Jony Ive and his elite design team at Apple are coffee snobs. And rightfully so.
Coffee is the fuel that drives their brainstorming sessions, which are arguably the most important meetings in the design department. These sessions are where Apple has birthed some of the greatest products of all-time: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.
In this guest post by Leander Kahney (author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products), you’ll learn the secret coffee ritual performed by Jony Ive’s design team.
Remember: Apple’s standards are notoriously high. As is the case with their products, Apple’s coffee is not for those with meager budgets…or without Monk-ish tendencies.
HOWEVER, for almost every uber-expensive ideal, I’ve indicated the Poor Man’s alternative that I personally use. It’s not hard to cheaply get it about 90% right.
Enjoy the obsessive detail…
Jony Ive and his team work in a super-secure design studio on Apple’s campus in Cupertino, California. Locked behind a heavy door and lined with frosted glass windows, few are allowed to enter the inner sanctum, including some of Apple’s own executives.
The studio is Apple’s innovation factory — Edison’s lab at the heart of the company. You can tell it’s the brains of the operation from the hundreds of patents they file. Some of the designers are among the top patent holders in the world. The studio is where Steve Jobs hung out most afternoons before he died, working on new products with Jony Ive.
A team of about 20 designers work in the studio. Twice a week, the entire team gathers together for brainstorming sessions. The brainstorms take place around a large table in the studio’s kitchen.
The brainstorms are the key to how the designers work. “We can work with a level of collaboration that seems particularly rare,” Ive has said. “In fact, the memory of how we work will endure beyond the products of our work.”
The brainstorms are usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, running for three hours — from 9:00 AM to roughly 12:00 PM.
Such marathon thinking periods would be impossible without coffee.
Before each brainstorming session, the team performs their sacred coffee ritual — a critical part of their workflow since the early 1990’s. Like everything Apple’s designers do, their coffee ritual is very precise. They have honed their technique to a science, adjusting the beans, the grind, the grain, and the pour to perfection. The resulting beverage boosts the team’s creativity to the max.
How to Make Coffee like Jony Ive
Step 1: Get a High-End Espresso Machine
Apple’s design studio is equipped with a high-end commercial-style espresso machine. For a long time, the machine was an Italian Grimac. But the $3,000+ machine leaked all the time and had to be constantly serviced by a technician. Yet it made heavenly coffee. Thanks to the studio’s ultra secrecy, it’s unclear if the same machine is in service or has been replaced.
Italian Grimac – Apple’s old machine
Good espresso machines come in all shapes and sizes, but smaller machines good for home use cost between $800 and $1,300.
Machines from European companies like Rancillo, La Pavoni, Pasquina, Bezzera (the company that invented espresso in 1905) and Gaggia are recommended. The 1,300 Bezzera BZ07 ($1,200) is highly rated, but the Kees van der Westen Speedster ($7,200) has been called the best home espresso machine ever.
Kees van der Westen Speedster: The best espresso maker ever?
If $1,000 is too steep, you can get an espresso-like experience using the AeroPress ($25), a cylindrical device that’s part-bicycle pump, part-French Press. As Tim details in The 4-Hour Chef, it’s the machine of choice for top professional baristas.
[NOTE FROM TIM: Here’s my 4-minute tutorial on how to make the perfect cup of coffee with an AeroPress:]
Step 2: Get a Good Grinder
The coffee grounds have to be perfectly uniform — each has to be exactly the same size – to allow the water to envelope the grain and extract the coffee. If the grounds are too big, the water will pass through too fast and you won’t get full extraction. If the ground is too small, powdery grains clog up the filter and the water won’t get through. It can also force coffee grains into the cup. Yuck!
The size of the grain is the most important factor in making perfect espresso. Therefore, a good grinder is of utmost importance.
A burr grinder uses two interlocking burrs to precisely crush beans into granules of exactly the same size. It’s like two stones milling flour, but on a micro level. The best grinders allow the gap between the burrs to be adjusted between 5 to 10 microns, which is about the size of a red blood cell.
A good stepless burr grinder is going to cost between $600 and $1,000. The Mazzer Mini Espresso Grinder ($640) is built like a tank and loved by espresso enthusiasts. However, you can get a hand-cranked burr grinder that works very well for $30 to $90. Tim uses Hario Mini Mill ($30), an easy-to-use conical grinder that’s adjustable (very important).
Every time you have a different type of coffee or different roast, the grind has to be adjusted. Sometimes the grinder has to be calibrated batch-to-batch of the same bean and roast.
