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Coffee Chat with James from PuckPuck

Published on under the Coffee Interview category.

A PuckPuck on an Aeropress in front of a pink background

Over the last few weeks, I have been brewing some cold coffee at home. In my research, I have come across three different types of cold coffee: iced, iced drip, and cold brew. I had a few questions about cold coffee so I decided to reach out to PuckPuck, who make a slow iced drip coffee adapter for the Aeropress. James, who currently runs PuckPuck, got back to me and we had a chat about cold brew coffee, iced drip coffee, the PuckPuck, and more. Our chat is below. I hope you enjoy our discussion.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your role at PuckPuck?

Sure I am a graphic designer that fell in love with coffee a few years ago and PuckPuck came about as a project to explore combining my day job and my obsession. I guess it’s become a bit of a place to have a bit of fun and experiment with ideas away from dealing with clients on a daily basis. As the company is very much a side hustle at the moment I pretty much manage everything, that can range from developing new products, liaising with manufacturers and dealing with our customers.

[I accidentally hit record just before you finished answering this question. Would you mind filling in a response here?]

You incubated PuckPuck as part of your design agency, right?

Very much so. I used to be a co-owner of an industrial design agency and we were quite inspired by Google’s initiative a few years back to dedicate some time per week into developing your own ideas. They encouraged their workers to follow their own passions that does not have to become something that is monetised. It could be anything. I was heavily into coffee at the time and me and my business partner at the design firm decided to follow that as a pursuit to see where that might take us.

Originally, we started out creating an open-source platform for the Aeropress. The idea was that you could upload designs that could be 3D printed to modify your Aeropress. That was the starting point and we were really going to go down that route. But we quickly understood that 3D-printed materials are not food grade so we stopped there. We had some nice ideas around that and PuckPuck was one of them. We were like “can we convert this system into a cold brew system?” because it seemed quite logical.

At the time, getting into cold brew was really inaccessible, it was very expensive. Hario sold Kyoto drip towers for anything between 400 and 1,000 pounds – no-one is really going to try that at home. We liked the design restraint of how can we make this product as cheap as possible. If we can make a way of brewing coffee easy and cheap then more people are going to try it and more people are going to ultimately start to enjoy coffee and maybe get into speciality.

I know that cold brew towers have some Japanese roots. Was your thinking around PuckPuck and cold brew influenced by Japan, and if so, to what extent?

The cold brew system itself is sometimes called the Kyoto-style tower and so there are links to Japanese brewing, however, I think you can also trace an earlier origin story back to Dutch traders from the 1600s that would brew a version of cold coffee using a drip system to take on long sea journeys with them.

The Japanese have clearly embraced cold coffee more than we have in the past. There is something about slow brewing that seems to tie in quite nicely with the Japanese culture and the idea of taking time over things and engaging in the process of brewing.

Overall there are definite links to Japan. I am a massive fan of Japanese culture and have travelled around there quite extensively.

Cold coffee is somewhat ambiguous in that there are a lot of different types of coffee. How do you distinguish cold brew, iced drip coffee, and iced coffee, for a beginner?

I guess the main differentiating factor is time; time in contact with the coffee grounds. You have the immersion style which is what you would be served up in Starbucks where they will put coffee into a big Toddy can and stick it in their fridge and sit like a giant coffee tea bag for 12 hours. The resulting brew is a strong concentrate which can then be watered down and served to lots of customers.

The drip that we use for the PuckPuck is a bit different. You do not get a concentrate and the time in contact with the coffee is around two to three hours.

A faster version of this is where you take a Kalita or a V60 and brew over ice so it rapidly cools down and in order to retain as much of the flavour profile that you would get from a hot brewed coffee.

All approaches offer something different in terms of flavour and mouthfeel. I find that with an immersion-style brew, you tend to lose some of the origin profile from the coffee. The flavour can end up more generalised which is less appealing to coffee professionals but is still an extremely popular choice, it’s very consistent and goes well with milk.

The PuckPuck retains some of those much sought flavour profiles from origin but it is a slower brew. The result is sweeter and it is not so hard to mess up I find. You can keep brewing again and again and it is not uncompromising like a V60 which relies heavily on the skill of the person brewing.

Do you think there are any types of coffee or flavour notes that you think work best in drip coffee through the PuckPuck and in immersion cold brew? Could you use any bean or do you have a preferred bean type?

When we first launched the PuckPuck, we worked with a roaster called Pharmacie in Brighton. We did a cupping and we wanted to release some beans to go alongside the PuckPuck that complement the brew. We went through a whole cupping process, trying different beans to see which ones worked for the PuckPuck brew method. I like the idea where you match beans to brew methods. I do not think it is something that has been explored too much. Obviously, with espresso there is a whole market with espresso blends but there is not really a focus for choosing beans that go well with some of the more popular alternative brewing methods.

There are lots of things we did not think would happen that did happen. We find people tend to recommend Columbian and coffees that are perhaps a bit rounder and have a lower acidity for cold brew because the acidity kind of gets knocked out. What we found was the opposite and that using beans with higher acidity resulted in a more diverse cup, when brewed with the PuckPuck. That was really fun and I would like to explore that more, hopefully after COVID has eased we can explore this again.

It would be interesting to find out more about pairing beans with different brew methods to accentuate different qualities, especially with regard to cold brew.

