Inside a grimy garage off an alleyway in San Francisco’s SOMA district seethes the accouterment of a bootstrapped startup. Filthy frat-house leather couches, stray books with titles like “Emotional Design,” and a former NASA engineer jockeying between a circuit board and a laptop.
Only the company isn’t trying to build the next app or smart device. It’s setting out to crack the complex chemical problem that’s been tugging at one MIT mechanical engineer for years: How to brew the perfect cup of black coffee?
“You could draw graphs in this stuff and say, well clearly on the graph there are all these areas of opportunity where you could theoretically brew a cup of coffee, but nobody is able to because no piece of equipment exists where you could recreate that scenario,” explains Jeremy Kuempel, the 26-year-old engineer and founder of Blossom Coffee. That is the very scenario his product, the Blossom One Limited, now claims to accomplish. Giving a barista control of the many variables that contribute to how a cup of coffee tastes beyond the beans: water temperature, coffee dosage, grind size, stirring and immersion time. “There’s a tiny raspberry element, you can taste the citrus on the back of your tongue. It has a lot of body. The origin is good, you can still taste the Colombian elements, but just enough roast so you can taste the caramelization,” Kuempel says while digesting the fruits of his labor–a cup of a Blossom-brewed coffee–as if he were a sommelier.
Five years ago, in between internships at Tesla and Apple, Kuempel began experimenting in an MIT basement lab. The son of a biologist and an engineer, his interest in car design started gravitating towards coffee. Given that coffee beans have twice the genetic complexity of wine, he wanted to build a machine that wouldn’t treat every coffee bean the same. That could extract peak taste from a particular bean based on a specific brewing formula controlled by a high-tech device. “It’s sort of like what they’re doing with the large hadron collider in physics,” says Kuempel of those early MIT experiments. “They look at the space of subatomic particles and they can predict where they’re going find them, but then they say, ‘Well in order to test this, we need to create these unique conditions that allow these particles to appear,’ and thus they build the large hadron collider to discover the Higgs Boson particle.”
This is hardly the first time technology advancements have attempted to evolve coffee brewing. Centuries ago monks would grind up raw, unroasted beans with stones, while cowboys used bandanas to percolate the liquid. Espresso dates backs to early 1900s, when inventors applied the steam technology that had modernized trains to new machines, resulting in a new drink called “espresso.” Technology can even be held responsible for a great step backwards in the evolution of our collective coffee palate, thanks to the rise of plastics and the 1972 patent for a little device that came to be known as Mr. Coffee.
If the Blossom One takes off, Kuempel will unfortunately not be known as the father of “single-cup precision brewing,” as the niche coffee category is called. In 2007, two Stanford engineers built a machine called the Clover. The Seattle-based engineers–Randy Hulett and Zander Nosler–recognized that people were starting to pay more for preciously sourced single origin beans, but for the most part, cafes were still brewing industrial-size batches on 1970s era machines. Hulett and Nosler had to convince independent roasters and small chains that were used to spending several hundred dollars on equipment to drop $11,000 on a single machine that would brew only one cup of coffee at a time. They managed to sell 360 Clovers, developed a cult following among the coffee elite from Japan to Norway, and even got third-wave coffee heavyweights like Intelligentsia and Stumptown, to buy in. “It changed people’s minds that brewed coffee doesn’t have to sit in a big container for 30 minutes and taste like this one thing. It can taste like a lot of different things,” says Anastasia Chovan, Clover’s former head of sales.
But the Clover enlightenment ended up taking a dark turn. One year after its launch, just as the conversion was beginning to take off, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz encountered a Clover in a New York City coffee shop and bought the company outright. (As legend has it, he claimed “it was the best cup of coffee I ever drank.”) All the web-enabled machines in circulation lost their customer support and more or less became worthless. “People were upset. People felt they had invested emotionally and financially,” says Clover’s Chovan. “Then there’s also The Big Green Monster, who we were selling out to.”
