Over the past few years, there seems to be a trend at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Trade Show (called "The Event") that some breakthrough device is demonstrated in working form. Last year, Baratza showed off its weight dosing grinders and several companies demonstrated automated "fuzzy logic style" manual pourover devices (I know, manual and automated in the same description!). This year was no different, and one of the most stand-out devices was from a company called Alpha Dominche. Their product? The Steampunk siphon brewing machine.
Alpha Dominche is a new product manufacturing company founded by Khristian Bombeck, who is an ex-barista and used to be involved with a cafe and roastery. Also involved with the company is Tymer Von Tilton as the principle designer of the Steampunk, Kenneth Bombeck as the production manager, and Walter Bombeck as the Marketing Customer Relations contact. The company is financed through private investment via a third party.
The machine has been in development for several years; in fact, Khristian Bombeck uploaded a video to Vimeo a year ago showing an earlier prototype. According to Bombeck, they are very close to in initial shipping models, or perhaps very late stage prototypes, going out to key customers this summer.
The Steampunk with 4 brewing groups (or crucibles, as Bombeck calls them) has a projected price of under $8,000 at this point, but of course, this price is not final and won't be until they are actually in production mode. It runs on 220V 30amp power, and requires a stable, filtered water input for operation. The 4-crucible Steampunk weighs approximately 70 kg (160lbs) and its dimensions are 91.5cm wide x 81.25cm tall x 61cm deep. (36"w x 32"h x 24"d). A variety of colours and materials look to be available for a truly custom machine.
Best New Product The Steampunk won the 2012 Best New Product - Coffee and Tea category at the 2012 SCAA Event.
Control Panel Still a work in progress, the central control panel is touchscreen activated
Interested parties Many folks in the coffee industry showed a lot of interest in this brewer, including the owner of La Marzocco, Kent Bakke.
Working Side The operational side of the Alpha Dominche Steampunk
Inside the Steampunk Inside the Steampunk is a central boiler and surprisingly simple layout. Most of the tricks inside have to do with the software, steam control and computerized delivery of water and steam.
Crucible positions You can see there's a slot in location for the crucible's plunger so it can be locked in place.
Design choices There will be many customizable options for the Steampunk; this model features a marble shelf with soft green colouring and brushed/braided metal front.
I had a chance to chat with Khristian Bombeck regarding the development of the Steampunk, how it works, and his plans for rolling this out for commercial use.
CG: The Steampunk machine was a big hit at the show and seemed to attract a lot of interest! Was it what you were expecting or were you surprised? KB: We thought it may get some looks but we were not expecting anything near what we experienced. The reception we received was a very pleasant surprise.
CG: What was your initial inspiration for this machine and how did it come about?
KB: The initial inspiration for the Steampunk came about three years ago when a friend of mine introduced me to the siphon setup at Blue Bottle. I was amazed with the quality of coffee siphon brewers produce and thought there was something very attractive in the look and feel of the process. I had a coffee bar and roastery at the time that I had owned ten years.
I knew most of my customers would refuse the necessary wait for a siphon brew so I began to brainstorm on ways to shorten the amount of time the process takes. I had all these Faema Duo carcasses sitting around from doing business with a guy who had this immaculate 80ís, La San Marco, three-group lever machine that I wanted. Anyway, I stripped the Faemas down and began playing with configurations that might work to hook an espresso boiler up to a siphon brew chamber. The one that worked best and that I ended up using actually popped into my head while I was doing dishes one night. It took me a while to give it shape but a few months later I had the prototype for the AD Steampunk. There are a couple other minor twists to the story but this is essentially how the machine came into being.
CG: It's amazing how these machines come about sometimes. I happened to catch a video you posted on Vimeo a year ago - was this the original one you built out of the Faema parts?
KB: Yes, that machine is a reconfigured Faema Due... The Vimeo video is funny. Some people say the Vimeo video creeps them out. I made the video in an attempt to attract small scale investment needed to take us from prototype version 1 to version 2.1. It was never intended for public consumption. The reactions and comments to this glorified powerpoint video are entertaining.
The video did not attract any investment. However, the same friend who introduced me to Bluebottle's siphon rack introduced me to an American bad ass business executive and philanthropist. I brewed him some coffee and pitched him on the idea of the Steampunk and (about) making better coffee more accessible to everyone. I think we appealed to his philanthropic senses and his appreciation for the arts more that any kind of real business upside. Regardless, he said he believed in me and a vision of better coffee for all. With his help we have been able to forge ahead.
CG: And have there been any other prototypes between that one and the one we saw at the SCAA?
