Introducing Will Smith! We're talking about that more famous (in the tech world) Will Smith - the bearded editor in chief and co-founder of Tested, a website focused on helping people make the best decision possible when it comes to buying technology and soon to be a lot more (visit his site for more details, some of which just broke on Friday!). Will is a coffee aficionado and hosts occasional video reviews of coffee gear on the site. Who better to include in our short series of interviews with people in technology who love coffee.
CG: So Will, I'm sure many of our readers are familiar with you and the website you host, but for those who don't, could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the world of technology, blogging and video casting? How did you get your start, and what are you up to now?
Smith: I've always been passionate about technology, I worked my way through college doing contract IT work. I got started writing about technology with a nights and weekends job writing for newly-launched Ars Technica in late 1998. Shortly after starting with Ars, I quit my day job and started doing freelance for a variety of publications. Eventually, I ended up at Maximum PC, where I worked from mid-2000 until early 2010. During the last five years of my tenure at Maximum PC, I was the editor in chief. I loved writing about PCs, but with the rise of the iPhone and Android, it was apparent that the interesting work was happening in mobile. In 2010, Norman Chan and I left Maximum PC to launch Tested, with an eye toward covering both familiar markets and the emerging technology categories like tablets and smartphones.
CG: Getting way off topic for our website, I do have a futuro-techie question: I remember reading somewhere that people have predicted that eventually, our desktop PCs and even notebooks will disappear, with our smartphones completely taking over all our computing and Internet activity. They'd interact wirelessly with larger displays and keyboards we just automatically connect to at home and work. Is that a fair prediction of the future in your eyes?
Smith: I don't think that phones and tablets will ever fully replace dedicated PCs. Phones and tablets are undeniably convenient, there's massive benefit for ubiquitous computing. However, there will always be a need for heavy lifting computing that you can only get on a PC. Eventually, we'll have enough processing power in all our devices that the main differentiator between a PC and a phone will just the the interface, but until then, PCs will still have a place.
CG: I have noticed a real increase in coffee gadget coverage on Tested in the past year - what was your impetus for that?
Smith: Not to nitpick, but I really don't like the word gadget. Gadget is a diminutive word, typically used by people who don't understand or are afraid of technology to minimize its impact. I wrote an editorial about this early on (ed.note: Editorial is here.) The things that most people call gadgets are massively useful, multipurpose devices -- not novelties. So, when I use that word, it isn't a kind word.
Semantic arguments aside, Norm and I want Tested to be a site about things that Norm and I love. I love coffee, and coffee was always a part of Tested, I talked about the Aeropress as a really interesting, innovative bit of tech in my initial pitch. It helped that the launch of the site in early 2010 coincided with a resurgence in brewed coffee. I'd been experimenting with the Aeropress and pourovers for a while, and I loved that the barrier to entry for brewed coffee was much lower than for espresso. After all, a $30 Aeropress, $100 grinder, and a $20 scale are much more accessible than a La Marzocco GS/3. But, at the lowest level, Tested is about stuff that we love. Sometimes that's about coffee, sometimes it's German board games, sometimes it's cameras, sometimes it's about office chairs.
CG: Right now, today, what would be your dream product from coffee and espresso that you'd like to review on Tested?
Smith: I'd love to do a big espresso machine roundup. I finally feel like I'm proficient enough with espresso and have a good enough grinder to actually test and compare those devices. I'm very curious to find out how much of a difference there is between the super-expensive machines, like the La Marzocco GS/3 and a more reasonably priced semi-automatic machine.
CG: Besides the increase in coffee gear coverage, what other things does Tested cover besides obvious technology like computers, phones and the like?
Smith: Our whole focus is on helping people make good decisions when it comes to buying technology. More importantly, we love to help people get more from the stuff they buy. That applies to pretty much everything, whether it's a smartphone, a tablet, or the latest coffee brewing gear.
(ed.note: since conducting this interview, there have been some huge, positive changes over at Tested, the news of which broke mainly today, our coincidental interview publication date - visit Tested to see what new additions Will and Norman have added to the website and its newly expanded focus: you will see some very famous folks now associated with Tested!)
CG: Let's turn to coffee. Espresso first, or coffee first?
Smith: I love a great espresso, but I don't have the budget for a machine that lives up to my taste. Having great coffee shops in San Francisco has pretty much ruined me. On the other hand, I can brew a world-class pot of coffee anywhere and anytime I have 205 degree water.
CG: What was your first experience ever drinking espresso? What did you think?
Smith: My first experience with espresso was probably a cappuccino at a French or Italian restaurant. It didn't make that much of an impression, I guess.
CG: Have you had what you'd consider "epiphany moments" with coffee or espresso? Describe them for me!
Smith: I've had occasional great cups of coffee over the years, but didn't really have an epiphany until I stopped eating sugar. The first time I went to my local coffee shop and drank a coffee without sweetener or milk, I was blown away by the complexity of the flavors in the cup. I wish I knew what they brewed, but it was a long time ago, the shop's gone now, and I didn't pay attention to that stuff back then. The first time I went to the SCAA show was probably the closest to an epiphany I've had. I'd had occasionally amazing cups of coffee (espresso and brewed) over the years, but I didn't realize that it could be so consistently outstanding.
