La Colombe’s West Loop café is now the only place in Chicago where coffee drinkers can experience a cup from the Steampunk machine – a $15,000 full emersion, four chamber machine that allows baristas to simulate drip, French press, vacuum pot and pour-over brewing methods. During his short visit to Chicago, Todd Carmichael gave me a chance to learn more about the machine, and about his world; the world of coffee.
TC: The concept is very simple; it’s based on that siphon model, but the added component is that you have way more control over temperature, time, volume, and all of that. But you also have control over how dirty you want to make the coffee – you can make it dirty like the French press, or clean it up to the point where it’s that hyper-siphon, v60… you know… but I think that if you take a lot of the solubles away from the coffee, you lose that meatiness. At the same time, I can switch it out and clean it up and give it that high-fidelity press.
GB: So you’re only feeding it single-origin?
TC: We serve two things; we serve coffee and we serve people, and when you have that kind of lore (referring to traffic at the Manhattan shops) and you try to put a single source in every coffee, half of the people go home without coffee. The Steampunk allows us to show off the single origin.
GB: Where do you see Chicago as a coffee town?
TC: I’m from the State of Washington, went to Seattle, and Portland for us was like, where? It’s different now. Portland became a coffee town because they have like 50 roasters – so many different roasters. Chicago can’t get away with 15 roasters and say that they’re a coffee town. You need 50.
GB: What’s next for coffee?
TC: I think GMOs are going to play a bigger part in coffee, in general. Coffee plants are like pandas, they want to go extinct, and with climate change there are some plants that are at risk. The only way to respond to that is to make plants heartier, and the only way to do that is in the lab. It’s like corn, using machines to bring volume up and that keeps the prices low, but then that makes it difficult for the people doing it by hand. The price is going to go up…
GB: I’m willing to pay.
TC: It’s only a buck and it changes the world. I believe that coffee is the ultimate democratic luxury… I’m a farm kid, and I have a certain notion of what fairness is and what’s fair trade. You pay a fair price to a farmer and you charge a fair price to the customer. That’s fair trade.
GB: Tell me about the La Colombe bird.
TC: There’s a café in the South of France, La Colombe d’Or, it was owned by this couple during a time when a lot of artists like Renoir, Picasso, Monet didn’t have money but they would put a piece of art together and give it to the owners, who would feed them. So, you got this café with all masters sitting around and the guy at the bar, he’s giving them wine and some bread, he has no idea who these guys are, they’re just starving artists. Now, you go in there and their art is all over the place and it’s my favorite restaurant in the world. The first time there, I asked them, “why la colombe?” and he said, “for us, it means peace” – so the bird is an international symbol for peace.
Single-origin Steampunk coffee, $3 a cup, La Colombe, 955 W Randolph St. and coming soon to Bucktown/Wicker Park.