If the name Ryan Block isn't very familiar to you, you probably aren't that much into technology and gadgets. Block is one of the founding people behind the wildly popular tech blog Engadget and was up until a year or two ago it's Editor in Chief (he is now and Editor Emeritus for Engadget). As a major influencer, Block has seen and covered just about everything in technology years and years now both online and in mass media, and is a frequent guest on various tech shows, including This Week in Tech. For years now, we've also known that Block has been a serious fan of quality coffee and espresso, so he seemed a natural choice for what is the start of a short series of interviews with people in technology who also love great coffee.
CG: You're a well known person in the tech world Ryan, and I'm sure many of our readers know of you and your involvement in technology, but for those who don't, could you give us a bit of background on how you got started in the world of tech and gadgets?
Block: I'd always loved writing and technology, but as the story goes, it was my friend (and founder of Engadget, and my co-founder of gdgt) Peter Rojas who inspired me to try my hand at writing about technology.
CG: What are some of the highlights of your time at Engadget, in terms of things you covered or people you got to meet?
Block: There were so, so many things. The original iPhone launch was very memorable, though. As was flying over the date line to New Zealand to get the iPhone 3G 18 hours earlier than my competition in the US. Interviewing Bill Gates multiple times, meeting Steve Jobs, those are things I'll probably remember for the rest of my life.
CG: Your current website gdgt is quite fantastic and really a kind of next-generation review and information website for technology with a lot of social interaction. What was your inspiration for starting it up?
Block: Engadget was doing extremely well, but the news business is the news business, and no one had done much new in the electronics space online for many years. I wanted to try experimenting in what we could do with socially oriented application-like experiences instead of just straight content generation. It felt like the right time to branch out.
CG: How is gdgt going right now? What range of products does it cover?
Block: It's going great! Our database covers dozens of product categories, and we're working on a lot of awesome new stuff -- we just launched a huge integration project with Engadget, putting our data on thousands of their posts. We also just pushed a brand new product page design, and we've got plenty more coming.
CG: Let's turn to coffee. Espresso first, or coffee first?
Block: Is espresso not coffee (smiles)? If you're asking which I'd pick if I could only have one for the rest of my days, espresso for sure.
CG: Do you remember the first time you ever had espresso? What did you think of it first go around?
Block: I really don't remember, no. I just remember that I'd always been very particular about coffee even before I realized exactly HOW to be particular about coffee.
CG: Particular about coffee... Did you go through the usual progression many do of drinking Dad's instant coffee as a kid and then later trying espresso and thinking... wow, now I'm drinking b]real coffee?
Block: Not really, my family were never huge coffee drinkers. What coffee they did drink wasn't particularly great, so I tended to avoid it. As I mentioned before, I just remember being particular about coffee even before I realized exactly how to be particular about coffee.
CG: How about epiphany moments in coffee and espresso: can you recall any particular times where you felt what you were drinking was taken to a completely different level?
Block: One time comes to mind: I'd had a single-origin Sidamo served from a very old, finicky San Marco lever. It didn't actually taste like coffee, it tasted like blueberry juice. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around that magic.
CG: For a lot of people, the epiphany moments seem to revolve around fruit forward coffees. Would you say that fruit-heavy coffees are you favourites still today or do you have any other specific tastes that make a coffee a favourite?
Block: I'm definitely not one of those folks who likes really bright, really citrusy coffees. They're not bad, but for my palate there's a fine line between brightness and sourness, and we all know how bad a cup of sour coffee can be.
CG: What kind of setup do you have at home for your coffee brewing?
Block: So many! My partner (Veronica Belmont, also a tech journalist) and I have a Silvia and Rocky for espresso, as well as a full V60 setup with a nice Japanese kettle, a french press, and an infrequently-used Chemex.
CG: What made you go with the choice of the Silvia and Rocky for your espresso?
Block: I was looking for a highly reliable, benchmark-style machine. Those are, in general, my favorite kinds of devices across all kinds of products. I also wanted something that would give me a reasonable amount of control, which I obviously wouldn't get with a semi-auto or full-auto.
CG: Do you find that many of your colleagues and peers in the tech and gadget blogging world are into quality coffee and espresso as much as you are? Who do you think are the biggest coffee geeks in the tech reporting world?
Block: There are definitely a few! My man Matt Buchanan over at Gizmodo is one of my more fanatical pals, though.
CG: I've noticed Matt Buchanan is prolific in his coverage of quality coffee and espresso, especially in the technology of it. Also, the Times has a regular writer covering coffee these days. With regards to other mainstream and web-based media, do you think quality coffee is getting more of its due these days, or is there still room to grow?
Block: I think you'll know a meaningful change has occurred when fine dining establishments treat their coffee with the same respect as they treat their wine -- or at very least hire capable baristas. That's kind of an interesting benchmark, in my opinion. Overall, I am certainly seeing more enthusiasm for coffee, but it's still got a long ways to go. Coffee has deep roots as a working-class beverage, especially here in the US. For better or worse Starbucks did set the stage for elevating coffee, but the bar they set is still pretty low, so we'll see.
CG: What tech in espresso or coffee has impressed you the most in the past year or two?
Block: Obviously the move to pressure profiling has been pretty huge, and the growing interest in specialty coffee has inspired a lot of new products and projects, but I honestly don't feel like I've seen anything that's made me want to upgrade my espresso setup at home.
CG: Now there's cool technology, and there's gadgets... what would be your favourite gadget for coffee and espresso?
Block: I'm still very fascinated by MoJoToGo and VST refractometers. Still, that's a bit geeky even for me.
CG: Where you live, do you have any favourite cafes? How about favourite roasters?
Block: There's an absurd number of great cafes around the Bay Area, but I'm a big fan of both Four Barrel and Sight Glass in San Francisco.
CG: What's it like at Four Barrel and Sight Glass? What makes these roasters so special for you?
Block: I'm actually at Four Barrel right now as I'm talking to you -- and it's incredibly crowded. With those guys, I really appreciate the lengths Jeremy (the owner) goes to in ensuring he's not only sourcing the highest quality crops -- even to the point now where I understand they recently bought a coffee farm -- but are paying fair wages to their farmers.
CG: I recall you and Mark Prince having a discussion on Twitter some time back about the Speedster espresso machine and how it might not be your first choice if you were buying a dream machine. What would be the dream espresso machine and grinder for Ryan Block's kitchen?
Block: It's a nice machine, just really doesn't fit my aesthetic inclinations. Too maximal. I've toyed with buying a (La Marzocco) GS/3, but if anything I'm going to hold off for a single-head Slayer. I know Slayers are known for being a bit buggy, and who knows if they'll ever do a single group head machine, but if they did I'd have to seriously consider it, and not just because they're also by far the most beautiful machines being produced today.
CG: What makes the Slayer more desirable to you: the technology, or the look?
Block: Both! I think technology and design should go hand in hand, and I always get excited about products where a product's design, and how it works, is given as much thought as its features.
CG: You travel a lot because of your job; do you bring any gear with you on the road?
Block: Not yet, no! I'm fortunate enough to often travel to places with great coffee, but I have recently experimented with bringing along full french press setup.
CG: Okay, last question. What have you done -- if anything -- to get Leo Laporte (of TWiT fame) to start drinking better coffee?
Block: (laughs out loud) Heh, nice! Honestly, I don't often push people on that kind of thing -- unless they're asking me to meet up at a Starbucks, in which case all bets are off.
CG: Thanks so much Ryan - very informative!
Block: My pleasure!