Under no circumstances should you use a common household blade grinder, which chops the coffee beans with a whirling blade like a blender. What comes out is a powdery mess with all sizes of grain, both big and small. This is a coffee crime. The length of the pour can’t be controlled and it’s the easiest way to get a mouthful of coffee grains.
Step 3: Use Fresh Beans
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, one of the first things he did was jazz up Apple’s internal cafeteria, known as Caffè Macs. The chefs installed a coffee roaster that regularly delivers 5 lb. bags of coffee to the studio. The roaster is underneath Building 4 on Apple’s campus, and complaints of the overwhelming coffee smell forced the kitchen staff to roast beans on the weekend. A fresh batch is now roasted every Saturday.
Fresh beans are an essential ingredient for great coffee. Ideally, roasted beans shouldn’t be more than five days old. After five days, the beans start to deteriorate fast.
A good source of fresh beans is Tonx’s coffee subscription service, with plans starting at $12 monthly.
Step 4: Grind the Beans and Load The Puck
The amount of coffee you put into the puck should be carefully measured using an accurate pocket scale, such as the American Weigh SC-2KG ($20).
Maintaining the right density is critical. If the coffee is too dense, the water won’t pass through. If it’s not dense enough, the water will pass through too quickly. Coffee purists argue about the right amount of pressure, but 30-ft/lbs has emerged as a popular standard.
The density of the coffee can be kept constant with the use of Espro’s calibrated tamper ($90), a steel pestle for packing coffee grounds into the espresso puck).
Step 5: The Pour
Here’s the tricky part. After grinding and weighing the grounds, packing it into the puck with 30-ft/lbs of pressure, you’ll need to calibrate the pour time.
The pour time must be constant, and it can’t be messed with. The optimum pour time is 28 seconds. It must not, under any circumstances, exceed 30 seconds.
Hit the start button, then time exactly how long the machine takes to make your first cup of coffee.
If the coffee is made in say, 18 seconds, the water is coming out too fast because the grains are too large.
If it takes longer than 30 seconds, the grains are too small. Go back and adjust the burr on the grinder.
Keep trying until you’ve made a cup that pours in 28 to 30 seconds — not a second shorter, and not a second longer. You can usually hone in on the right grain size in about three pours.
Step 6: Add Milk
Apple’s team was first introduced to high-end coffee by Daniele De Iuliis, a British designer of Italian descent. He taught the other designers about the importance of the grind, the crema, and how to properly froth the milk.
Espresso machines use pressured steam to foam a jug of milk. High-powered machines produce ample steam; the secret is good technique.
Most people don’t foam their milk correctly. Newbies foam it with air bubbles that are too big. Correctly foamed milk is actually “micro-foam” and is great for making patterns. If your barista makes a leaf on your latte, rest assured the milk was foamed correctly. If you see a barista banging the milk container on the counter, you know they screwed up and made the bubbles too big (banging the jug on the counter brings the bubbles up).
The most important factor is a chilled container ($10), preferably made of stainless steel. The pros keep their milk containers in the freezer. Milk foams before it boils, and a chilled container prolongs the foaming process by keeping the milk at the optimum temperature for longer.
Hold the steamer just below the surface of the milk. When the milk gets hot and the foaming stops, its time to take the steamer all the way to the bottom of the container. Keep steaming until the milk reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a small thermometer ($10) hooked over the lip of the jug to measure the temperature. [In a pinch, the milk is ready when the jug gets too hot to hold.]
Some recommend using full-fat milk, but the fat content of the milk doesn’t matter. In fact, low-fat milk foams just as well as creamier milk.
This video from Paul Meikle-Janney, Head Judge for the World Latte Art Championship, has some great tips and technique for getting foam right:
Step 7: Enjoy!
Making coffee like Apple’s design team is a complicated but fascinating experience.
Once you’ve mastered the process, an intoxicating aroma will envelop your entire kitchen (or office). Your morning beverage will become unbelievably rich and smooth, without a trace of bitterness. That is the right way to start off a productive day.
For Starbuck’s sake, they should hope Jony stays in the computer business.
BONUS: Do you have a great coffee tip? Tell us in the comments! Leander will be sending an AeroPress, the Hario Mini hand grinder, and a signed copy of his book – Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products – to the person who leaves the best comment.
Also, would you like to see more rituals of top performers? Let me know in the comments — anyone’s schedule in particular you’d like to see on this blog?
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.