Originally appeared on Classfare.com
Armed with 3D printers and some combination of ambition and mediocrity, thousands of wantrepreneurs bring bad ideas (or good ideas executed poorly) to market year after year. With so many companies failing and more and more plastic filling our landfills, one begins to wonder - is that “Next Big Thing” really so big? Or is it even a thing? And is it more important to do something first or to do something right? Or, perhaps, to do something right at the right time? (see: Apple)
On some level, it’s all of these things. They are the ebb and flow of the free market. After every sad product launch and string of “me toos” comes a downright profound idea, or execution of an idea that goes on to become great. And in between the failures and the great disruptors is a vast selection of good enoughs.
But thankfully, there seems to be a sort of growing agreement that we could all go without more plastic stuff. And as individuals engage great design, they come to expect it - and the bar is raised. There is no better time for makers to create well-designed products (plastic or otherwise) that deliver better results with less effort in a more elegant way. Makers that believe in singularity and restraint, rather than compromise. Makers like entrepreneur and coffee enthusiast, Mark Hellweg.
“Knowledge and appreciation for coffee is huge now”, says Mark. “It hasn’t always been that way, but it certainly is now.”
Whether you thank Starbucks, Stumptown, or the cultural revitalization of everything craft, coffee is, quite literally, the most popular drug in America.
For Mark, what started as a basic appreciation in high school (while working for Starbucks) turned into a real hobby in college. During his years at university, Mark was that guy that everyone went to for a good cup of joe. He would bring beans from Portland and make coffee in his dorm room with a burr grinder and stainless steel french press. “College certainly evolved my appreciation of experience. It was a fun and romantic time - it seemed like it was always snowing in Michigan, and me and my buddies would smoke pipes with our tweed blazers while reading Beowulf. We pretended we were our own Ivy League. Our own Dead Poet's Society.”
When he wasn’t channeling his inner Professor Keating, Mark would post up at Torrefazione, a local cafe, which marked his day with a simple ritual: reading a book and watching baristas craft cup after cup of coffee with care.
Years later, while shopping for an espresso machine for his brother’s business, Mark realized that despite his appreciation of all things coffee, shopping for equipment was an experience that left much to be desired. “I was on some website with what felt like 10,000 skus. I had no idea what I was looking at, other than lots of plastic and badly designed gadgets. That experience prompted the idea to curate coffee equipment.”
“The result was Clive Coffee, which launched in September 2008. “It was three weeks before the Lehman Brothers collapse. Kind of a terrifying time.”
But with a lot of hard work and a little bit of good fortune, Clive started off well. “Cook’s Illustrated reviewed ten coffee makers in the same month as our launch, including one of the coffee makers on our site. All of the sudden, it started selling out. I had to keep driving out to the importer and buying as many machines as I could.”
In 2010, Williams-Sonoma started stocking the machine and Clive’s sales plummeted in a matter of two months. “They sucked the air out of the room,” says Mark. “Thankfully, we had diversified into a number of other machines and products by then. But the impact was felt.”That impact catalyzed a project that would become Mark’s second company: Ratio.
“The general appreciation for coffee has grown so rapidly in the past 5-7 years that the market is really ready for a better coffee maker. The person who appreciates great design and great coffee, but doesn’t always want, or have time, to spend 10 minutes on crafting a single cup. I spent a lot of time looking for it, and it didn't really exist - at least not in the way I envisioned it.”
Not the way Mark envisioned it is likely what’s sitting on your counter at home (or the kitchen at your office). You know the one - that drip coffee machine wrapped in cheap black plastic that smells of burnt beans and hangover.
“So many coffee machines out there are crap. But people are willing to put up with it because they only see two options: a fancy brewing method or a plastic piece of garbage. Like I said, I was looking for a while. I think others have been looking as well, so the impetus behind this product was pretty straightforward.”
“This product” being the Ratio Eight.
Made with precision die-cast aluminum, hand-turned borosilicate glass, and Oregon-sourced black walnut, the Ratio Eight is impressive to behold. If Jony Ive and the Eames couple designed a coffee maker, it’s likely it would look something like this machine. In fact, one can almost hear Ive’s affectionate english accent when reading through the company’s website (“Every brewing cycle maximizes the confluence between the simplicity of your ritual and the precision of pour-over”).
The comparison warrants jest only because of the proximity of ethos - the Ratio is admittedly Apple-like, not only in industrial design but in its balance of form and function - in its expression of beauty and simplicity and performance. But whereas the Macbook excels at complex data processing, the Ratio excels at making a damn fine cup (or eight) of coffee. We would argue that both are equally necessary for a successful day at the office.
“I always wanted to make a coffee maker that would be respected by people that really like the esoteric, manual process,” says Mark. “I wanted to have enough precision and respect for the brewing process that it would be appreciated by connoisseurs, even if it's not the right machine for them. We use the term ‘inspired by pourover’ often.”
If you’re not familiar, pourover is the origin of drip coffee - a brewing method by which one hand pours water over ground coffee beans (contained in a wedge filter) in an hourglass shaped piece of glass. There is a learned technique to proper pourover that includes allowing the grounds to “bloom” after an initial wetting, then evenly and consistently pouring water over the saturated grounds. The result is, many argue, an evenly extracted and balanced depth of flavor. In other words, a superior cup of coffee.
On the flip side of the crafted cup of coffee, however, is the real value of consumer convenience. “There are loads of products oriented around making it exceedingly simple to make coffee,” says Mark. “But the vast majority of them do so with the great compromise of cup quality. Or if there is any focus on cup quality, there is a lack of focus on the quality and design of the product - they’ve made, for lack of a better word, an appliance.”
It’s hard to imagine the Ratio as an appliance - the category which is also home to your lean, mean, fat-grilling machine. And unlike many of its contemporaries, Ratio is certainly not compromising on design or cup quality or convenience. Rather, it chooses to execute all three - and little else. “We had to evaluate everything and try to be thoughtful and really narrow down what we're trying to deliver to three things,” says Mark. “One: the quality of components and materials. Two: beauty and design. And three: the way it brews coffee. It had to be true to all three. If you lose one of those, you haven't achieved balance.”
That balance in design is translated to you and me as quality, convenience, and consistently great coffee. The attention to detail (like controlled temperature, an even pour, and proper delay for bloom) are present, but rest on the shoulders of the machine, not on yours. Which is something that just about anyone who has hosted a dinner party (or Sunday brunch with rambunctious nieces and nephews) can appreciate.
“Sometimes you want to make a single cup with care and really get into it. To get your hands and soul and mind into every step of the process. Other times, you’re trying to get your kids ready for school and you need 40oz of great coffee ASAFP.”
We couldn’t agree more.Read more on Classfare.com.