There are more elegant ways to brew coffee today than ever before. And yet one of the most popular methods involves a sterile plastic tube that bears a striking resemblance a certain enhancement pump for the male anatomy. It is called the AeroPress, and it is $25, simple to use, and makes a very good--and very fast--cup of coffee.
Since launching in 2005, the AeroPress has attracted a devoted and passionate following of tinkerers and java nerds. One reviewer on Coffee Geek called it "the greatest value available in the world of coffee." Circa founder and CEO Matt Galligan carries an AeroPress with him whenever he travels. And every year, contestants from around the globe gather to compete in the World AeroPress Championships, where would-be chemists use their homespun brew methods, controlling for the tiniest and most granular of variables. "No other method is as consistent and easy," says Jeff Verellen, the reigning two-time AeroPress World Champion.
Unlike most other brewing devices, the AeroPress wasn't conceived in a lab by some coffee conglomerate. The first prototype was designed in a humble Los Altos garage. Fast Company spoke with Aerobie founder Alan Adler--a Stanford lecturer, electrical engineer, part-time physicist, and toy maker--about how he tinkered his way to a remarkable coffee-making invention. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Fast Company: Let's talk about your background, which is fascinating. How did you get into designing toys?
Alan Adler: The first 25 years of my career was spent consulting for engineering and electronics. And the second 25 years was really more mechanically oriented. I told the press at various times that before Aerobie, the company I founded in 1984, I was engineering things like nuclear reactor controls and instruments for measuring jet engines. One day, I was invited to mentor students at Stanford, which led to me teaching a course there.
But all of Aerobie's products, which I designed, are really mechanical and aerodynamic. They don't have any electronics. It was a real kick when I got into consumer products, just to walk through a park and see someone throwing the Aerobie flying ring, our first product. Have you used that?
Well, you're missing something! The flying ring was a deliberate research project to design a better frisbee. It began with research into flying discs. I'm a fairly technical guy, so it was fairly fundamental research into aerodynamic theory. I was trying to make a thinner disc, but it is very difficult to make a thin disc fly straight. Eventually, I started to pursue rings, and I hit upon a thin ring which I eventually licensed to Parker Brothers. They sold over a million of them. Only they called it the Skyro.
What happened to that partnership?
It wasn't enough to maintain their interest. Parker Brothers was really hot into electronic toys, so they returned the rights to me. And rather than continue to make it as is, I wanted to improve it. The Aerobie's big advantage over the Skyro was that it was much straighter in flight. It broke the world record for distance traveled many times. It is very easy to throw. If you stand 50 yards away from somebody and play catch, it's an effortless game!
What you said about making easy-to-use products is interesting. I feel like that informs a lot of your design. Is the same true for the AeroPress?
In the case of the AeroPress, I was just experimenting with a better way to make a single serving of coffee. This was in 2004. I had a conversation with Pam Abbott [the wife of Aerobie sales manager Don Abbot] and we were both commiserating about how crummy the result of trying to make one cup of coffee in a drip maker is. It just didn't really come out very good.
So I took up the challenge of making a better single serving of coffee, never thinking for a moment that it would come to be a product. Eventually, I developed some techniques for making a pretty decent cup of coffee in a filter cone--the kind you just put over a cup. But I was troubled that it took about four minutes to pour through. During that time, a lot of bitterness was being extracted from the coffee grounds. And so I wanted to experiment with a much quicker process, and I got the idea of building what became the AeroPress. By applying air pressure, it took the brew time to below a minute. Have you used the AeroPress?
Yup. I'm a big fan.
Oh, good! Well, I went out to my garage to my machine shop, and I made the first [prototype]. It wasn't terribly different from the current AeroPress. It was plastic, too. But the thing that just blew me away was how good the coffee tasted. It didn't have the bitterness that other brewing processes had. So, I invited [Aerobie General Manager Alex Tennant] over to the house and have a cup of coffee. And he said, "Alan, I can sell a ton of these."
