Kaldi’s Coffee’s cutting-edge Steampunk system is a tempestuous brewer

October 30, 2013

Kaldi's Coffee owner Tsega Hailemariam says his new caffeine emporium in Silver Spring is the first on the East Coast to employ the Steampunk brewing system. Perhaps that means nothing to you. Until Tuesday, it meant nothing to me, and I love cutting-edge brewing equipment as much as the next coffee geek who bores his friends (and spouse) with protracted conversations about steep times, bloom stages and the perfect water temperature.

Kaldi's owner Tsega Hailemariam and his high-tech Steampunk brewer. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Kaldi's owner Tsega Hailemariam and his high-tech Steampunk brewer. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

As such, I couldn't stop asking Hailemariam questions about the Steampunk, which was designed by Khristian Bombeck, president and CEO of Alpha Dominche, the Salt Lake City-based company that manufactures the system. Hailemariam would have been only too happy to answer my questions via a proper demonstration, but he had a major complication: The Steampunk, last year's winner for best new product for commercial coffee or tea preparation and serving, was on the fritz. A specialist was expected soon to fix the contraption.

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"I'm waiting for the technician to come from Philadelphia," said Hailemariam, who also owns Metro Coffee Convenience in Rockville. "We made some coffee, but it was not consistent. We don't want to serve the customers before we make sure" it's working properly.

From what Hailemariam told me and from what I could piece together from our friend, the Internet, the Steampunk is kind of a cross between a siphon brewing system and a French press — with one significant difference. It's mostly automated. A barista can just punch in the proper parameters on an electronic pad — water temperature, water volume, steeping time, amount of grounds agitation — for the particular bean, and the Steampunk takes it from there.

The Kaldi's storefront at 918 Silver Spring Ave., just off Georgia Avenue. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The Kaldi's storefront at 918 Silver Spring Ave., just off Georgia Avenue. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

As creator Bombeck says in this video, "We think that it may do something different. That's because instead of just stirring [the grounds], we're adding ultra-hot steam for a 100th of a second, and it's bringing some flavors out that we haven't seen before."

Yes, coffee has become an extremely complicated business, but you won't be able to see for yourself until the Steampunk is repaired, perhaps as early as the end of this week at Kaldi's. (In the meantime, you can study up further via this geek-o-gram from Serious Eats.)

Kaldi's focuses as much attention on specialty drinks as it does on its Steampunk coffees. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Kaldi's focuses as much attention on specialty drinks as it does on its Steampunk coffees. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Steampunk or not, the shop has many other pleasures, starting with the industrial, dark-wood space. Just a few weeks old, Kaldi's serves up Counter Culture Coffee, with an emphasis on the roaster's Ethiopian beans. What's more, the shop has its own chef who produces everything for sale, from sandwiches to French-style pastries to cookies. Kaldi's also dabbles with specialty drinks, such as a caffe latte with cinnamon syrup or a pumpkin spice latte.

Presumably these would not be made with the Steampunk.

Kaldi's Coffee, 918 Silver Spring Ave., Silver Spring, 800-607-1324.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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