Before we dive into our new Gen 2 Brew Burrs, let’s quickly go back to 2018 when we kicked-off design for our Ode Brew Grinder. When we set out to design Ode, we did not, in parallel, set out to design original burrs. We focused on what we do best — hardware design — and then once Ode was completed we tested a bunch of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) burrs to find the one that performed best in our grinder. This is how most grinder brands operate. They build great grinders and leave the burr development to a partner that specializes in burrs. We knew, and I believe it was the right call at the time, we could not design both a grinder and burrs with the small team he had in 2018.
Now, fast forward to 2020. Thousands of Ode Brew Grinders were in the wild and we were getting invaluable feedback from customers around the world. At Fellow, we operate as if everything is a prototype that can be improved upon, even a product in production. Even a product like Ode that was getting great reviews with a 4.6 star rating. Listening to feedback from our customers, one of the biggest areas of improvement was the ability to grind finer. Ode is not made for espresso, but customers still wanted to push finer (in the 200-300 micron range) for certain brewing methods.
We also knew we wanted more out of Ode and the burrs, but we were uncertain how to proceed. Should we test more OEM options (we already tested a lot!) or should we take on the monumental task of original burr design?
Enter Nick Terzulli, our dual threat VP of R&D and Certified Q-Grader. After testing (and re-testing) every OEM burr design that we could get through our supply chain, Nick wanted to try for an original burr design, and he wanted to try badly. His take was that the OEM designs we could get were either espresso focused, resulting in dryness and astringency in the cup, or produced the same grind range that was equivalent to our current design, which wouldn’t really help our customers. I’ll admit I was hesitant, as we had heard from others in the industry that burr design was much harder than it looks on the surface, sometimes taking 3-5 years of R&D to come up with a breakthrough. However, over the years at Fellow, I’ve found a good rule of thumb is to default to someone's passion — find it and let it loose. Nick so badly wanted to try, and I just needed to say go.
So, GO it was. We laid out a few simple requirements:
- Ability to grind in the 200-300 micron range
- Backwards compatibility with the Ode Brew Grinders in the field (can’t leave customers hanging!)
- Significant quantitative improvements in particle size distribution
- Superior qualitative results as judged via blind cuppings.
Additionally, our aim was to produce a burr design that produced a sweet, balanced, complex cup with enough clarity to respect the coffee. We wanted a “peoples’ burr” that would have appeal across a spectrum of coffee lovers. A versatile burr that would work well for both light roasts and dark roasts, different origins, and processing methods. (For those paying close attention, this is a bit different than the SSP burrs that we sell that do a great — but very focused — job of prioritizing cup clarity above all else.) Different burrs achieve different results in the cup, and that is part of what makes coffee so engaging.
Now, on to the adventure — if you want to call it that. What started out as excitement quickly turned into pure frustration. Nick would design a burr — through a combination of art and science and assumptions given his background in coffee, and then we’d get a prototype produced of that design. A week or so later the prototype would arrive and we’d test in Ode.
Design, prototype, test, repeat. This was fun! At least the first three or four cycles were, anyway. We wanted to believe we were making progress… Each time a new prototype arrived, Nick would run off to the lab to set up a blind cupping. But the harsh reality was that these burrs, both quantitatively and qualitatively, were just not good. Like not even close to good.
Like I said, our excitement quickly turned into frustration and a good amount of doubt. Could we actually figure this out? Is this the best use of our time? There are whole companies that just make burrs, why not leave this work to them? We were now months in with zero progress.
Unfortunately, that doubt continued as we pushed through designs 5, 6, 7, 8… then 13, 14, 15. By design 15 or so, we were shook. Nick had sleepless nights and was working on Saturdays and Sundays to try to crack the code. Design #15 just flat out wasn’t as good as the OEM burrs in Ode Gen 1. Yes, they were better than our early designs, but the improvements were excruciatingly slow. Nevertheless, there was progress and I think that kept Nick going through these “teen” designs.
Nick and I were faced with a tough decision — give up or keep trying. What do we do? We’ve already sunk nine months into this and close to $75K in R&D. I’ll be honest: I wanted to quit, stick to what we do best, and leave burr design to the “experts.” Looking back, I thankfully didn’t voice this opinion to Nick.
Instead, I remember asking, “Do you actually think we can do this?” Again, Nick’s passion (and stubbornness!) was on display when he responded, “This might break me, but I’m not going to stop.” Passion won, I gave the direction to proceed, and Nick pushed forward.
At about Design #20, we surpassed the performance of Ode Gen 1 and a couple of other competitors. There is hope! Nick was making step-change improvements as he figured out which design variables to modify. Two designs later, we had our final design, Design #22… or so we thought.
Like past designs, we were sending prototypes out to those we trust for feedback. The feedback on Design #22 was, “Yeah, it’s good.” That’s exciting, but good isn’t great. We didn’t want to go through 12 months of work to get a “good” reaction. Thanks to this feedback, and some encouragement by our testers, we made the choice to push forward with one more design round.
Enter Design #23. Two weeks later, it arrived via our usual FedEx delivery person. Nick, like always, ran into his lab for testing, then blind cupping, then sending samples to industry professionals. Across both quantitative and qualitative feedback, we knew we were on to something special. The overwhelmingly positive feedback gave us confidence, and a big sigh of relief. The design was locked, we hit the product requirements we outlined a year ago, and the team pushed Design #23 into mass production.
Will the ROI on this 12 month endeavor pan out versus just buying good off-the-shelf OEM burrs? Are more people going to buy Ode now to justify the time and cost we invested? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that we made good by our customers, the people who trade their hard-earned cash for our stuff, and delivered an original burr design that I believe they will love. And I believe with all my heart that if we as a company take this approach with everything we do, the economics are going to work themselves out in the long run.