Like so many inventions before it, the BKON Craft Brewer began with a tenacious individual, a basement workshop, and a flash of inspiration.
In this case, that individual was Dean Vastardis, who then worked at his family's business, Pennsauken's Lacas Coffee.
The inspiration? It came from the Food Network.
"I was watching Iron Chef and seeing how they sous-vide marinate proteins," he said. "It was very interesting to me how you could take something that would take hours - to marinate meats - and do it in a matter of minutes. And I thought, 'That could work with coffee.' "
So he connected an airtight food-storage container to a vacuum pump and tossed in some coffee grounds and hot water.
"It bubbled all over the place, and it was quite possibly the worst cup of coffee I ever made," he said. But it worked. "I knew I was on to something."
Five years later, that basement innovation is being manufactured by an international equipment giant, Franke; it was named the best new product of 2014 by the Specialty Coffee Association of America; and it's being utilized by prominent third-wave roasters Counter Culture Coffee and Stumptown and premium tea company Rishi. The first units hit cafes in October, including the new Capital Teas at 18th and Chestnut.
Dean and his brother and co-chief executive Lou think they're on the verge of changing how you drink coffee, tea, and anything else that can be brewed, steeped, or infused.
Of course, that has already been changing. The brew of choice for a growing number of coffee connoisseurs (or, if you prefer, snobs) is now old-school pour-over brews, and Chemex coffeemakers are in heavy use at cafes around the city.
"With pour-overs becoming the new thing again, I have seen a trend of single-cup brewers come into the market that can be more consistent than someone using a kettle," said Bryan Duggan, technology manager for Counter Culture.
Those include the Steampunk, as embraced by La Colombe at five of its cafes, and the Clover Brewer, which is exclusive to Starbucks. (La Colombe also brews specialty coffees in Silvertons, which allow for immersion or pour-over brewing, and occasionally uses an immersion-brewing machine that La Colombe cofounder Todd Carmichael designed himself. The device, called the Dragon, has also been manufactured for limited retail via lacolombe.com.)
But, Duggan said, BKON worked differently. "This was the first machine that came to our door and had a completely different way to brew coffee."
While most of these contraptions borrow moves from the French press and the old-fashioned stove-top vacuum coffeepot to push water through coffee grounds or use steam to agitate them, Dean said, his creation is different: It uses a patented vacuum pump system - what he calls reverse atmospheric infusion - to suck the air out of the pores of whatever's being infused and allow water to rush in. Even cold-brew coffee, which could take 10 hours, is done in just minutes.
The brothers initially developed the brewer with plans to install it in their own coffee shop some day. But they abandoned that plan as they saw the device's broader potential.
They realized that that potential extended to tea after showing the BKON at the World Tea Expo, where it won a best new product award last year. Tea experts were impressed with the lack of tannins, which sometimes leave tea drinkers feeling fuzzy-tongued.
"We actually had a Japanese tea grader go find an interpreter and come over and tell us how impressed he was," Lou said. "He told us in Japan we would get an eight or 8.5, and he didn't know if he's ever seen a nine."
They're not trying to replace the Japanese tea ceremony. But, by partnering with Rishi, Counter Culture, and Stumptown, they are populating a site they call the BKON Craft Cloud with recipes for brewing various types of tea and coffee, using parameters including time, temperature, pressure, and water volume to create different flavor profiles.
The appeal - at the risk of de-skilling the world's baristas - is consistency.
"Traditionally, if you had someone skilled in the art of manual tea brewing, you'd be lucky to get one or two of those people trained and highly knowledgeable and able to perfectly execute those teas every time," said Greg Richards, vice president of business development at Franke. "If you're a cafe operator growing into your third or fourth or fifth location, it's a challenge to replicate that."
He said the BKON solves that problem, and can get the job done in a third of the time. Franke has bet millions on it, and expects to sell thousands of the $13,500 machines in North America over the next few years, before expanding to Europe and Asia, he said.
Now, Albert Robbat, a chemistry professor at Tufts University, is studying whether the BKON can produce not just a more consistent cup of tea, but a healthier one. He has a donated machine in his chemical and sensory analysis lab, where he studies how climate affects antioxidant compounds in tea. For example, he said, tea harvested in monsoon season is lower in antioxidants, a particular concern since monsoon seasons are getting longer and longer.
"I'm interested in whether this brew craft can extract out more of those antioxidants, anticancer agents, anticonvulsants - all of the compounds in tea that provide health benefits," he said. So far, his data is preliminary. But it appears "they're able to bring more of the organic chemicals out of the tea leaf than conventional brewing can do."
The brothers think chefs and bartenders will find even more uses for the device. For example, one of their advisers, chef Hugh Acheson of Top Chef fame, used it to infuse milk with spices for flavored lattes without syrup.
They'd like to make an at-home version of the brewer next. But first, said Dean, "we really want to see what people are going to use it for. We're providing a tool they can use for applications that already exist and that have yet to be considered."