A Look at the Steampunk Coffee Brewer


[Photos: Liz Clayton]

Though it's unlikely you have the counter space at home to install a new Steampunk, this tricked-out-siphon-turned-glass-pipe-organ brewed coffee contraption may be arriving soon at a coffee place near you. Building on the popularity of by-the-cup brewed coffee, the Steampunk tries to do one better on the super-elaborate, high-ticket brewers like the Bunn Trifecta and the Clover: and do it four different, programmable cups at a time.

Manufactured by a little coffee-engineering company in Salt Lake City called Alpha Dominche (which means "first of its kind"), the Steampunk is an extended remix on the Siphon brewer, a method of brewing popular in Japan which maintains heated water in contact with grounds, in a top chamber, then extracts through a filter by drawing water quickly down into a chamber below using a vacuum of air.

Trouble is, getting consistency siphon to siphon can be tricky at best, and getting it right involves any number of factors from employing a several-hundred dollar heat source to brewing with a thermometer stuck in the top carafe. (And let's not even get into the fine motor control required to operate that bamboo paddle with the precision of a master.)

Steampunk attempts to automate some of the wild card factors in siphon brewing while allowing a lot of flexibility. Temperature, time, volume and how the grounds are agitated in the coffee/water mix are all programmable recipes that the barista defines. And how are the grounds agitated, you ask? Why, steam, of course.

Steam forced into the brew chamber produces enough churn to saturate the grounds in the above chamber (without the intrusion of cool air from an open top into which one would traditionally paddle and paw at with a stirring device). For a cafe environment, removing this high-maintenance step could be a boon—allowing the clean, expressive flavors developed by a siphon-style brew to come forward, without the unpredictability, and fuss. And much, much more quickly.

Of course, it takes up a ton of space (larger than many espresso machines) and costs $15,000.

It may yet catch on. The machine looks as high concept as it sounds (the 8-person team behind Steampunk, says Alpha Dominche's Khristian Bombeck, "leans towards a Bauhaus design aesthetic) but is still in the experimenting stages. Currently there are four machines in coffee labs nationwide, but not on the retail floor...yet. Testers at Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Verve and Dallis Bros. Coffee will be refining recipes for the Steampunk and playtesting it in the coming months. (And if you're dying to see one in person right now—there's one brewing tea at an Adagio in downtown Chicago.)

Bombeck asserts that the machine will not only improve cup quality and reliability in the cafe environment, it will perform not only as well as existing methods like French Press and siphon, but even better. (To make a heavier, more French-Pressy cup, use the metal screen that Steampunk comes with. To make a cleaner, filtered coffee, custom paper filters can be employed.)

As with any new brewing device, the fun part is figuring out how to make coffee the best it can be by experimentation and invention. Be on the lookout for experimenters brewing speedy cups of coffee near you on the Steampunk soon—no neo-Victorian jacket required.