We have customers out there who are brewing with geishas and really expensive coffees and they are really happy with the outcome. It would be a really interesting experiment to have a single coffee brewed across lots of different brew methods to understand how the flavour characteristics change for each process.

There is a lot of talk about using higher brewing ratios to make a concentrate. What do you think is the ideal brewing ratio for a PuckPuck drip iced coffee?

We did try to make concentrates but because of the slow drip process you dont get something I would classify a concentrate. This is a limitation of the system as there is only so much coffee you can put in the Aeropress chamber plus the water does not spend enough time with the coffee to extract enough to make a concentrate that is comparable to an immersion style process. We did a few experiments in the early stages of R&D but the concentrate one was something we were excited by but could not get it working.

When we did the testing with Pharmacie, we reduced our brewing time even more and it still produced a really interesting brew. The less brewing time, the less contact time the coffee has with air which changes the flavour profile.

You have a mobile app for helping people find the right drip rate. Why is drip rate important? Have you done any experiments on drip rates?

Drip rates are a good indication of how long it is going to take to brew the coffee. You are aiming for consistency. If you can get hit a two-hour brew today and tomorrow you you know your coffee is going to be the same. Because you are dealing with such small amounts of water, trying to get accurate drip rates is one way of maintaining some consistency across the board. So drip rates are super important to create consistency.

In terms of flavour, it is up to you what you like in terms. You might like a three-hour brew, you might like a two-hour brew, or maybe you have come up with a recipe for one-hour that suits the beans that you’ve got. It is our job as designers to be able to give you the tools in order for you to recreate that experience. That is why the app was quite important. We used it as a tool for testing and we thought we can give this to people as well as a way of quickly measuring how they are brewing.

The app is just re-purposing a DJ’s beat counter; it is super simple.

I guess the app leads to a more intuitive brewing experience so customers can control drip rate as a variable rather than having drip rate as an X factor that might change.

Giving people tools is a really good way of describing what we do. I am not one for prescribing how people should drink their coffee. I think it is about being approachable as a company and everything we do is about making the experience fun.

I found it really hard to get into coffee. I think one of the reasons was that coffee is a little bit alienating and somewhat like the wine industry. You would have to learn the language about regions, altitudes, how to read the back of a coffee pack. All of that pushes you away from trying to create some understanding and connection with how you are brewing. Everything we do is about trying to break down those barriers a bit and be open and accessible. So hopefully people can get into coffee and have a bit of fun with it, which is ultimately what I do.

I agree. Making coffee a bit more fun and accessible is incredibly important. That’s one of the reasons I write this blog.

It is important to bring forward what actually is important. The way coffee is processed is important, the altitude is important. But at what stage of your coffee journey do they become important? Dark Arts Coffee have taken a different approach to labelling their coffees and its refreshing to see. Colonna also do a good job of categorising their coffees into different rarities which is a completely different take on the user experience of selecting and purchasing a coffee.

That field is up for grabs: how we label coffee and how we talk about it.

Can you tell me a bit more about the product development process behind PuckPuck?

We got started with 3D printing and lots of prototypes. The PuckPuck seems very simple but it is quite difficult trying to control water passing through an area the size of a pin head and being able to accurately adjust drip rates. If you think about comparable industries, the only one that we have found that did something similar was the medical industry where you have an IV drip going into your arm and you can adjust the saline flow. This is a metal part though and quite cost prohibitive.

It took a lot of testing to get the drip flow right. We did our testing through 3D printing and manufacturing some samples up in Scotland where we got some metal parts made of different hole sizes and we could place them on top of each other and see how fast things would pass through. Of course, drip rates change based around pressure. So the more pressure up the top the faster the drip rate underneath.

There are lots of variables, lots of testing, and lots of spreadsheets and graphs. Then you go into manufacturing and everything goes out the window because you have to start again essentially. Once you’ve got these big machines that then create these parts, there is a whole array of issues that arise from that. The part you have had made by the manufacturer is completely different to your prototype. You can only go so far with prototypes then you have to go through another round of iterations and refinements.

The actual design part of it involved constant reiteration along the way. We made the PuckPuck available so you could screw in your own plastic bottle so we weren’t limiting our audience down to people who bought a big unit. There are little design tweaks along the way. You have opportunities to do this as designers and even though it is more work and more time it adds to the customer experience at the end.

What was the timeline from having the initial 3D prints to having a finished product?

The process took about a year. I think we could have made that a lot faster but we were still managing clients and our own day-to-day work and this was a side project. We would work on this as and when we had time. It was about a year from design to the point we were ready for manufacturing.

There is a lot of talk about storing cold brew and concentrate so you can use it in the future. Have you done any research into the longevity of cold brew?

I would recommend storage and we recommend up to about two weeks but it’s totally up to our consumers as to how they want to deal with that. A lot of people we find make coffee the night before so that their coffee is ready to go the day after. Some people brew in the fridge which is quite interesting. They take some shelves out the fridge and brew it overnight. We have only done some taste testing to see if cold brew holds up after a period of time. Coffee is like any perishable. Cold brew sits okay in the fridge for a while but obviously everything goes off at some point.

You can learn more about PuckPuck on their website at puckpuck.me or on their Instagram page @puckpuckme.

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