Living in the Bay Area has a few perks for coffee fans. One of them is getting to participate in a diverse coffee community that is always pushing the envelop and developing new ideas. Voga Coffee certainly should be counted among those. I was able to meet up with the co-founder/designer of the Ground Control brewer last week here at a local cafe that has had their first running unit installed for over a year. It only fell of my radar originally because of the wide array of coffee brewers that hit the market in the past few years, it's a bit of a challenge to keep up with them all. We went thru six or seven coffees, with a few getting repeat brews with different profiles and I left extremely impressed with what it is capable of delivering to the cup.
The Ground Control works sorta like a traditional batch brewer turned completely upside-down and injected with scientific extraction methods that have apparently never been used in this form, in a batch brewer format. The basket of coffee is at the bottom of the machine, and brew parameters are dialed in to provide precision water dosing into the basket, with extraction aided by agitation of a wand/whisk type stirrer. The extraction phase can be broken up into up to six different and separate periods, with the main goal of increasing sweetness and decreasing bitterness. It seems to achieve this in spades.
Looking straight on at the Ground Control, your eyes are immediately fixed on the two borosilicate lab quality glass globes at the top of the machine. These chambers collect the brew after it's extracted below. Vacuum pumps are used to draw the coffee out of the basket, in the process removing most of the residual liquid in the basket, allowing for the extraction "curve" to begin again anew, (roughly paraphrased from their scientific explanation).
You can see the coffee aerating as it gets sucked up into the globe and watch it cascade down the sides, appearing quite like a stout beer pour.
The control board is a touch pad menu with control options of things like water temp, number of brew phases, volume of water for each phase, dwell time, etc. The machine seems extremely customizable for fine tuning for a specific coffee.
All of the coffees I tried were exceptional, and all had a "signature" taste that I haven't had on any other brewer. While I only had mild reservations about a few portions of the brew taste, I overwhelmingly enjoyed each one. I'll go into a bit more detail momentarily about that.
The basket sees an immersion style brew extraction, then gets drawn off via vacuum between each "mini-brew" phase. They cite a scientific principle used in labs called "solid-liquid phase partition equilibrium", which to laymen like myself means they have controlled the extraction process such that they are extracting more of what they want, and less of what they don't want. Their aim is to get a "fresh" restart of the extraction with each brew phase.
The results in the cup highlight some components of the brew that I haven't had to this degree before. If I were to construct a mental image of the brew where each component of what we perceive in a coffee can be represented by a value or "amplitude" on a graph similar to what we see when hi-fi speakers and headphones are tested for their acoustic traits, we see graphs that look sorta like this.
This sort of mental construct was the best thing I could come up with to relate what I'm describing as the perceptions in the cup versus their intensity in a visual format. Instead of measuring certain frequencies of sound, I see it more like the left side could be something like acidity, followed next by sweetness, followed next by aroma, then mouthfeel and body, and finally finish or aftertaste on the right side (completely arbitrary).
What the flavor "signature" of the Ground Control give to me, is certainly unique and impressive. Immediately I was struck by the incredible, delicate balance of the whole thing. The acidity was plush, engaging and delicate. The sweetness was off the charts good, particularly the way the caramel-like structures had such a presence and weight on the palate, they almost felt like they were three dimensional. This was true for all of the coffees sampled, and none of them were specifically dialed in, it was just a simple blind shoot out with about 7 different coffees, a few I brought a few they provided. The aromatics and flavor distinction/separation seemed slightly attenuated in all the brew samples except for the last, which was approached differently than the previous attempts. It could very well be that the flavor and aroma are fully intact as they'd be in any other brew, just that the sweetness and silky balance and structure of the whole cup perhaps overshadow them? With only 2 hours to experience the device, I would say it's not a for- certain trait, but something that stood out in my brief time with it. The lack of bitterness and "drying" mouthfeel or tannic sensations was extremely pleasing.
There's a very key thing about the Ground Control that will please any cafe owner. The process is hands off and simple for a barista to use and more importantly, the brewer claims to save money on coffee. Almost all of the brews that we sampled were all 1:20 brew ratios and all were spectacular. The manufacturer claims that a busy cafe would see savings that would essentially pay for the machine within one year of use, in saved costs on coffee alone.
I talked to the co-creator Eli Salomon about my perceptions of the aromatics and flavors being slightly attenuated. He quickly dialed in a slightly different brew profile and ran the same coffee again, and the results in the cup changed rather dramatically in both those areas. I think mostly it came down to the two of us having slightly different preferences in cup characteristics. But I wouldn't balk at any of these brews, even with my minor reservations. It seemed like I could roll the chewy, malty sweetness around my mouth, it was so resonant in its sweetness.
I'll save it for others to discuss the science behind their extraction design. They claim the "dried" bed of coffee grounds allows for a new extraction to begin, targeting the sweeter components and avoiding the bitter, tannic compounds. While the coffee bed appeared to have no visible moisture, it certainly wasn't dry, but that could be mincing words I suppose.
Either way, I'd expect to see the Ground Control spread to other cafes in the near future. Some very large roasters/cafes are adopting them and they should be seen and experienced by more coffee fans soon. You owe it to yourself to try it if one lands near you.