S2 Episode 8: The AeroPress

S2 Episode 8 Cover Art

Alan Adler founded his company, Aerobie, around his flying disc by the same name. He essentially perfected the Frisbee, then went on to sell 1.4 million of them in just two years. Not only that, Alan’s flying disc broke the Guinness World Record for the world’s farthest throw.  Alan has three parts to him: he’s an inventor, an entrepreneur, and most importantly for us, a coffee fanatic.

While he started with flying discs, Alan went on to invent something completely different. His invention took the coffee community by storm, and is now the basis for international coffee competitions. Not only that, it’s a staple in third wave coffee shops and cafes around the world. It’s simple, inexpensive, and a little alien looking. It’s unlike anything the coffee community had seen before, or has seen since. It’s called the AeroPress.

Check out AeroPress recipes that have won the World AeroPress Championship here. You can check out the Boise Coffee recipe here.

The Coffee Guy

Episode transcript:

The AeroPress

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Over time, however, humans have proven that they define “necessity” in many different ways.

You know those big popcorn tins that you can buy around the holidays? Those have been around for a while. In fact, in 1937 Fred and Lucile Morrison were enjoying popcorn from exactly that kind of tin. They noticed that the lid, a circular metal lid, could fly a good distance when they tossed it. They had an idea – but first they needed to find a cheaper object to throw to each other.

A year later, Fred and Lucile made their way along the Santa Monica beach in California with a stack of cake tins in tow. People on the beach, as it turned out, were more than willing to pay 25 cents to buy a cake tin and toss it to each other for a little fun. Fred and Lucile’s new business, aptly titled “Flyin’ Cake Tins,” became the first flying disc company.

Their business continued to thrive until WWII, when Fred left to fight as a pilot. Fred flew P-47s and was shot down over Italy. Subsequently he was captured, and taken as a prisoner of war for 90 days. During his time in the Army Air Force, Fred sketched a new, more aerodynamic design for his and his wife’s flying disc idea. By 1957 he had a patent for the design, a successful company, and a new name: Frisbee.

The frisbee is now the most iconic toy flyer in the world – many people have gone on to iterate the design, and even make improvements. One of the most famous individuals to do this was Alan Adler. Alan has three parts to him: he’s an inventor, an entrepreneur, and most importantly for us, a coffee fanatic. While he started with flying discs, Alan went on to invent something completely different. His invention took the coffee community by storm, and is now the basis for international coffee competitions. Not only that, it’s a staple in third wave coffee shops and cafes around the world. It’s simple, inexpensive, and a little alien looking. It’s unlike anything the coffee community had seen before, or has seen since. It’s called The AeroPress.

I’m Colin Mansfield, and this is The Boise Coffee Podcast.

–Boise Coffee Theme–

Alan Adler got his start as an engineer, working on things like submarines, nuclear reactor controls, and aircraft instruments. He’s a curious person at his core; always learning and finding new hobbies to delve deep inside. Case in point: as an amateur astronomer in the early 2000s, Alan invented a new type of paraboloid mirror. Not only that, he wrote a computer program called Sec that assisted the way astronomers select secondary mirrors.

Later, Alan became interested in sailing. But, true to form, he didn’t settle for merely learning the craft – he wanted to excel. Alan designed a boat that competed in the Transpac race – a sailing race that goes from San Francisco to Hawaii. His boat took first place.

But back in the 1970s, Alan wasn’t dreaming about sailing or astronomy – he was dreaming about flight. He set out to design a flying disc – something that was “easy for the average person to throw with very little effort.” By 1978 he had gone through dozens of iterations, and had finally finalized a design that he called the “Skyro.”

Alan Adler created the Skyro around a fundamental principle of aerodynamics: a flying ring requires an equal amount of lift in the back and front. In order to keep the ring from dipping or lifting too far while in flight, he fine-tuned a donut shaped disc with a large hole in the middle, and thin edges. Later, Alan altered the design to create an airfoil for his flying disc. This required a molded spoiler lip around the outside of the rim.

