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Fast Company

Strange Brew: Using Science to Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee

The team at Alpha Dominche is trying to design the perfect cup of coffee while getting high on its own supply.

Unsurprisingly, Khristian Bombeck, the founder of Alpha Dominche, was wired on caffeine when he had the idea that he hopes can revolutionize the coffee world. "I was highly caffeinated on siphon-brewed coffee, doing dishes after dinner, and wondering how I could give my coffee house customers a fine, craft-brewed coffee experience," Bomback told Fast Company. At that moment, Bombeck dreamed up the concept for the Steampunk, a computerized brewing system that could be the next big coffee innovation.

Khristian Bombeck

True to its name, the Steampunk looks like a futuristic device dreamed up by a Victorian. Released in 2012, the brewer consists of glass tubes and a brushed metal base that wouldn't look out of place in a 19th-century laboratory. When the Steampunk brews a cup of coffee, you’re treated to a minute-long show of bubbles, suction, pumping, and a satisfying mechanical whir.

Eye-catching as its exterior is, the technology inside the Steampunk is even more impressive. All the brewing conditions are controlled by a quad-core 1.35Ghz processor, and the machine is operated with a Google Nexus 7 tablet. It’s a coffee machine for the digital age. And it's not cheap: the Steampunk 4.0 costs about $16,000, while the smaller 2.0 version is just under $12,000. A less expensive home version may be available in "years to come," but in the meantime, you’ll just have to hope that your local coffee shop gets one.

Bombeck, who owned a coffee house and roastery for a decade before conceiving of the Steampunk, describes his passion for coffee as "intense and obsessive." He’s not lying. While the rest of us are asleep at night, he’s lying awake in bed, "thinking about different brew theories." If he has a compelling new idea, he won’t even wait until the morning; he’ll get up and ride his scooter in the dark to the company’s "coffee lab" to test it out.

"It would be hard to work here and not have a deep appreciation for brewed coffee," explains Tymer Tilton, the head designer at Alpha Dominche. As an architecture student, Tilton would brew whole carafes of coffee whenever he pulled an all-nighter, which was often. If you aren’t obsessed with coffee when you arrive at the company, he says, it won’t take long before you’re hooked. Happily for the staff at Alpha Dominche, developing a machine for making coffee involves a lot of tasting, or, as they put it, "cupping." These guys consume dizzying amounts of coffee. How many cups does Khristian drink every day? "Dozens."(No wonder he can’t get to sleep at night.) How many cups did Adam Mangold, the head engineer, have to drink during R&D? "Many thousands."

It would be an understatement to call the punks behind the Steampunk coffee connoisseurs; they’re closer to coffee scientists. It takes a great deal of chemistry and physics to brew the perfect cup. Mangold, who has the curling mustache of a 19th-century mad scientist and enjoys coffee with a "lingering citrus finish," explains that "there are generally accepted standards for brewing coffee that represent what the human palate has found to be most desirable." When a barista tries to make a great cup of coffee, they’re really just trying to get as close as possible to a number of scientifically measurable qualities. "The two most important standards," Mangold says, "are the ground coffee to water ratio (1 to 16) and the extraction of the solubles from the brewed coffee, which is measured in TDS (1.35)."  

As the Alpha Dominche staff explained, to unlock the full flavor potential of a high-grade coffee, it must be brewed according to a specific set of conditions: the temperature of the water, the "filter options," the pressure, "extraction time," and even the number of times that the brew is "agitated." The ideal conditions vary for each type of coffee. For example, if you want to get the most out of your Sumatran Mandehling, it has to be brewed at precisely 198 degrees F for 55 seconds, whereas your washed Ethiopian Sidamo wants to brew at 201 degrees F for exactly 43 seconds (you could be excused for not knowing this). The key to great brewing is to hit the ideal conditions for every kind of coffee without ever deviating from those two golden standards. This is precisely what the Steampunk does.

Alpha Dominche is based in Salt Lake City, which is just about the least coffee-friendly city in America (Mormons, who make up 50% of the city’s population, don’t drink coffee). It’s a bit like a tech startup opening its offices in an Amish community. The reason for this unlikely choice? According to Tilton, it's all about snowboarding: he and the team "just like to rip."

When they’re not hitting the slopes, the staff at Alpha Dominche is making plans to establish the Steampunk as a fixture of global coffee culture. The machine has already been featured on Seriouseats.com and Coffeegeeks.com, and in Barista Magazine. It is beginning to appear in cafes around the country; to date, five coffee spots in New York City have Steampunks. So they seem to be well on their way.

As the company continues to grow, the crew at Alpha Dominche always has an excuse for another cup of coffee—"it’s research," they say—but it’s clear that they aren’t just trying to get wired. The company emphasizes that there is a broader goal in the project—to be, as Bombeck puts it, "a successful part of the resurgence of American industry and innovation."

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether the team members at Alpha Dominche are really, really, really excited about the product or are just bugging out on a serious caffeine overdose. Whatever it is, their passion is intense, energizing, and a bit addictive. Dare one say, just like their coffee.

[Images courtesy of Alpha Dominche]