Automated Coffee in Houton: The Nook’s Steampunk brewer

IMG_5312One of the things that I love about coffee is the variety of ways that a cup can be made. If you want to highlight a characteristic of a bean you can change the brewing method or even the variables used in that method. For as many manual brewing methods that exist there seems to be an equal amount of “automated” brewing methods.  In recent years a number of new brewers have been created that appear to take similar time and care that hand crafted manual methods offer. While some may believe that they can’t compare with a handcrafted cup of coffee it’s hard to argue with the results that some machines produce.

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One of these machines is the Alpha Dominche Steampunk brewer. Alpha Dominche says that the Steampunk “ensures the most repeatable, flavorful extraction in every cup, brewing up to two or four cups of coffee or tea simultaneously. Its advanced controls, powered by an original Google Nexus application, empower baristas to set specific brew parameters for each cup.” Basically, using a Google tablet the barista can program recipes that brew each individual cup to their liking.  At first glance the Steampunk looks like an automated Aeropress but is actually much closer to a cross between a French press and Siphon. There are only a handful of locations that you can find the Steampunk at around the country, and The Nook Coffeehouse here on the University of Houston campus is one of them. To find out more I got with the Nook’s owner Derek Shaw and asked a few questions about how and why they use the Steampunk.

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1. What made you decide to get the Steampunk?

We wanted to blend the high quality artisan coffee experience with a laid back campus shop. It seemed that most shops are either artisan and single-origin based or they are Starbucks style with lower quality and high speed. The Steampunk offered us the opportunity to offer high-end single origin coffee while still handling the flow rates of a campus coffee shop. It’s intuitive design and interface also allows us to easily train incoming new employees as our student baristas graduate and move on with their careers.

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2. How often is it used?

We use it often throughout each day.Exact numbers are relative to the day in question, but I can say that between our coffees and teas, we easily exceed 20-30 cups of Steampunk brew per day.

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3. What do you like about it? Anything you don’t like?

The simplicity of using the machine is its largest benefit. The same temperature, pressure, and agitation within each repeated brew cycle, and being able to adjust each variable by minute fractions via an intuitive Nexus 7 interface makes brewing on the machine easy and dialing in new beans very intuitive. Since The Nook is a campus coffee shop and regularly has its employees graduating and moving on to other careers, the Punk allows us to easily train incoming staff and get them quickly up to speed on making excellent coffee (much faster than a person perfecting a v60, Chemex, or siphon methodology). The only aspect of the machine that is somewhat challenging is its need to maintain pressure levels within its crucible chambers, meaning that all seals, gaskets, and o-rings that keep the machine air-tight must be constantly checked and maintained. It Is a labor of love.

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4. I’ve seen Man vs. Steampunk competitions online. Have you ever thought of doing a competition at the Nook?

I have seen Khris from AD battle master V60 baristas and Chemexers from throughout the globe, and had the opportunity to visit with Khris during my trip to Salt Lake for training, and I can tell you that the Steampunk is very similar to other methods of coffee brewing in that it takes time to master. The Nook has been open for 5 months and our MOD has been running for about 150 days so I would not feel comfortable with any of my staff or even myself for that matter being responsible for pitting the Steampunk against a Master V60 barista who had been at it for years any time soon. Perhaps in the future though, I will put together a “Man vs. Machine” just to have some fun with my new friends in the Houston specialty coffee industry. The true point of a “Man vs. Machine” is to just have the specialty coffee industry acknowledge that technology may have its place in the preparation of the different coffees that we all love and to promote our local coffee scene. Houston’s scene is booming right now, so it is great for the city’s recognition to have the industry’s leading coffee brewing and roasting methods available here in H-town.

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5. What has been the reaction to the Steampunk by customers?

Our customers have loved the Punk. In particular, they have been very excited about the machine’s ability to create excellent cups of both coffee and tea. They have also appreciated the fact that the Punk allows The Nook to have specialty coffee roasters from all over the country bring their beans and teas to the guests of The Nook to try.

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6. What do you think about the idea that the Steampunk and brewers similar to it take away from the “hand crafted” feel of coffee brewing?

I truly do not believe that either method “takes away” from the other, just as the ability to perform siphon brewing using Yama’s siphons doesn’t take away from being able to Chemex your favorite Honduras. I think that the Punk provides an opportunity for high-volume shops like The Nook be able to provide a high quality cup of America’s best roasted coffees without the 5-8 minute delay per cup that traditional hand-brewing methods would require. It also, more importantly for our clientele, allows The Nook to charge a lower price for the cups served due to the lower overhead while providing a consistently clean and excellent cup of specialty coffee. Different methods suit different baristas and shops… the Punk definitely suits The Nook.

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