I mentioned the Voga Coffee Ground Control
two years ago when it made its debut locally. They've now been delivering units of their single batch brewer, the Cyclops and I got to test drive one at my home for the last few weeks. It was some fun overkill for a small apartment, but they're already installing these into the homes of hobbyists as well.
More of the "pretty" photos can be seen in my earlier thread. The ones of it installed in my place are mostly just quick snapshots. In addition, here's a quick video that covers the basics about the machine. The machine certainly seems to have earned its bonafides, garnering "Best New Product" at the Specialty Coffee Association's 2018 Expo.
Eli and Josh, two of the three founders behind the Cyclops had this demo unit installed in less than 10 minutes in my little breakfast nook area and brought plenty of good coffee to run thru it during the time I was evaluating the machine. This is a large batch brewer that brews into your receptacle of choice using some technology unique to Voga Coffee only. I was moving things around on this little table, sorry for the random things like the Florence flasks I use for custom brew water for my pour-overs and espresso machines.
There is now a secondary glass chamber surrounding the inner chamber, that helps to serve as better insulation to keep the beverage temp up.
The basic claims of the brewer is that you can sculpt the extraction curves in stages, honing in on cup traits you're seeking and generally result in a much sweeter tasting brew. For the most part, I find this to be true and will elaborate a few observations later on down. While targeted at cafe usage, folks who're seeking the same sort of excellence out of filter brew would probably be willing to put the same level of funding towards a machine like this as they would a basic La Marzocco GS3, (they're approximately the same price) and put them on their counter at home.
The machine is fun to watch. Quite novel in appearance for a coffee brewer, though to me it sort of resembles those very cool looking Zerowatt
espresso machines of old.
It uses a vacuum to draw up the staged extractions in to the upper collection chamber before dispensing it into a carafe below. The stages of the brew can be tweaked, pushed and pulled to highlight the best the coffee and roast has to offer and can even be tweaked to diminish perceived flaws. The first stage seems to affect the easy extracting sweetness and acidity the most. With the second stage, the characteristics and aromatics that make the coffee unique, and finally, the third or subsequent stages bring out the body and mouthfeel. It's very reminiscent of Andy Schecter's EvaluSpromatic
, you can actually sample out the individual stages of the extraction and note their differences. What is really surprising is discovering how altering the recipe by as little as one second, makes for such a large impact in the resulting cup. During the evaluation period for the Cyclops, I found myself pondering extraction concepts more deeply and thoroughly, and realizing that I can pull things out of a particular coffee that I haven't quite been able to before. I can't adequately evaluate the science behind their extraction technology because some of the terminology escapes my understanding, but I definitely notice that the results are unique and delicious. Cups taste fuller, rounder, sweeter. I've also confirmed in my own testing that one of their claims of cost savings in coffee doses used is indeed true. You can brew 1:20 ratio brews that have depth of flavor, perceived strength and flavor separation that rival other filter brewing techniques that use the same ratio. This will certainly matter to large volume users like cafes. But I think they'll be seeking the repeatability and controllability of the brewer just as much or more. They claim that early adopters are finding a break even point on the price of the Ground Control from lower dose requirements per batch, very early, like in a matter of months.
Inputs are made via a simple tablet interface, recipes can be stored and indexed for easy retrieval. You can have 5 recipes ready on the main screen, and I believe hundreds or more in the memory, kept in the sub-menu.
The smallest suggested batch size uses 75g of coffee (hence their generosity in providing delicious coffees from Heart, Linea Caffe, Dragonfly, etc) and about 1500cc of water. You can brew much larger, I believe up to 3 liters. There's an agitation wand in the base that assists the extraction and it performs best when an ideal quantity of water is surrounding it during the extraction cycle. After each stage, it's vacuumed up and collected, leaving a barely moist bed of grounds, ready for the next stage of extraction. It was interesting to see the second stage, the resulting brew color was even deeper and darker than the first, suggesting that it's not just diluting the first stage.
I brewed many batches of the same coffee, tweaking one variable at a time, honing in on the best recipe for each coffee. Recipes can be stored in the memory of the Ground Control, for volume, vacuum time, extraction time and temp can be selected. Grind coarseness doesn't need to be fiddled with much, or if at all. It's best to just stick with one grind and modify the other variables. My general opinion of how
the Ground Control extracts coffee qualitatively is that it can repeatably take an otherwise middle range scoring coffee (say an 88 point cup score) and easily elevate it to something much higher, like a 91-92. With ultra premium coffees like some of the geisha samples provided, that gap narrows somewhat. I think that's simply because with ultra premium coffees, they're already processed with extreme care and roasted without noticeable flaws, so you're basically left with the capability of pushing the extraction to the limit with them, without fear of unpleasant notes coming to the fore. But being able to shorter or tweak a stage of an extraction of a lesser quality coffee, you can avoid things like astringency, bitterness, roasty notes, etc, that'll result in a much better cup.
