Coffee establishments have become the getaway destination akin to the corner bar—but without the booze. People instinctively know where their local coffee nook is and they go there en masse to seek a bit of quiet or perhaps some social nesting with a friend. As people have become more and more serious about their coffee, those lattes and daily blends are becoming true works of art. Just ask inventor Jakub Svec, who’s developing the PERK, a machine that promises the ultimate in coffee savoring at an affordable price.
The PERK was specially designed by Svec to produce “Third-Wave” coffee, which refers to the movement to produce high quality, artisanal coffee with better flavor, more flavor variety, and less bitterness. While visiting his regular Santa Fe café, Iconik Coffee Roasters, Svec was inspired to create the device after learning about the complicated manual process that most brewers go through to make a cup of this new, richer style of coffee—a process outlined in some detail on the PERK’s Kickstarter campaign page (where backers can get their very own PERK for $199).
“We are now thinking about coffee more like wine,” said Svec. “In fact, there are at least two times more aromatic compounds (the compounds that produce flavor) in coffee than in wine. But to get at those aromatic compounds, everything has to be controlled precisely, from growing, harvesting, processing and shipping to storing, roasting, bagging, and brewing.”
According to Svec, this difficult process has seen very few mechanical innovations, making manual brewing a complicated procedure with varying results, or requiring expensive industrial grade equipment. In contrast, PERK offers a much more simplified, automated process. We wanted to find out how he did it, so Svec provided us with some images of his earliest prototypes and walked us through the development process.
Svec on Version 1: This is the first machine I built to test a design for a coffee machine in space. I built it in a day using parts from around my house and from eBay, just to test the concept. There were no napkin drawings or CAD designs. I just bashed together components. It uses an electrical junction box, a stainless steel Stanley travel mug, a ceramic heating band, a PID controller and a pump. It also used an infusion chamber designed for filtering pool water. To say this could be used in space isn’t quite accurate. My space-grade design depended on a centrifugal spinning motion to simulate gravity (think 2001: A Space Odyssey), then used a pump to fight that simulated gravity. It turns out that on earth, we already have gravity, so I simulated the simulated gravity with real gravity. Really clever. The only downside was that I couldn’t increase or decrease gravity like I intended to do in space. The coffee that this machine produced was terrible, but it exceeded my expectations for several coffee infusion environment categories, so I continued on to V2.
Svec on Version 2: After ordering a few more parts, I built V2. It used similar components to the first version, but more refined. For example, it used an infusion chamber with a finer mesh, a different pump motor and allows for control of the pump speed. It wasn’t a looker, but it got the job done. On the bottom of the machine is a heat sink used to dissipate heat from a solid-state relay that controls the heating element. It reminded me of Cloud City from Star Wars. This version overcame most of the challenges I had with V1 and is the machine I had tested by Scott Rao, one of the world’s most prominent Third Wave coffee consultants. I flew to New York to meet him, and he said that he has “never seen a coffee machine this capable for less than $10,000.” He gave me a few improvements to consider, but it gave me the confidence to continue on the right track.
Svec on Version 3: After coming back from New York, I started 3D printing a platform for testing automated features of the machine. The original design was intended to have the shape of an espresso machine, but the design never quite gelled. If you look at the back of the machine, it is a real mess from changing around components. It uses an Arduino Uno microcontroller, which I learned to program using state machine logic. I had never programmed anything before this, and it was a real deep dive learning experience. The programming alone was a three-month process.
This version has been surprisingly durable, and is the machine that I toured with across the country performing demos. The only downside is that the pump I am using sits exposed to boiling liquid, and I have to replace it about every 20 brewing cycles.
Svec on Final Version: I knew I really wanted PERK to have a killer design, but a final design eluded me. The infusion chamber and dome give PERK a really unique “tube transistor” retro look, but if I want it to live on a kitchen counter or in a coffee shop, it needed to be compact, sleek and durable. After 2 months of design work, I essentially gave up and resigned myself to developing a design that had nothing special going for it, but was simple. I effectively got out of the way of the entire industrial design process, and V4 was born almost immediately. It is exactly what it needed, for me to get out of the way. After about two months of 3D printing and post-processing cleanup, I had a solid design prototype developed. It is very rewarding to see people respond so well to this design. It is minimalist, modern, and retro. The best thing someone told me is that “it looks like a coffee machine of the future of the 1960s.”