August 11, 2016

Interview: How Did Alan Adler Invent The AeroPress?


My first cup of coffee is an important part of my morning ritual. And while I’ll use any brewing device for it, most of the time I pick my AeroPress. It’s easy, it’s simple, it pretty much cleans itself – and yet it’s also incredibly versatile. In fact, this little tool is a barista’s playground.

What’s more, it’s unique. There’s no other coffee device out there quite like it. Given all this, it’s no surprise that it went from an underdog at coffee expos to the only brewing device to have its very own World Championship.

And when I sat down to chat with Alan Adler, the mastermind behind the AeroPress, I couldn’t wait to ask him about how he invented it.

Lee este artículo en español Entrevista: ¿Cómo Alan Adler Invento El AeroPress?

Alan Adler using AeroPress

Alan Adler, the inventor himself. Credit: Aerobie, Inc.

Inverted Thinking

From the creation of his first patent, Alan Adler has found success through thinking outside the norm. He began by creating a thinner, hollow flying ring, and with the AeroPress, he ended up working out how to brew at a lower temperature and for a shorter time.

I ask him if he’s unconventional; he tells me he’s willing to try things that haven’t been tried before. When it came to the AeroPress, he designed it simply because no-one had designed what he wanted to use. On a home espresso machine, he tells me, “There’s no way to adjust the temperature and it was that problem that led me to start designing my own coffee maker. Because I wanted the freedom to use whatever temperature tasted best, and I didn’t have that freedom with a home espresso machine or with an automatic drip machine.”

He sees it less as a stroke of genius, more a way of approaching problems. Inventing new things is simple: you just do what works best. His stance on lower temperatures is another example: “We found that when you pour 175℉ water into the AeroPress, then most people say, ‘That’s the one that I think tasted best’.”

SEE ALSO: From Sports Toys to World AeroPress Championships: An Interview With Aerobie, Inc.

The AeroPress, set up in traditional and inverted stance

Experiment with brew recipes with your AeroPress. Credit: Zac Tuckett

Creative AeroPress Applications

He has the same attitude to how other people use his invention. I ask him about the strangest thing he’s seen done with it; he tells me, “I’ve read about a lad who used it to strain varnish.” I wonder if the guy’s ever confused his coffee-brewing AeroPress with his varnish-straining one, and seriously hope otherwise.

But before I have the time to ask more, Alan’s moved on to other original uses. “I think that some chefs have used it just as a way of filtering certain things. Other people use it for tea, to brew loose leaf tea. The best way to do it is to use the upside-down method, because tea needs to steep for a few minutes.”

In other words: go ahead, start using the AeroPress in your cooking.

Man doing push ups on AeroPresses

How creative can you get with your AeroPress? Credit: Zac Tuckett

The Exactitude of an Engineer

Despite his openness to unconventional thinking, Alan’s not about to throw out the rulebook. He used to be an engineer, which may be where his distinctive blend of creativity and precision originate from. “An engineer is often essentially an inventor for hire. He’s doing the task of designing or inventing a solution to a technical problem,” he tells me.

So when I suggest some alternative materials for the AeroPress, he’s quick to explain why they wouldn’t work. “Copper is toxic. It’s banned for cookware in Canada,” he says. As for recycled plastic: “No, we need some very exact properties for this item. There are many wonderful applications for recycled plastics, where almost any plastic would do the job very well. However, for the AeroPress we need certain qualities and we need FDA approval. When you make a product that’s used for preparing food, you have to use FDA-approved materials.”

Bad news for the environment, but great news for those of us who like our excellent AeroPress coffees – Alan would never skimp on quality.

Coffee in an AeroPress

The materials play a part in the aerostatics of the AeroPress. Credit: @saramalnafea

A Respect for Scientific Truth

No “rule” ever goes unexamined, however. Aerobie, Inc. recommend using water at 165-175℉ for the AeroPress, but Alan’s aware that often people aren’t brewing at the temperature they think they are. “People have this concern that, if they lose a few degrees of temperature, they’ve lost something important. But if, for example, you really want your brewing to occur at 175℉, you should pour about 185℉ degree water… As soon as you pour your water in, then the temperature drops as it mixes with the coffee and contacts the cooling chamber.”