Another important function of the Ground Control is its cleaning cycle. It certainly highlights the necessity of sparkling clean brewing equipment when you compare an identical batch, once from the machine right after a full cleaning (and thorough rinsing) cycle, versus the same exact recipe on the machine after a half dozen or so previous brews. The caramel notes can best be described as tarnished, the flavors not only muddy but less sweet than when it's properly clean. The procedure is simple and hands off, just a bit of coffee/espresso machine cleaner into an empty paper filter, and tap a button, the machine takes care of the rest. You can see the resulting murky residue in the snapshot below. Don't drink dirty coffee! Two plain water flushes and you're set for another clean brew.
They're tweaking and modifying the app that controls Ground Control, it's fairly intuitive, even for a not-so-savvy technology person such as myself. There's sliders and buttons that can be adjusted to get the recipe you want. For the Cyclops, the touch screen is smaller than the larger 2 head unit, but my big fingers were still able to navigate around rather easily. The recipes can be password protected, more of a cafe necessity.
I brewed one of Heart's Guatemalan offerings and was bowled over by the depth of sweetness pulled out of the coffee. Because it brews large batches, and my general thriftiness (even with free coffee), I wanted to share these successes as much as possible, rather than waste them down the drain, switching between different coffees while I was evaluating the various recipes. A few times, I'd take a full carafe of freshly brewed coffee to share with friends, one of them, a local pub owner and brewer who simply stated it was the best batch of coffee he'd ever had. The Ground Control also revealed quite clearly, when I baked a roast I was in the early stages of dialing in a profile. Getting a great home roast of a very high quality coffee, then making it shine on a machine like this was quite a lot of fun.
Controlling the length of various stages of the extraction can push the acidity and sweetness to the forefront, or merge it more harmoniously with the more nuanced components of the brew. Regardless, I still find the device has a flavor "signature", of sweeter, smoother notes, that can be perceived as being more unified in taste and balance. There's a carmelly-sweet base to most brews that aren't as apparent in other brew methods. If a coffee wasn't roasted perfectly and notes of paperiness or astringency are evident, then the second and or third stage of the extraction can be shortened to minimize these defects. The basic approach I followed was to settle in on the first stage to set the brightness and sweetness I was looking for, then alter the second stage to bring out the positive flavor characteristics that made each coffee unique. A coffee can easily taste hollow, but still bright and sweet. So the tweaks to the various stages can yield a cup that tastes properly extracted and balanced. I can imagine the same sort of approach can be taken for tea, but I didn't try it. There's a top tier chocolatier here in San Francisco, Dandelion Chocolate
that uses Ground Control for a cacao nib and coffee concoction that folks are pretty excited about. They were one of the early adopters of the Voga Coffee brewers.
The machine is obviously commercial scale and design, plumbed in,out and using 220v 30A power, but they apparently could wire it for 110V if necessary, but the heat up times would be obviously longer. It's nearly silent in operation until the vacuum kicks in and draws the coffee up to the upper chamber. It's all a bit of theater watching it happen. Especially for larger batches, it looks like a mini keg of Guinness beer magically appears in the glass chamber along with its creamy head.
You grab the brew basket in a more ergonomically ideal location down at the bottom. There's a comfortable, large handle for sliding the basket in and out of the brewer. There's not much else to fiddle with on the machine, even the cleaning tasks are done here.
It appears to be getting noticed by the coffee community and early adopters still have them on bar. From what I've noted, it's reliable and simple in its usage, not prone to breaking down like other more complicated brewers that have hit the market in the past few years. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend seeking one out, but note they're a small, growing company, they're not in every big city yet. I've seen them spread to the midwest, they've also gone international (Colombia), but customers might have to seek them out, they're not yet that common. I wrapped up the 2.5 week review time I had with it, feeling quite impressed and contemplating getting one of my own someday. They're assembled by hand here in California, and there's plenty of options for finish details, colors etc. Yes, I'd like to see one shrunk down a little bit for home-use and that capability will be there eventually. But what they have now is still rather compelling. I hope folks give them a try if they find one near them!