I launched into a further development of taking this thing, which was just a simple prototype, to a real pre-production prototype. I spent more time on it than I should have, because I didn't actually know how to use my own invention at that point.
Do you still use the AeroPress to make coffee?
Every time. It's the only way I drink coffee. It's just a terrific thing for our business. It comprises half of our sales, and it's still our fastest growing product.
When did you officially unveil the AeroPress?
This was November 2005. We introduced it at Coffee Fest in Seattle.
And what was the reaction there like?
It was skeptical, I would say. My favorite incident was a guy who came into our booth. People who go to those things really know coffee well. He said, "It looks really interesting, but there's no way you can brew a cup of coffee at 175 degrees Fahrenheit." I said, "You can use any temperature you'd like. But please try 175, because I think you'll like it." We tried it on 15 people in a blind tasting, and nobody liked anything hotter. So he bought an AeroPress right there in the booth, came back the next day, and said, "I was wrong. 175 is best."
Why isn't AeroPress coffee as bitter as other brew methods?
I had read that when brewing coffee or tea, that the good part is extractable pretty easily. When you push the extraction harder, you don't get much more of the good. You get more of the bad--the bitterness.
I was also conscious of the history of coffee brewing. Originally, coffee was brewed by boiling the grounds in a pot on a stove for a half to three-quarters of an hour. And I had tasted coffee that was made that way. In the U.S. they call it "cowboy coffee." But it was the common way in Norway. Maybe Denmark, too. One drink of that, and you wonder why anybody would take a second drink! It was so bitter.
At any rate, most people I knew, including our own family, used a percolator. A percolator recirculates the same liquid through the bed of grounds again and again. Although it was not as heavy duty an extraction as cowboy coffee, it was heavy duty.
The big breakthrough was the drip coffee maker. I remember Joe DiMaggio was the spokesperson for Mr. Coffee. It was dramatically better tasting than the old percolator method. There was just this progression of doing it in less time. I view the AeroPress as just another thing in the same sort of sequence.
I read that you weren't much a coffee guy before the AeroPress. Is that true?
There was a newspaper article that said "Alan doesn't even like coffee." That wasn't true. I love coffee! I was only drinking one cup a day. [The reporter] thought that, because I was only drinking one cup a day, I didn't like it. Not only do I like coffee to drink, but I love coffee ice cream. It's my favorite flavor.
Are you surprised by the AeroPress's success? Especially when you consider the community behind it?
I am. But I'm not surprised by the commercial success, because it tasted so good. And coffee drinking is so popular. But when we brought the AeroPress out, I said to the members of our team, "Someday, the sales of the AeroPress are going to exceed everything else we're selling." And that happened.
What's the nicest thing a fan has said to you?
I never really thought about that. We get a lot of fan mail. When I go to trade shows like the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) convention in Portland, people ask me to pose for pictures with them. I get kidded about being like some sort of a rock musician or something.
The tinkerer ethos behind the AeroPress is a reflection of you, in a way. How do you feel about that?
Well, I greeted the people at the World Championship a few years ago. I said to them, "You people have taken the AeroPress and really made it your own. You've developed different ways to use it." I love that. I love all of the innovation. Being an innovator myself--I have 40 patents--I love innovators.
Do you have any future versions for the AeroPress in the works?
There's nothing on track. We do get requests for a bigger AeroPress, and I tinker with that occasionally. But I feel that the present size, which is capable of making anywhere from one to four servings in a single pressing, probably meets 90% of brewing occasions. I don't feel a strong motivation to come up with a bigger one. But I have tinkered with it.
What's the best advice you can give for brewing better coffee?
I sometimes read articles on how to brew coffee. And some people put great emphasis on buying a scale to measure out the exact amount of coffee. But to me, if I were going to write an article like that, my emphasis would be to spend $7 and buy a thermometer. Knowing that your water temperature is 175 is a really rewarding thing. I really do think that AeroPress coffee is especially rewarding at the best temperature. That would be my thing.