In 2012, Kuempel unveiled the Blossom One with much fanfair at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference for a whopping $11,111 a machine. How he came up with the price tag? “I was like, the Clover sold for $11,000, I think there’s still a market there,” says Kuempel. “What I found was that it’s really hard to sell a single cup coffee machine for $11,000.” He met with venture capitalists who encouraged him not to lower the price. “They were advising me, ‘It’s supposed to be premium–you’re selling a Bentley!’” says Kuempel. But the reality was, most third-wave cafes were still feeling hungover from the Clover debacle. Says Michael Phillips, a former World Barista Champion who worked for Chicago roaster Intelligentsia at the time, “When the Clover first launched it was like, ‘This is it. This is the future. The future is now!’ Everybody bought into it. It allowed us to fetishize a piece of equipment over the actual quality of the coffee. It’s easy to feel kind of duped in retrospect. We bought into the hype.” If anything, the Clover debacle vaulted coffee aficionados back to their simpler, low-tech comfort zone. “When the Clover got taken off the market, that’s when pour-over really came back,” says Clover’s Chovan, referring to the retro manual ceramic drippers that date back to the 1960s and cost no more than $40. “Japanese Hario became really popular, Siphons, all made a comeback.” (As for Kuempel’s affection for manual brewers, arguably his biggest competition: “‘Artisan’ is sometimes used as an excuse for sloppy and for imprecise,” he tells me.)
After the Starbucks acquisition, Clover’s Hulett went to work for Starbucks (where he’s now director of their Hardware Design Studio), but Chovan eventually landed at UNIC, a 95-year-old French espresso machine company. In late 2012, a Seattle coffee roaster Kuempel was visiting with his Blossom prototype suggested he meet with Chovan, and the two immediately connected. “Clover felt unfinished for me,” says Chovan. “It was an unfinished story. I felt like there was so much more that could have been done. It really broke my heart. So there was something still there [with Blossom] and I was like, I’ve got to finish this.” Historically, brewing technology companies don’t collaborate, even if their machines are different; they’re seen as competitors fighting for a limited coffee bar budget. But Chovan convinced her boss that UNIC, which already has a sales team and relationships with cafes, should become the first distributor for the Blossom One.
Not only has this freed up Kuempel to fine tune the product instead of traveling around the country doing sales pitches, it gives him a direct channel into the missteps of his predecessor. Already Chovan has advised Kuempel on things like making the machine more simple to install. But most importantly, she’s been a grounding voice in Silicon Valley, where hype can fuel vaporous businesses. When the Blossom One finally made its debut in April, its price tag had been slashed to $4,950. Chovan, who has spent 17 years in the coffee industry, convinced Kuempel to scale back on some of the machine’s sexier design elements to make it more affordable for potential customers. “These guys work hard. They own their own business. Payback on a piece of equipment is really important,” says Kuempel, who is now looking at his business from the cafes’ point of view. “So instead we’re saying, we’re going to form relationships with all of our customers, thinking of them as part of the family, and helping their business do better.”
Echoing the sentiments of many third-wave coffee purists, Kuempel also believes it won’t be long until coffee will be appreciated and subsequently sold like wine. Not just $3 or $4 a cup, but why not $11 for a rare, delicious single origin from a nano-lot? But it’s still early days. Since going to market in April, Blossom sales have only recently surpassed $100,000 in orders. Meanwhile competitors like precision brewer Steampunk–by Salt Lake City startup Alphadominche–has already populated hundreds of cafes. And earlier this year Starbucks, which has virtually kept the Clover in hiding for the past six years (only some 3% of Starbucks’s 20,000 cafes have the machine), suddenly announced this year that it will double the number of “high def” brewing machines in circulation. But Kuempel and Chovan believe that Clover’s resurgence via the Big Green Monster will only help Blossom’s business. “If you have Goliath rolling out 500 precision brewers, the question for everyone else is: What will you be doing? You’re doing pour overs? You’re going to keep doing Chemex’s from the ’70s?” poses Chovan. “Those are the big questions cafes and roasters are going to have to start answering.”