Upon testing his new airfoil design on Stanford’s campus, he remarked that the disc flew “as if sliding on an invisible sheet of ice.” He dubbed the new design the “Aerobie Pro.” This finely crafted product sold 1.4 million units worldwide just two years into production. Its success has stood the test of time: it is still on-sale today and popular on college campuses and in parks nearly everywhere.

Alan’s company, now called “Aerobie,” has gone on to design flying discs and toys of all shapes and sizes: there are flying triangles, yo-yos, frisbee golf discs, and two sizes of the original flyer among others.

The Aerobie was, and still is, a massive success. But after 2008, it was Alan’s second best-selling product.

Alan Adler had long considered himself a “one cup kinda guy” when it came to coffee. His home coffee maker yielded 6-8 cups per brew, and this frustrated him to no end. The rest of us might have let it go, or simply brewed less coffee. But Alan? He’s not like the rest of us. He set out to invent a better way to brew a single cup of coffee in the best way he knew how: engineering.

By 2005 specialty coffee was already becoming a trend in modern culture. Alan noticed that while most people were fine with automatic drip coffee pots, the hardcore coffee fans preferred manual pour-over methods. Alan started his coffee engineering journey by testing these various methods, and he noticed something key: manual-drip coffee takes time. By his estimate, the Melitta cone, one of the popular pour-over coffee cones, takes about 4-5 minutes of steep time – or “wet time” as he called it. In his opinion, the longer the wet time, the more bitter the cup of coffee.

Alan considered this a problem: bitter coffee, as far as he was concerned, is bad coffee. To him, the solution was simple: shrink the wet time, shrink the bitterness. His first step in achieving this solution, however, is probably not what most people would jump to. It struck him that air pressure was the key to shortening brew time, and achieving a naturally sweet cup of coffee.  And after only a few weeks in his garage, he had a working prototype.

The design was straightforward: a plastic tube, a plunger device, and a paper filter. Put the coffee in the filter, attach the filter to the tube, pour in hot water, and insert the plunger on the opposite end. Then, press.

After brewing his first cup of coffee, Alan knew he had made something special. He immediately called his business manager,  man named Alex Tennant. Tennant came over, tasted the coffee, and took a step back. “Alan,” he said, “I can sell a ton of these.” They called the new coffee brewer The AeroPress, but as it turned out, the road ahead wasn’t nearly as easy for Aerobie as Alan and Alex seemed to think it would be. More on that after the break.

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The AeroPress debuted at Seattle’s Coffee Fest in 2005 where it was well received by coffee aficionados. The price didn’t hurt it’s reputation – at only $29.99 it was an impulse buy for many people who just wanted to try it out.

To this day, the AeroPress has only three main components: the filter basket, the tube, and the plunger. In their recommended brew recipe, Aerobie says you should use about 2-4 scoops of coffee grounds, and water heated to 165-175 degrees. Since then, people have created their own methods of making coffee with the aeropress with all different varieties of brew ratios.

One great feature was unintentional – the AeroPress is self-cleaning due to the tight seal that the rubber plunger creates. No coffee residue is left in the tube after the brewer completes their press. Instead, a single puck of coffee grounds remains after pressing. It’s easily disposed of by removing the filter basket and holding the AeroPress over a garbage can. From there, you give the plunger a final press to release the coffee puck.

Despite its low price point and great features, the AeroPress was not an overnight success. Tennant still recalls pleading with one sales rep group not to drop the product due to low sales. Adler himself said,

“Aerobie spent over 20 years establishing distribution for sporting goods, and all of a sudden we were confronted with creating distribution for kitchenware. We didn’t leap into this lightly.”

