In an excuse to get so caffeinated that he was “literally vibrating at a molecular level”, PAT PILCHER gets a one-on-one with the inventor of a completely new coffee process and machine.
To say that Mike Fearn is coffee-obsessed is a massive understatement. As an organic chemist, he has developed a whole new way of making coffee, and has built a coffee machine to show how his coffee brewing process works.
Originally from the home of bad coffee (the UK), Mike has used his organic chemistry background to pare back the coffee making process to individual chemical processes. His passion for coffee has literally been years in the making.
“As I grew older I became more averse to instant coffee”, says Mike, “and during the undertaking of my PhD in organic chemistry, I became actively interested in understanding the nature of the extraction process, and wondering how I could perhaps make a machine to improve on the cona vacuum process.”
It’s been a long journey, and one that has seen Mike experimenting with many different coffee making techniques. It was ironically his attempt at making bad coffee that led to his coffee brewing epiphany:
“During my early experiments and evaluating and investigating many different types of conceivable extraction methods, I decided to see how extreme conditions and methods would affect the flavours of the coffee. In one particular experiment I set out to make a really ‘bad’ coffee, and came back with the exact opposite result.”
What Mike came up with is as simple as it is clever. Most coffee making processes involve extracting a brew out of coffee grounds using water heated between 94°C and 100°C. While this pulls brown caffeinated liquid out of the beans, using near boiling water means that delicate flavours in the coffee beans are destroyed.
“This preserves the integrity and delicacy of the sensitive coffee flavours, while simultaneously degrading the more reactive compounds responsible for much of the bitterness and astringency commonly found when brewing coffee by other methods.”
Being a chemist, Mike goes on to explain that his brewing method promotes the naturally occurring and reactive tannins contained in the roasted coffee grounds to better soak up a lot of the compounds typically responsible for the bitterness and astringency. “The combined heating and extraction at low pressure also catalyses the degradation of many acidic compounds, thereby releasing excess carbon dioxide, while more effectively constraining the residual degradants within the coffee grounds, which are then easily removed at the end of the process.”
Vacuum also plays a big part. “The use of vacuum assists in the extraction process, while also providing a much more even and complete extraction, even when using coffee with different grounds sizes.”
In non-chemist geek-speak, the upshot is that you get a cup of coffee that tastes fantastic.
Understanding the coffee brewing process at a chemical level is one thing, but making it happen consistently in the real world is a far more challenging undertaking. To this end, Mike built a custom coffee machine that resembles the love child of a prop from a Frankenstein movie and an atomic bomb.
Custom made glassware you’d normally see in a lab sits atop of a custom crafted stainless steel machine that both creates a vacuum and heats the coffee. It’s a complex looking beast and is still very much a prototype. That said, it’s also a thing of beauty. It isn’t a huge stretch to see fans of high-end vacuum tube audio amplifiers going for this coffee making apparatus in a big way.
The machine’s complicated looks belie the fact that it is dead easy to operate. Infra-red temperature sensors and micro-processors automate the coffee making process to the point where operating the machine involves adding coffee plus water and then pressing a button.
Automation is the key, says Mike: “Although the early machines were very complex and vaguely resembling something out of a science fiction movie, the latest machine has just two buttons. It is largely automated, which takes guesswork out of the brewing process.”
Another side benefit of the materials used in the machine is that it is also easy to clean. The stainless steel machine components can be wiped down with a damp cloth while the glassware can be rinsed under a tap, or even put in a dishwasher. There’s also no hidden pipes where coffee oil residue can accumulate, so there’s no need for chemical cleaning agents and you don’t end up with increasingly bitter coffee from rancid coffee oil build up.
They say that the proof is in the pudding, and in the case of Mike’s machine, the results were astonishing. Using some coffee beans I had lying around, Mike produced a cup of French press style coffee. I’m not a fan of French press coffee, which I find it to be watery, gritty and often bitter, but I changed my mind after tasting a brew made by Mike’s machine. It had complex berry flavours and plenty of body, all of which made for a very pleasant drink indeed. Next was an espresso-style cup (Mike’s machine can make multiple styles of coffee). Again, the coffee had plenty of complexity and depth along with the rich full-on coffee taste you’d normally associate with espresso. Several cups later I was fully caffeinated and literally vibrating at a molecular level.
Mike has all but perfected an entirely new way to brew coffee, and has numerous patents pending on the process (and the machine) around the world. Now the next big step involves finding investors so he can simplify and refine his machine with a view to getting it mass manufactured.