When most coffee shops get too busy, they hire more staff. But when Portland's Coava Coffee found its baristas were short on time, it simply decided to invent a better coffee brewer.
It has become something of an M.O. for Coava's owners, Keith Gehrke and Matt Higgins. The coffee bar—located appropriately in a bamboo carpentry workshop, full of old work benches, tools and industrial equipment—has become a laboratory for new ideas and inventions, where the two young baristas-turned-entrepreneurs have become obsessed with creating newer, better ways to brew their single-origin roasts.
A few years ago, Gehrke became frustrated at running out of paper filters when making coffee in a Chemex coffeemaker—a 1940s glass pour-over brewer that's enjoying a renaissance among coffee connoisseurs—at home. He did what any logical coffee geek would do: sketched up a blueprint for a new filter and had the device laser welded and photochemically etched in stainless steel.
Not only did he solve his own paper problem, as he and Higgins began experimenting with the design, they realized he had created "a hybrid between French press and pour-over," combining the big body and rich oils of the former, while still retaining the more delicate flavors and brewing control of the latter. They dubbed it the "Kone" and had a few made up for their coffee bar, which opened in July last year.
"We never thought we were going to sell them," says Higgins. "People would come in and ask, 'Are you selling those filters? Where do you get those filters?' and I'd explain that we made them. And then finally, we started getting some offers from other coffee companies in our industry, primarily Stumptown…so we said, 'Let's do it, let's roll the dice,' and we had a thousand made."
The gamble paid off. Despite a $50 price tag, orders flowed in from around the country. The New York Times sang its praises, while Gizmodo called it "the latest piece of must-have gear for coffee fetishists." "Fuck, that's good!" wrote one prominent Seattle barista and coffee blogger.
The pair then applied the same technology to an even more niche coffee maker, the AeroPress brewer—a small, plastic syringelike gadget that is already popular in Europe and is just starting to pop up in top coffeehouses around Portland. Their flat, round metal AeroPress filter—called a "Disk"—was released in December, and sold over 600 units in the first two weeks.
But the popularity of the Kone means half of the coffee bar's customers are now asking for pour-over coffee instead of espresso. Each Chemex pot takes about three minutes to brew, and requires a barista to stand perched over the filter, employing a timer, digital scales and intense concentration to make sure the extraction is perfect. And a single barista can only make two at a time.
So the pair went back to the drawing board for their most ambitious project to date: an entirely new coffee brewer called a "Funnel." Instead of a pour-over, the Funnel is a "full immersion" brewer, in which the coffee is left alone to steep in the water—like a French press—before filtering through a Kone into the cup. It's made from a glass lab funnel fused with a stopcock valve, which allows full control over how quickly the coffee filters out, and sits perched atop a sleek steel stand welded by Higgins himself. According to Gehrke, it's easier to use, produces more consistent results and, crucially, is less labor intensive. It also looks damn cool.
"I feel like my parents could do this, my grandparents could do it," he says.
The Funnel isn't being released until this week, but the coffee world is already buzzing about it. Gehrke and Higgins aren't sure if anyone else will actually buy one—they will probably cost in the hundreds—but then, they never expected anyone to pay $50 for a coffee filter.
"We're already working on, like, four other products," says Gehrke with a shrug.
Visit Coava Coffee Roastery and Coffee Bar at 1300 SE Grand Ave., 894-8134, or check it out online at coava.myshopify.com.