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Tuesday, March 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fremont engineers brewing up a better way to make coffee

Seattle Times retail reporter

Inside the Coffee Equipment Co., tiny motors, transmissions and sprockets rest on shelves near some of the most expensive coffees in the world.

One would never ask for creamer or a packet of sugar here — not even in the raw. This coffee aches for better treatment.

At least Zander Nosler and Randy Hulett think so. The two Fremont engineers developed the Clover, a commercial coffee machine meant to brew the most complex and unique coffees, one cup at a time.

"Coffee is so volatile — it changes minute by minute," said Nosler, a product-development consultant by trade. "Once it's 20 minutes old, a lot of the things that make it unique and delicate, that's all gone."

Some might consider their invention part of the "third wave" of coffee, or the return to and elevation of coffee in all its naked splendor — a term coined by Trish Skeie at Seattle-based Zoka Coffee.

The first wave? The proliferation of coffee as sought-after product during the turn of the century.

The second? The introduction of espresso beverages and the rise of the Arabica bean. (Grown at higher altitudes, the bean is prized by specialty-coffee companies for its nuance and flavor.)

"We have people who not only appreciate coffee as a culinary experience, but want to really push the boundaries of what coffee is capable of," said Mark Prince, senior editor of CoffeeGeek.com.

To be sure, coffee-producing regions have begun to sell their most unique, prestigious lots at fine-wine prices.

The Missoula, Mont.-based Alliance for Coffee Excellence — which runs The Cup of Excellence contest in seven countries — held its first competition in Brazil seven years ago.

The top coffee that year sold for $2.60 a pound, considered pure gold given other regional coffees were trading below cost.

This year, Brazil's highest-scoring coffee, Fazenda Santa Ines, sold for $49.75 a pound, nearly double its nearest competitor. Cafe owners in Australia and Vancouver, B.C., paid $79,000 to split the 12-bag lot.

Even large, specialty-coffee retailers have entered this high-end niche. Starbucks introduced the premium coffee line Black Apron Exclusives in April 2004. The rare coffees sell for a limited time, available in small quantities.

For Coffee Equipment, the question it sought to answer was how to prepare them.

Nosler, the co-founder, said most specialty-coffee retailers advise customers to brew their coffee in a French Press or a vacuum pot. "Then you go into their stores and they're using a big batch brewer," he said.

They wanted to control the four variables that make for a good cup of coffee: the dose, the grind size, the water temperature and contact time.

Using investments from family and friends, they founded the company in June 2004 and developed a machine that lets users manage all those variables independently to respond to a coffee's unique qualities.

The company sold its first machine in November, and five others followed to cafes at $8,000 apiece. Nosler said they plan to market the machine at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's annual trade show in Charlotte, N.C., next month.

At Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver, B.C., its cafes sell single-origin coffees like Brazil Fazenda Bonfirm, marked by hints of sweet lemon and molasses. A 16-ounce cup sells for $2.95 Canadian.

The company, which also owns 49th Parallel Roasters, purchased a Clover to brew high-end coffees like the Brazil Cup of Excellence Winner lot, of which it received four bags.

Prince, of CoffeeGeek.com, said the Clover gives brewers unprecedented control over brewing a cup of coffee — a right only afforded to espresso in the past.

And while the coffee maker has the ability to display some of the most fleeting and delicate flavors in coffee, the price is a cup of coffee with less body and an aftertaste that's too clean, crisp or simply absent, Prince said.

"It's really early for the machine," said Prince, who believes the machine can be improved, despite early accolades.

"My hope is that, once people have these machines in their stores for a year or two, they're going to be producing everything that was claimed."

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632

or msoto@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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