From the ashes of the famously failed ZPM Kickstarter comes Decent Espresso with a machine that delivers on ZPM’s promises
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
Almost every discussion of brewing coffee at home centers around drip coffee. The variables are not only easy to control, but the solutions to common problems involve little effort and almost no cost. However, that discussion changes when a customer wants to know how to brew better espresso at home. It’s easy to discuss the nuances of home brewing when it comes to drip, but there’s really no satisfying answer to the question of how to brew excellent espresso at home. And that’s because ”short of having a couple of thousand dollars lying around ”you can’t.
That’s what John Buckman, owner of Decent Espresso, is hoping to change. When you go to the website, the first thing you’re met with is the promise of an excellent home espresso machine under $1,000 dollars. Sound familiar? That’s because this company comes from the ruins of ZPM, a Kickstarter-funded group that aimed to do the same. After mashing together a few spare parts that were somehow capable of pulling decent shots of espresso, Gleb Polyakov and Igor Zamlinsky went to Kickstarter asking for $20,000 to manufacture a run of home espresso machines meant to retail for $400 apiece. Unlike with any home espresso ”or, notably, commercial espresso machines ”on the market, ZPM promised that users would be able to control the temperature and pressure using a digital microcontroller made from off-the-shelf parts.
œWhen ZPM announced that they were essentially going to put a linux computer inside their espresso machine to try to accurately control a large thermoblock, this sounded like exciting innovation to me, shares John, the software programmer and founder of Decent Espresso who is personally funding the effort. After experimenting with various home espresso machines and producing sub-par coffee, John was intrigued by the premise of ZPM and was one of the investors on Kickstarter. Three years and $1.2 million dollars later, the owners of ZPM announced in January of this year that they were not moving forward with the project. No one was going to get an espresso machine, and no one was going to get their money back.
While many backers were initially angry about this development, John continued forward, and reached out to the CEOs of ZPM. œMy girlfriend suggested, “why don’t you send them an email? Maybe you can help them with a bit of cash and your entrepreneurial experience?” I created a “tech support” ticket, and a few weeks later, Gleb (ZPM’s CEO) showed up at my house with a working ZPM machine. ZPM’s problem was never that Gleb and Igor couldn’t make a functioning machine ”it was that they couldn’t anticipate the manufacturing needs of producing thousands of the same machine, which was a problem that could be solved. œWhen Gleb came to my house with a few different Blue Bottle coffees, and within a few attempts made shots almost as good as those I’d had in Berlin, he definitely peaked my interest. This wasn’t “OK” coffee ”this was that world class espresso that I go far out of my way for. Yet made at home.
John Buckman isn’t a coffee enthusiast with a sprawling bank account, as you might be imagining. However, confining him to one title or job description is difficult. To call him a programmer is too limiting and to call him an entrepreneur would be reductive. He’s currently the CEO of companies such as Magnatune (a site that gives artists a platform who can’t get their work on iTunes) and BookMooch (basically the world’s biggest book swap website), and is just as likely be found coding as he is making artisanal liqueurs. John’s passions are varied and wide-reaching, and he counts the pleasure of good coffee to be one of those passions. œFor me, espresso is a luxury I can enjoy every day. It’s not champagne, reserved for special events and at great cost.
Through his work, John has traveled all over the world and made drinking great espresso a top priority, and so he wanted to introduce that experience to others in an accessible and affordable way. The acquisition of ZPM allowed him to explore that possibility. œOnce you’ve tasted a decent espresso, by which I mean one lovingly made by a trained and talented barista, it sets your mouth and your brain alight. It’s like having good Swiss chocolate after eating Hersheys your whole life.
Decent Espresso isn’t just ZPM under a new name.
John had his own ideas and tweaks that would make the machine easier to use and more feasible to manufacture. œOne of the major changes we decided was that instead of designing a linux computer from scratch and putting it into the espresso machine (as ZPM had done), we would instead use an off-the-shelf Android tablet for most of the “smarts.” This would give us more computing power, a big screen, a lot of ready-to-use software tools, and a many more opportunities on the software side. The tablet will attempt to meet users at their skill level, and provide a number of modes for users to choose depending on their level of experience, so the home barista can get as much help and guidance as needed, while the expert can modify and play with variables, and expand upon her espresso skills and education.
Although the machine being designed by Decent Espresso is a clear departure from the original ZPM design, John still plans on honoring the goals and ideals originally laid out by the ZPM owners. œMy goal is to make a machine that makes espresso as well as the [La Marzocco] GS/3, but costs less than $1,000. John admits that this is still a high price point. But Decent Espresso plans on pushing a number of additional innovative modifications to make the machine even easier to use than it is in its first form. Everything on the machine that is removable is dishwasher safe, and users will have control over temperature and pressure. The tablet on the machine will be able to record this data, along with parameters such as flow rate, ambient humidity, and the actual temperature in the grouphead (using a thermo probe) so you can replicate your results. œWith a tablet controlling the entire machine, we could offer unprecedented control and visibility over what the espresso machine was doing,” says John.
Decent Espresso won’t be releasing machines until 2016, but you can test run one of their models at Coffee Fest Portland, October 23 “25. John and his team will be exhibiting at the show with a prototype with the intent of gathering input from baristas and other coffee professionals. œIf we’re getting some important things wrong, we want to learn that from people who really know their stuff, early enough in our process so that we can fix our mistakes before they become entrenched, he says. John has prioritized open communication with the development of Decent Espresso. He encourages honest, direct communication to push innovation from the employees on the Decent Espresso staff, who include designers, software engineers, and coffee-turned-social media expert Jason Dominy).
If you can’t make it to Coffee Fest Portland, Decent Espresso has a website full of links to more information and social media to track progress and talk about ideas for the machine. I literally can’t fit all the interesting insights and ideas that John provided me when I chatted with him, so I’d highly encourage you to check out Decent Espresso’s Twitter and Facebook pages. From design updates to coffee service at Burning Man, Decent Espresso is attempting some fascinating things and I’m excited to see where they continue to grow.
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonname.
This is the type of thinking that has been missing from coffee culture.