John Buckman is many things – a coder, a successful tech entrepreneur, a lover of music and most importantly, a massive coffee nerd. I say ‘most importantly’ because he’s currently attempting to do something that many companies fail miserably at – make a decent home espresso machine to be sold for around $1000. Most mass produced machines coming in at this price point are woeful on a good day and downright embarrassing on a bad day. Recently the ZPM Kickstarter project attempted to build a quality espresso machine at about half the price-point. There was lots of public interest with approximately $500,000 of funding, yet the ZPM went belly up after the team behind it ran out of money and had to abandon development. Enter Decent Espresso.
Despite its failure, ZPM had some great technology behind it and this sparked curiosity in John. After licencing some of their technology he assembled a team of 35 staff including coffee royalty Scott Rao and some rather talented engineers and designers to set about work on a new project – Decent Espresso.
What exactly is ‘Decent Espresso’? According to John, it has to produce coffee that tastes consistently as good his current home machine – a $7000 La Marzocco GS3, albeit with one-seventh the pricetag. The GS3 is indeed an amazing machine and is definitely a high benchmark, but this was never meant to be an easy task. Decent Espresso is all about “offering a simple, professional level machine at an affordable price”. Speaking with John it’s evident he’s also keen to do away with the mystery that surrounds most of the $1000 machines currently on the market. Pressure and temperature are variables often poorly controlled and the levels are rarely available for the barista to see, let alone able to be modified in any way. Decent Espresso changes all this.
The machine itself, currently called the DE1, allows pressure profiling of shots through full water flow rate control and also offers PID managed temperature control (with a goal of offering stability to within +/- 0.5˚C). These variables are often only user-controllable on machines 10-20 times the price, however with the DE1 they can be pre-set by the barista through the equipped Android tablet. Using a fully integrated tablet like this gives the Decent Espresso some rather cool functionality that instantly sets it apart from the competition. All of a sudden you can see a display of live shot profiles as the espresso runs from the portafilter. Real-time data of temperature, water flow rate and pressure is displayed throughout. Given that barista technique will vary from shot to shot, you can compare the actual profile delivered with the one you originally specified in the recipe (see where this is going yet?). Before you know it you have instant, quantifiable feedback on how good your shot was (aside from the taste of course). The DE1 is also programmed to predict what might have gone wrong along the way. For example, if it has detected pressures that are higher than your recipe and possibly a restricted water flow rate, a video of Scott Rao can optionally pop up to suggest you might need to back off on your tamping pressure a little.
The Android tablet also allows users to run different apps for controlling the machine (with various open-sourced extensions too). This equates to having an unlimited number of ‘machine modes’ and crowdsourced recipes that users all around the world can add to. For example, if you’re new to the specialty coffee game and want all the help you can get there’s a training app designed just for you. Along with the tutorial videos, shots can be tailored and improved based on taste, with users inputting information based on the SCAA’s Espresso strength and extraction chart and the Decent Espresso guiding adjustments accordingly. Alternatively, if you’re a seasoned pro who just wants to pull your own shots without the assistance then you’ll be equally at home on the Decent Espresso. On the recipe front, it will be simple for coffee roasters to dial in a recipe and then send it out directly to a customer’s DE1 machine to extract their roast with. Slick.
Initial specifications on the machine are pretty impressive. A metal chassis, tempered glass water tank and a rock solid thermoblock should make it nice and sturdy. There’s even a built in weather station to log barometric pressure, environmental temperature and humidity as a shot is pulled. Whilst the design is fantastic, the challenge lies in turning it into a reality – manufacturing and distribution. The $1000 price target means the DE1 has to be built overseas – China in this case. To give you an idea of just how seriously the team takes quality control, John and a bunch of his engineers are about to move to China to live for a few months. Once there they’ll work directly with the manufacturers to develop a production line and fine tune the whole process until it meets their exacting standards. Distribution wise, the company is utilising a direct sales model, so all purchases will be made through their website when the machine launches. Free two day shipping will be offered worldwide with a release date currently estimated for April 2016.
To make things even more interesting, Decent Espresso is also working on the ‘Decent Grinder’ – a scale and gravimetric dosing device that can be installed into your existing grinder (anything from a Vario right up to a Robur). It works by using Bluetooth equipped scales to weigh the coffee as it exits the grinder and uses a kill switch to stop the motor when the predetermined dose (specified in the recipe via the tablet) has been reached.
Here at The Directory Coffee I try to bring you guys news you’ll actually care about. If you ask me, Decent Espresso is certainly one to watch. The design, the guys and girls behind the project and the calculated mind-set with which it is being undertaken has the potential to yield a pretty cool machine indeed. Debut of a working DE1 prototype happens this week at the Portland Coffee Fest. I’ll give you updates as they become available but if you ask me, this thing could change the way we look at home espresso forever.
Photos and Video: Decent Espresso