CG: What kind of setup do you have at home for espresso, coffee, or both?
Smith: My espresso setup is simple -- a Rancilio Silvia (espresso machine) and a Baratza Virtuoso Preciso (grinder). I usually only bust out the espresso on weekends though. My normal weekday morning is all brewed. I use a Chemex and Able Brewing Kone. I love the Kone because it pulls the things I love with pourovers with the mouthfeel and complexity of a press. Of course, I also have an Aeropress for single cups using the metal filter disc from Able.
CG: What was the first thing you ever covered on Tested that was related to coffee or espresso?
Smith: The Aeropress! We've since done a few more videos with it, explaining how to use the inverted method for best results.
CG: So you used the Aeropress to pitch the idea of covering coffee devices, and you also ended up reviewing it first? What kind of response did these videos get with Tested's audience?
Smith: It wasn't universal excitement, but the people who were enthusiastic were very enthusiastic. I received dozens of emails, Twitter messages, and PMs from users saying they'd bought an Aeropress and had never tasted coffee like that before. That happened again and again as we introduced people to new types of coffee tech.
CG: You did a lot of video reports from the 2011 SCAA trade show. Was it your first one? What impressions did you leave the show with?
Smith: SCAA 2011 was my first one. I loved getting to meet people at the forefront of coffee tech. I absolutely love how inclusive the community is. Everyone was welcoming, with vendors actually introducing me to their competitors after they briefed me on their products.
CG: Do you plan on attending the 2012 SCAA show in Portland this year?
Smith: Yes, I do!
CG: You recently came back from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas. You mentioned a bit about your experience at the SCAA, but how do you feel it was compared to a show like CES?
Smith: SCAA is much more fun, much more friendly, and much, much, much smaller. I enjoy CES, but I look forward to the SCAA show.
CG: You seemed to be really on the forefront of finding the cool new technology in coffee and espresso this past year. What impressed you the most in 2011?
Smith: My favorite piece of brewing tech from 2011 is the Able Brewing Kone. I love that it makes the Chemex, which is fairly tricky to use as a pourover device, more consistently awesome. This is a good thing. I'm also really interested in the rise of relatively inexpensive semi-automatic espresso machines. While I love my Silvia, I really need a machine that can switch from espresso to steaming very quickly. The hardware that Breville and folks like Bill Crossland have built will really open up no compromise espresso to a much wider audience.
CG: So there's cool technology, and then there's erm... gadgets (sorry!) What would be your favourite gadget for coffee and espresso?
Smith: I object to this question on moral grounds. However, I'd love to figure out a way I could justify purchasing an ExtractMojo for myself!
CG: Where you live, do you have any favourite cafes? How about favourite roasters?
Smith: I typically support local San Francisco roasters. I typically brew Ritual at home. I love their coffee, and I love being able to try different coffee each week. On the espresso front, I usually get Four Barrel's espresso blend. It's good stuff. I don't spend as much time in cafes as I used to, but I'll grab a macchiato when I pick up my weekly bag of beans at Ritual.
CG: Is there anything about a San Francisco cafe that really stands apart from cafes you've seen in other cities?
Smith: I don't really spend that much time in cafes, especially when I'm traveling. I'm easily distracted, so cafes aren't a good place for me to work :) When I'm in the neighborhood, I'll stop by the slow bar at Four Barrel or swing by the Ritual in the Mission, of course.
CG: Tell me what is your dream setup for the home in espresso machines, grinders, and other brewing devices? Is there any machine out there that just makes you drool?
Smith: I would love, love, love to have a La Marzocco GS/3. I keep hoping that they're going to add pressure profiling to the home models, and somehow get them to a price that I can afford. Pair that with a Baratza Vario and I'd be a happy camper.
CG: You travel a lot because of your job - do you take a coffee or espresso brewing setup with you?
Smith: I just got back from a week in Vegas for CES. We travel heavy to that show, so I took my full home brewing setup with me. However, when I'm travelling lighter, I usually bring a Hario grinder and my Aeropress. When I'm travelling lighter than that, I take to Yelp to find the great cafes wherever I'm visiting.
CG: What is the best coffee or espresso you tried in the last 12 months?
Smith: That's too tough to answer. The folks at Coffee Common kept me highly caffeinated when I was at SCAA last year. I've discovered the best time to stop by the booth is whenever anyone is learning milk art. (grins)
CG: That's a good tip, Will. Well, those are all the questions I have for you today. Thank you for your time and we'll see you at the SCAA Conference in Portland! I'll meet you at the first Latte Art demo (ed.note: milk patterns... they are called milk patterns!)!
Column Description The Interview features in depth and informative discussions with some of the leaders, players, and unique characters in the world of coffee and espresso. From Barista champs to innovators in the espresso world, from coffee farmers, to coffee roasters, you'll find some interesting insights with each new interview posted.