by Jessie Kissinger
Coffee brewers, the obsessive ones, are beverage MacGyvers. They change up their equipment—Chemexes, French presses, drippers, siphons—and make subtle alterations to their machines—soaking filters in cold water, agitating the liquid in a particular way. Their antics are inventive—or perhaps fussy, depending on your perspective—but above all, they’re precise, playing with the science of temperature and time to get a better extraction. A better structure of taste, aroma, acidity, and body.
Todd Carmichael is one of these people, forever reconciling the objectivity of chemistry with the less tangible concept of flavor.
A coffee devotee who co-founded the Philadelphia coffee roasting company La Colombe twenty years ago, Carmichael has long labored to create the best cup of coffee. Back in January, he jerry-rigged a Chemex with three bent stirring rods to suspend a double filtration system while competing in the North East Brewer’s Cup (a coffee-brewing competition put on by the Specialty Coffee Association of America) and won.
But he wasn’t satisfied. After tinkering for years with existing coffee makers like the Chemex, he decided that he wanted to create a manual machine that made exceptional coffee and was easy to use. No excessive knowledge or practice required. So he sketched out his ideas on a chalkboard, found a glass blower, and designed a contraption to better fit his method.
He calls it the Dragon.
“Theoretically it’s perfect,” Carmichael claims.
He is the first to admit that the Dragon looks like a bong, or maybe even a penis pump. While in development, it went by another name, the “Pour Over Manual Siphon,” a literal description of how it functions. The machine takes the pour-over concept and integrates some of the physics of a siphon, using air pressure from a piston to manipulate the drop time of the liquid. He also added a temperature profile sleeve—basically a chalice for cold tap water to surround the slurry cup, creating an exchange of energy that stirs the water, agitating the beans.
The beauty of the Dragon is that it offers control and virtually eliminates errors made in other methods—the poorly regulated flame under a siphon, the mistimed pour in a Chemex. In other words, it replaces craft with science to create a user-friendly product that bridges the gap between the casual coffee drinker and the savants like himself. It aims to make everyone equal in his or her ability to brew a superior cup.
“If you made a math equation—which is the very best way to make coffee,” he says, “this is what the math equation would tell.”*
Carmichael debuted the Dragon at the U.S. Brewer’s Cup back in April. One of the tasters at the event, Ricardo Pereira, President of BRASC Coffee Importers, described Carmichael’s coffee as possessing a “perfect marriage between the attributes—flavor, aroma, aftertaste, acidity, body.”
The Dragon was a success. But still, Carmichael took second.
Now he’s back to tweaking. As Chris Brock, his glass blower in Delaware, kilned 500 handmade Dragons, Carmichael sent out 50 models to the most preeminent critics in the coffee community, asking for their insights on how to improve his product. They’ve sent back comments and he’s made adjustments to his instructions.
The Dragon is now available to the general public on lacolombe.com. Depending on how it retails, Carmichael plans to generate a second rendition, a mass-produced prototype.
But regardless of success, the product testing will continue. After all, no search for perfection ever truly ends.
*The Well-Brewed Cup, Defined
In 1952, the National Coffee Association and the Pan American Coffee Bureau initiated the Coffee Brewing Institute (CBI), hiring Professor Earl E. Lockhart, a food technology Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to lead the experiments. Under his direction, the CBI compared taste preference with the strength—or thickness—of the coffee, and the extraction yield of the bean, and ultimately came up with the Coffee Brewing Control Chart. Roughly 30 percent of a coffee bean can dissolve into hot water, but during the tests, tasters across the board preferred coffee in which only 18-22 percent of the bean had dissolved. For strength, they preferred between 1.15-1.35 percent of the solution to be coffee solids. Between these two variables, they found a scientific definition for a well-brewed cup of joe.