Portaspresso Interview

Interview with Ross Spencer from Portaspresso

Q: What did you do before starting Portaspresso?

A: I started out as a Fitter and Turner and worked in industry in related
roles from the shop floor to various leadership roles, but I was never
really happy in that field. The coffee business emerged largely by
chance while I was working on another business idea. I studied
psychology and HR management with a plan to specialise in workplace
motivation and performance management, but from a different perspective
than what is currently done. That approach required to go ahead
independently, but I needed a way of generating a basic income outside
of regular employment so that I could resign from my job at the time to
focus on the new project.

After much contemplation, I decided the most flexible option to earn a
basic income was to make a product and sell it online. The concept was
sound, but I had no idea about what to make. I’ve always been an
inventive type person, so I was thinking about what I could make that
people would want. I came up with a number of ideas, but nothing that
stood out. It was a slow afternoon at work and I needed a coffee to help
stay awake, but I couldn’t bring myself to drink the instant coffee.
Frustrated about the lack of good coffee, I looked at bringing an
espresso machine in from home, but there really wasn’t enough room in
the lunch room. I then searched for a portable option, but found that no
such device existed that could produce the quality I desired. With my
current options exhausted, I just made a tea and got back to thinking of
a product I could make.

I couldn’t decide on what to make, and I still had to tolerate bad
coffee at work. I eventually matched the two problems with the obvious
solution, which was to make a high quality portable espresso device.
That was all good in theory, but I still had to come up with something
that would do the job. Nevertheless, that was the point that the
Portaspresso idea was born.

Q: Did any of those skills transfer into the coffee world?

A: As noted above, I’ve always been an inventive person, even from a very
young age. The trade training and subsequent experience certainly
provided the skills to both design and make the Portaspresso products.

Q: When did you develop the first Rossa prototype?

A: The first design was in 2009 if I remember correctly.

Q: Was the design based on other coffee devices you had seen? Or completely
unrelated?

A: The design was started from scratch. As it turned out though, it shared
the screw piston design that was part the original espresso machine
design, but I did not discover that until some time later. It was
interesting to read that the original design suffered from the same
problems that I experienced, but the difference was that I was able to
use modern materials to overcome the problem. I’m sure the original
designers would have done the same if the materials were available at
the time.

The piston design was the means of generating pressure, but it was a
challenge to make it small enough to work as a real portable option. The
original design was quite different to what it is now. The first
prototype was not exactly the most useable device I’ve ever made, but it
did prove that the idea could work. The first shot I made was
unbelievably smooth when compared to the semi-commercial machine I used
at home. I then knew that the idea could work, but had to dramatically
change the design to make it useable.

Q: Did you always have the air cylinder idea in mind? Or did it develop from the original Rossa?

The Air Espresso design came from user feedback about the Hand Espresso models. Some don’t like the weight of the brass and others struggle with the coordination to turn the handle. I also wanted something that would appeal to a larger group, specifically campers and caravan travelers.

I would prefer to not use air because of the extra need for a pump, and I originally dismissed the idea because of that problem. I continued to ponder the design and looked into the availability of suitable pumps. I realised that most of the 12v electric car pumps that many people already have would work fine, and as a keen mountain biker, I also had a number of high pressure hand pumps. After I realised that suitable pumps where readily available, I revisited the design. I’m glad I did because the end product far exceeded my expectations as to what it can do. It is an amazing device, and so simple to use.

A: Will the original Rossa be phased out now? If not, can you compare and contrast the pros and cons of the Rossa and the Air Espresso?

The Rossa Hand Espresso models are great designs and will remain, but some people don’t like the weight of the brass and others struggle to hold the device and turn the handle. The Air Espresso models were designed to overcome those problems and to otherwise offer people another choice. All work great, but are not necessarily suitable for all. The original Rossa Hand Espresso was revised to the Rossa HC to provide more control and improve useability, but the original model will remain because it is more compact than the HC. Again it is about providing choice.

The main difference between the Hand Espresso and the Air Espresso designs is how the pressure is generated. There is no magic bullet to produce the pressure and control. With the Hand Espresso, you produce the pressure buy turning the handle during extraction. You don’t need anything other than manual effort. The Air Espresso works from air, so the cylinder must be charged beforehand. The advantage of this design is that the effort can be less, and no coordination is required to hold the device steady during extraction. I personally like the Air Espresso because I exert all the effort in one go before I make the shot. I charge the cylinder, grind the coffee then sit back and wait for the water to boil and the steamer to heat up. Once all is ready, the remaining effort is minimal. I also like the light weight of the Rossa TR for travel. Hand pumping is not an issue for myself, so the whole setup suits my travel needs more so than the other models.

Q: Have you ideas for an evolution of the air espresso?

A: I have ideas, but nothing to share at this stage. I can’t see anything replacing either the Hand Espresso or Air Espresso designs, but I want to make variable pressure control (pressure profiling) easier for the average person to understand and control. I have a few ideas about how to do this, but taking an idea to a tangible product that anyone other than myself wants can take some time. I also have some devices I intend to make for my personal use, but not sure if any of them will be added as a new product.

Q: My girlfriends’ sister recently made some quilts for her family. Beautifully done. She said that if she was to calculate the material and labour costs, each quilt would be around $700AUD. Is there a way for you to rationalise the costs of one of your devices to a potential customer?

A: If I were to rationalise the cost, all products would sell for much higher than what they do. Some people think they’re expensive because they are the first high quality portables, and my products are often compared to other portable devices. It’s not dissimilar to comparing a cheap car to a performance car. They’re both cars, but there are clear differences that most people can understand. Quality espresso requires precise control over the variables, and any device that offers the required level of control must be precisely made. Unfortunately, that level of precision requires care to manufacture, and consequently the costs are higher. A simple way to rationalise the cost from a lay perspective is to compare the cost of a Rossa / Rosco combo with any other machine and grinder that can produce comparable results. You will soon find that the Portaspresso products cost a fraction of any comparable setups.

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