Engineering Your
Morning Cup


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For some, it's just coffee or espresso. For others, it's a morning ritual, the way they prepare to properly face the day. The machines behind this? Precision instruments worth billions of dollars in revenue.

Let's start with Jeremy Kuempel, who is pretty intense about his coffee. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was doing thermal dynamics homework and looking for his jolt of caffeine for late night studying when he had an epiphany. "I noticed the flavors in my coffee were always a little different," he says. "I wanted to analyze why they were that way. Looking at other coffee drinks out there from an engineering standpoint you're trying to look at what drives flavor extraction. You're looking at particle size, temperature of system, what pressure to brew it at. I looked at changing these variables and what happens each time."

Automated Systems

Kuempel, now president of Blossom Coffee, San Francisco, CA, respects the traditions surrounding this age-old drink but utilizes a camera and QR code in his company's coffeemaker. This allows them to assess whether it's performing at its best. "A QR code works for us but may not for other machines," he says. "The machine alters its brew recipe, changes temperature, volume of water, and then advises the user on brew duration and grind size. It tells you how to make the coffee. We're moving to fully automated coffee brewing systems where the QR codes help the machine automatically adapt to perfectly brew a cup. Every coffee bean requires different temperatures and duration, along with other variables."

The Blossom One coffee machine. Image: Blossomcoffee.com

The price of the machine: $11,111. "We're not encouraging an individual to own it, though they can," he says. "This is built for the restaurant that puts out hundreds of cups a day but wants to serve different high quality coffees—Guatemalan, so many kinds—you want to keep that same quality from the first cup to the last one."

Of course, there are others who swear by espresso. Luca Taroni, global marketing manager of espresso for De'Longhi Group in Italy says, 'The main difference between an espresso machine and a coffee maker is within the brewing methods. Traditional pump espresso machines are similar to the first espresso machines invented at the beginning of the twentieth century." The method? "Hot water is forced through coffee grounds with 15 bars of pressure for fast extraction, delivering a full body, full aroma cup of coffee," he says. "In traditional drip coffeemaker systems, the water percolates, by natural gravity, through the ground coffee and this system takes up to one minute per cup."

Quality Tests

De'Longhi looks at consumer habits for quantitative and qualitative analysis. Their marketing brief is created from this and the design teams draft a concept. Once approved, R&D begins. "A working prototype is developed to start the industrialization and tooling creation. During this critical phase, each tool and each process is rigorously tested until the machine is ready for the mass production stage," Taroni says. "Every single fully automatic machine that is produced goes through a series of quality tests before they can be released for sale."

Every De'Longhi machine with IFD (Instant Froth Dispenser) or automatic cappuccino (espresso plus more) has two thermo blocks, according to Taroni. "One is dedicated to brewing espresso, the other is reserved to milk frothing," he says. "De'Longhi developed this technology because brewing coffee and frothing milk require two different temperatures and two thermo blocks give the best accuracy possible during each function."

So whether you live for coffee, espresso, or cappuccino, take a closer look at the machines behind it next time. "I never realized all the thought that can go into trying to make a perfect cup of coffee," Kuempel says. "Now I know that every coffee bean needs to be treated just right in order to taste right."

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

I never realized all the thought that can go into trying to make a perfect cup of coffee.

Jeremy Kuempel, president, Blossom Coffee

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December 2012

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org