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Coffee Innovators: ZPM Espresso and the Affordable Home Espresso Machine

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[Photograph courtesy of ZPM Espresso]

Compared with home cooks, home baristas have historically had the odds against 'em. I mean, sure restaurants have big industrial ovens and hot plates and counter space in their favor, but with some exceptions there's really almost nothing that can be created in a commercial kitchen that you can't re-create at home. (El Bulli–style stuff aside, of course.)

If you want to make decent espresso at home, however, you'd better expect to drop some major cash on a bulky and complicated piece of equipment with a huge footprint and a meager pressure profile.

Until now, at least: Thanks to Kickstarter.com and a pair of gear-head childhood friends: Gleb Polyakov and Igor Zamlinsky, the brains behind upstart affordable-espresso-machine manufacturing project ZPM, which may very well revolutionize your morning macchiato (and keep some moola in your wallet).

Gleb and Zamlinsky have been steeped (brewed?) in coffee culture since their teenaged days: "In high school we hung out at coffee shops a lot, and coffee shops are still our favorite third places," Polyakov says.

"When we started going to college, we started making our own espresso machines. We had a couple of old ones we found on eBay for like $50, and we've been modifying and building on them since. We started off just tinkering, making small modifications and changing this and that, adding PID control. We were both nerds and liked playing around with science and technology," Polyakov admits.

Where 23-year-old Polyakov's experience is in physics and finance, Zamlinsky, 25, is an experienced roboticist; together they're also espresso fanatics on a mission: "About a year ago [Igor and I] were talking about starting a business together," Polyakov continues, "and we realized we had a coffee machine that we could make affordably and really well that had features that people really wanted to see."

Affordability was key to the buddies, who realized they could create a highly temperature-stable machine with pressure-profiling capability by manufacturing a solid thermoblock heating system (in place of the typical boiler and heating element system) and syncing it to a keenly sensitive PID, or temperature-controller. By designing the equipment with largely off-the-shelf parts, ZPM has been able to keep estimated costs down to around $400 retail, as opposed to the $700 to $1,000 most "prosumer" or serious home espresso machines ring in at.

The only potential problem now is that the project was almost too enthusiastically backed: Despite a modest initial goal of 100 machine orders and a fund-raising total of $20,000, ZPM wracked up more than $330,000 from nearly 1,500 backers (not to mention a total of 1,200 pre-ordered machines). Now, with parts manufacturers to source and a potential machine shop to design and build in their home base of Atlanta, GA, Polyakov and Zamlinsky are shooting for an early-spring release of the first batch of backer-claimed units.

Collaboration—and not just of a financial nature—is the name of ZPM's game, as well, but you won't have to be a rocket scientist (or a physicist, or a mechanical engineer) to make a decent shot of espresso on the duo's contraption. "It has a big LCD screen on there with friendly numbers an large buttons, we don't have any complicated Excel spreadsheets that you have to mess around with," Polyakov says. "The thing we're looking to do now is partner with different roasters, learning about their specific blends of beans and coming up with a particular pressure profile for their blends and their particular roasts, and creating a database of them. We'll also have a user form so users can exchange information. It's all open source: Users are encouraged to go in and make changes and different improvements, to share what they learn."

And as long as any of you backers share one of those affordable homemade espressos with me when you get your machine, consider me a wholehearted supporter.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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