KB: Yes. We had one other prototype, v2.1 with smaller crucibles. As I write this, we are versioning up again to the Steampunk version 2.3. The 2.3 model will be going out to release partners in the field and will be very close to the finished product.
CG: In a high volume cafe, how many drinks per hour can a barista reasonably produce on the four group machine?
KB: An average barista could make 60 siphon brews an hour. A total badass barista could probably craft 100-120 siphon brews an hour. We are eager to see what a truly talented barista can do with the Steampunk in terms of flavor and output.
CG: Any plans for other group layouts - 2 groups, 3 groups, 5 groups or more?
KB: A 2 crucible machine and a 5+ crucible in bar model are in the works.
CG: One thing I noted at the show is that the machine is still a work in progress - I managed to have some fantastic brews on the machine, but I also saw a few blown attempts where something went wrong. A few questions about this: What did go wrong with the machine at the SCAA show? What did you learn from the experience? How will the production machine differ from these prototypes to avoid brewing errors?
KB: The biggest challenge with the equipment at SCAA was directly related to the terribly inconsistent water pressure at the convention hall. Our prototypes at the convention required a minimum of 40psi inline pressure for adequate dosing of water to the crucible. At the event, inline water pressure was literally all over the place causing a fair amount of our brews to be low on volume. The inconsistent water flow prevented the proper wetting of the grinds and therefore wrecked many of the brews. It was a learning experience. Right after the show we did a total redesign of the dosing system and rebuilt it based on volume metric components. This reworking has solved the dosing issue.
CG: The machine and brewing process seemed pretty complex: what would you say the learning curve is for a barista to operate the Steampunk with confidence?
KB: After a few shifts in a busy coffee bar a barista should become comfortable with our system and confident in their abilities on the Steampunk.
CG: What would you say is the hardest thing to learn about using this machine, especially when compared to brewing with a traditional siphon brewer?
KB: The machine itself is quite easy to use. Like a 4 group espresso machine, it will take focus and practice to brew with all four crucibles at once. The challenge is constructing brew recipes. The Steampunk opens a new chest of tools to brew with. Many of these tools are powerful and are not yet understood. Fine coffee is delicate. Our advice to baristas learning to profile on our equipment is: be gentle, take your time and remember that when you have crafted the perfect recipe it's repeatable and you can share it with your entire customer base.
CG: To your own taste and palate, does this produce a different type of coffee brew compared to a traditional siphon brewer? KB: If we try, we can brew an identical cup to that of a traditional siphon brewer. With the Steampunk it is possible to create an array of cup qualities. Our brew variables are: time, volume, temperature, grind, agitation and extraction pressure. For example: if the barista opts for low extraction pressure it produces a cleaner brighter cup. High extraction pressure produces a cup that is more rounded and layered in character. For agitation settings we are working with our release partners to determine how best to configure and offer these settings. My opinion is that a little agitation goes a long way and in general, less is more.
CG: When do you expect to start selling these machines?
KB: This fall
CG: Can you give us any hints on where consumers may be able to see these machines in the fall once they become available?
KB: Right now we are working with a small team of release partners who are going to help us finalize the end design and functionality of the Steampunk. By mid July there will be about five Steampunk version 2.3 (models) on the bars of prominent coffee establishments (in various parts of the United States).
Twin Crucibles Details on the crucibles - note the plunger, siphon tubes, handles for spouts, and more.
Brewing in action The brew is happening - at this stage, there is mainly a steep going on. Note some brewed coffee in the bottom chamber.
Brewing Action Still brewing, but agitation is taking place at this stage and the coffee is about ready to be dropped.
Dropping Dropping the coffee down to the lower stage.
Brewing Plunger Details on the brewing chamber and plunger.
Bottom Chamber After passing through the filter and siphon tube, the coffee ends up here for pouring into a cup.
It is fantastic to see development like this in a brewing method that has remained more or less unchanged since it was invented in 1840 - the siphon brewing method. Bombeck and his team have obviously looked at what modern siphon-brewing baristas have been doing to finesse the brewing method and applied it in a way that allows for quick repetition and a more consistent result. The machine is also quite versatile, allowing for different methods on each of the crucibles to be programmed in, and for tea-on-demand service as well.
As this machine rolls out in test markets, we'll be keeping you updated as to the progress of the Alpha Dominche Steampunk machine. In the meantime, here's our video of the Steampunk in action at the SCAA.
Column Description Whether it's up to the minute, happening this day, this week, or in the recent past, this column's goal is to present coffee and attempts to make the experience truly culinary. You'll find short reviews about past events, interesting coffees coming on the market, new and different ways to enjoy espresso and other brewing methods, and give an insight into efforts around the globe to make coffee a truly culinary thing. Column written by Mark Prince.