This respect for the scientific truth is close to Alan’s heart. I asked him about what he values in his work, thinking he would talk to me about efficiency or transparency. Instead, he pauses to think before saying, “There’s one thing I have found in research, and that is the importance of being very observant and honest with the results of experiments.”

“I think a lot of experiments and research are distorted by the wishes of the experimenter, and the first person that they’re fooling is themselves. They want something to work, and the try it and it does not work properly but then they go ahead with it anyway, because that’s what they want.

This goes completely against his personal philosophy. “The purpose of an experiment is to teach you,” he tells me. “When I experiment, I’m just the messenger.”

Someone stirs water in an AeroPress

That water’s not as hot as when you poured it. Credit: World AeroPress Championship

The Brewing Device of Champions

When I ask about the World Aeropress Championship, Alan is excited. “Well, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “I never anticipated it. It’s funny, too, because prior to the AeroPress I was in the business of designing sporting devices, and sporting devices are frequently used for competitions. But it never occur to me that anybody would compete with food preparation.”

Alan gives all credit to Tim Windelboe and Tim Varney, emphasising that Aerobie Inc. are spectators, not organisers, of the championships. “Tim Windelboe… dreamed up the idea, along with Tim Varney, of holding a competition. The first time they held what they called the World Championship, there were three competitors. And now, of course, it’s a really big deal. The one that they just held recently in Dublin, Ireland had over fifty competitors.”

“We give some support and encouragement; we produce trophies to give to the winners. But it’s not something that Aerobie thought of or Aerobie controls. It’s really the people’s event.”

The World AeroPress Championship trophiesThe trophies were provided by Aerobie, Inc. Credit: World AeroPress Championship

The CaféPress: The Next Step on the Journey?

Eleven years have passed since the AeroPress first came into the coffee scene. It’s become immensely popular, as the Championship shows, but Alan looks forward to even more growth in the future.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing the gradual acceptance of the AeroPress, and we have a long way still to go. Probably the percentage of people who make their daily coffee with an AeroPress is in the single digits, and I think as the years go on that percentage will increase, primarily because it tastes good but also because it’s convenient and efficient. It doesn’t waste coffee, yet it encourages people to drink freshly brewed coffee as opposed to something that they brewed two or three hours ago and is still sitting there.”

“One other place that I’m enjoying the growth is in cafés. The multi-station espresso machine is sort of the standard of a café, it’s like it says ‘this is a real café’. But the espresso machine is a very expensive machine, it requires a certain amount of skill to use, and it also requires a lot of maintenance.”

“The vast majority of espresso is consumed in milk-based drinks, and the taste of a latte made with an espresso machine vs an AeroPress is pretty similar, so cafés are making more and more use of the AeroPress to serve their customers. It’s primarily to serve milk-based drinks but also perhaps Americanos, or even straight pressings, which are the same strength as a straight espresso but less bitter.”

As for Alan, will he ever stop inventing? “There’s a joke that inventing is a disease for which there is no known cure for. And there’s some truth in that; when you see something and you start thinking about ways to do something differently, you don’t stop,” he tells me.

Alan Adler with all the AeroPress prototypes

A lifetime of experimenting: all the AeroPress prototypes. Credit: Aerobie, Inc.

It’s been a long journey for the AeroPress, starting as a wish in an engineer’s mind that he could brew coffee at a lower temperature – and ending with an iconic brewing device that has its own World Championship. It’s all because of Alan Adler’s inventiveness. He was willing to think, not of methods, but solutions; he listened to scientific results rather than his hopes; and he did what worked best.

As I think about the future of the AeroPress, I wonder if that answer lies with baristas – if they can adopt some of Alan’s spirit to try things that have never been done before, and in doing so create something amazing.

With thanks to Alan Adler of Aerobie, Inc.

Aerobie, Inc. is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. They have submitted this article according to our editorial policies and have had no further sway over the final copy than any of our other writers.