The AeroPress had a hard few years ahead of it. At one point in 2007, the company was receiving even lower sales than they had gotten the previous year. It appeared as though their revolutionary product might fizzle and die. The fact that this weird-looking coffee maker was being made by a toy company wasn’t helping. Bent on succeeding, Adler decided to try a grass-roots approach to selling the device.

Aerobie began leaning into its products biggest asset: it brews amazing coffee. In that vein, they attended coffee trade shows to get more exposure to the specialty coffee community, and sent free products to coffee experts and food writers to try. Finally, in 2008, sales began to climb.

Adler believed that his product’s eventual success was due to one main thing: the way people viewed coffee changed. More and more individuals were becoming less interested in standard $30-$50 coffee pots – they wanted something that would brew good coffee quickly and well.

2008 was also the year that the World AeroPress Championship was conceived. Three Norwegian friends brewed coffee in their AeroPress’ competitively to see who’s coffee was best. In 2009, the competition had 22 competitors. Last year, in 2015, the competition was held in Seattle and boasted 35 competitors and an audience of 500 spectators. This annual event alone has boosted international sales of the AeroPress to 38% of Aerobie’s overall revenue.

Today the AeroPress is sold in 56 countries worldwide. It’s especially popular in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland where the average individual is incredibly serious about their coffee. The AeroPress is also Aerobie’s best selling and fastest growing product. Since 2005 Aerobie has sold over one million units, and it’s not slowing down.

It’s easy to get the AeroPress confused with the French Press due to the naming similarities. The two brewing devices, however, could not be more different. While the French Press usually uses a metal mesh filter to strain coffee, the AeroPress relies on air pressure and a paper filter. You can expect to get a full-bodied, oily, rich cup of coffee from a French Press, while AeroPress coffee is bright and clean, with individual flavors easily distinguishable. AeroPress coffee is akin to drip coffee in many ways, although the shorter steep time usually makes for a sweeter cup. Because of the many possible brew methods that the AeroPress is capable of hosting, however, it’s hard to nail down what an average “AeroPress coffee” tastes like. Some people even claim that with enough coffee, the AeroPress can even create something very similar to espresso.

Many consider the AeroPress to be a hackable product – its design and craftsmanship make it easy to think up new and interesting ways to brew coffee. One popular method, the inverted method, allows coffee to steep longer in the AeroPress before pressing.

To accomplish this, the plunger is inserted in the tube just enough to create a seal. The AeroPress is then placed on-end so that the portion of the plunger that you would normally hold is flat against your table or countertop. From there, coffee and hot water is put in the tube, where the brewer can let it steep for any length of time before attaching the filer and flipping the device on top of their mug to press. While Adler himself is not a big fan of the method (after all, he created the AeroPress to get away from long steep times), it is nonetheless very popular.

Other alternative AeroPress brew methods include using multiple paper filters, after-market metal filters, and various coffee-to-water ratios. After the World AeroPress Competition every year, the winners publish their recipes online. This makes it incredibly easy to try a variety of methods, even for the casual coffee lover.

The AeroPress is one of my favorite coffee products. I believe that it contains the heart of the specialty coffee community, mostly because it contains the heart of Alan Adler. Alan’s creativity and explorative personality ooze out of this product in surprising ways – everywhere from its endless brewing possibilities to its eye-catching design. I recommend the AeroPress to everyone – whether you’re a lifelong coffee expert or simply someone looking to get a better cup. The AeroPress is still available for $29.99, and you can buy it from Aerobie’s website, Amazon, or your local specialty coffee shop.

Thanks for listening to The Boise Coffee Podcast. I’m your host, Colin Mansfield, and I really appreciate your support. You can check out more episodes on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or my website – BoiseCoffee.org. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can reach me on Twitter – my handle is @BoiseCoffee. Earlier this week I launched the Boise Coffee store. Shirts, mugs, hoodies, and more are on sale there with sleek coffee designs and sayings. Check it out at BoiseCoffe.org/store.

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Thanks for listening, and have an awesome rest of your week.