeck won the battle by one point – 374.35 to Nick Cho's 373.35.
Why were the scores so low? “It has to do with the way the Brewers Cup scoresheets add up each element,” says Nick Cho, “For the cupping form, if a coffee meets minimum standards for clean cup, sweetness, and uniformity, it gets what amounts to 30 free points. The old cupping form (and the COE form) just give free points. The Brewers Cup form does not give free points, therefore the scores end up being a good bit lower than you'd expect from a cupping form.”
In the end, with end-of-days Terminator 2 imagery set well aside, the Man Vs. Machine battle was a victory for coffee above all else. A few weeks ago we published a list of reasons why coffee is so exciting in 2014, concluding with the statement that right now, coffee has never been more delicious. Man Vs. Machine brought together an incalculable volume of hard work and considered thought on behalf of its participants.
Indeed, these competitors reflect whole career paths for bright professionals who dedicate themselves to new coffee inventions, mastery of old coffee techniques, and the development of fair paths by which to judge a “good” cup of coffee in the first place. If you're looking for a concrete reason why coffee tastes better in 2014, events like this are a fine place to start.