Jason Prefontaine is standing in front of the Slayer, his company's $22,000 espresso machine. It's a beautiful beast, finished in a pearly burnt orange and built to brew for the truly obsessive. But he doesn't think he should make a shot of espresso. He doesn't know which beans are in the grinder, and Mr. Prefontaine only likes to make flawless shots.
Realizing he probably shouldn't send me off without a Slayer shot, he goes into a trancelike state. He brews one shot, which tastes fine but a little thin, with a bitter aftertaste. He tries again, tweaking the settings. Slayer's the only commercial espresso machine that lets a barista choose exactly how much water hits the beans in a given moment. Mr. Prefontaine is adjusting it to make each shot slightly richer, juggling the temperature, grind, and water flow. The shots become sweeter and more viscous. He tosses out one without even tasting it: “That's still too fast,” he scoffs.
Eight attempts later, Mr. Prefontaine finally pulls a shot that's acceptable. It's got a round, bright flavor, with no hint of bitterness. “I can taste the f---ing beans in this,” he says, beaming.
In the past 15 years or so, coffee growers, roasters, and drinkers have become hyperattuned, focusing on the ripest berries from the part of a farm that receives an optimal amount of sunlight. Quality beans can be roasted lighter, so the flavor isn't burned out. “That's what led to getting clean, sweet coffee instead of muddy, fermented coffee,” says Jeff Taylor, co-founder of PT's Coffee Roasting, which has been roasting since 1997.
The final frontier in coffee elitism was building machines that could brew these fancy beans to their highest potential. “I have my techniques and my skills and my beans so fine-tuned and detailed. Then you start using these espresso machines that are inconsistent,” says Pete Licata, co-owner of the Roast Ratings website and winner of the World Barista Championship in 2013. Even top machines would run out of steam at a busy cafe, and their water temperature would fluctuate by as much as 10 degrees.
The Slayer, which entered the market in 2009, is the most extreme solution to this high-class problem. It's also among the most expensive, though similar products from other commercial manufacturers, including La Marzocco, Nuova Simonelli and Synesso, now start at more than $17,000. All cater to the top echelon of baristas, who obsess over the moment water first hits the grounds, when the beans release carbon dioxide and puff up — what's known as blooming. After that settles, the extraction process begins, and the water pulls out the flavors and oils. Pros from third-wave coffee shops and chains like Blue Bottle and Stumptown want to slow down how quickly the beans get saturated, so the espresso has time to fully develop before extraction begins.
Most of Slayer's competitors do this by letting baristas reduce the pressure at the beginning of the process. Slayer instead keeps the pressure steady as baristas reduce the flow of the water, which allows them to grind the beans finer. “It really kind of changes everything that you knew about dialing in the espresso,” says Ross Beamish, who works at Seattle's Visions Espresso Service, which distributes high-end brands.
Cafes also want these machines to look impressive on their bar. On Instagram, Slayer's more than 42,000 devotees ogle the almost 800 machines it's shipped around the world. About half of the Seattle company's customers choose to customize the exterior, which can cost an additional $600 to $2,000. There are powder-coated Slayers in neon green, backlit Slayers with laser-cut logos, and Slayers with see-through panels that show off the industrial interior. There's a marble-sided machine in Australia and one with walnut panels in Taipei. Blue Bottle has a leather-sided Slayer in Brooklyn, and a Manhattan cafe is pushing the boundaries of taste with a Slayer plated in 24-karat gold. Italian stalwarts like La Marzocco and Nuova Simonelli offer more digitized machines and “a little bit of a security blanket” to new cafes, Mr. Taylor says. The Slayer is “a little more risqu�.”
As Mr. Prefontaine sees it, Slayers “are designed for the most insane cafes in the world.” One such spot is Coffee Shop, which opened in Walnut Creek, Calif., this spring and sells the kinds of single-origin beans and $4 lattes that have come to define certain urban enclaves. Justin DiMauro, 35, worked at Peet's Coffee & Tea for five years before opening Coffee Shop; a co-worker first showed him a Slayer on Instagram about a year and a half ago. “It started with, 'Oh man, these look cool,' ” he says.
Mr. DiMauro followed Slayer on Instagram and learned how specifically the machines could brew. Then he splurged on two of them — each with custom powder-coated yellow sides — deciding the variable controls suited his cafe's concept of serving beans from a variety of roasters, like a chic wine bar.
“I didn't feel like a one-size-fits-all approach would work for us,” he says. “I wanted to match what the roaster was doing.”
Growing up in Calgary, Mr. Prefontaine, now 46, was a kid when coffee culture started taking hold in North America. In his teens, he helped his father's business, which supplied corporate offices with instant coffee brewed in vending machines. His father's clients started asking for better joe, so his dad got into roasting in the mid-1980s. Soon after, Starbucks began expanding rapidly, and specialty coffeehouses opened. “You remember when Friends first started?” Mr. Prefontaine asks. “Oh, my God, they actually have a cappuccino machine on TV!”
As Starbucks grew, it started importing thousands of La Marzocco machines to outfit its cafes. Then, in 2004, the chain switched to an automated technology its enormous workforce could learn more easily. Independent cafes scooped up the secondhand machines that flooded the market. This helped La Marzocco, based in Florence since the 1920s, remain the leading global brand; last year, the company sold 10,000 machines, according to the Seattle Times.
In 2004 a former La Marzocco engineer founded Synesso, the first company to produce a machine with stable temperature control. Three years later, Mr. Prefontaine, working with former Synesso employees, used savings and home-equity loans to fund the development of Slayer.
Mr. Prefontaine knew Slayer couldn't go head-to-head with the dominant Italian look, that streamlined style of mid-century industrial design. Slayer would have to be pure American. Substantial, muscular, metal, like a Harley-Davidson. The aggressive aesthetic suits Mr. Prefontaine, too. He's serious and gestures intensely to match his staccato train of thought. At one point during the Slayer's early development, he told his product designer, “I want when this machine is being delivered — beep beep beep,” he recalls, interrupting himself like a fork lift. “Everyone gathers around and says, 'Oh, my God, it's here, guys, it's here.' I want the first word out of somebody's mouth to be 'F--------ck.' ”
Suppliers make parts to the company's specifications, and Slayer assembles and tests the machines in Seattle. Most early buyers were abroad, particularly in Australia, which has one of the world's most obsessive coffee cultures. Sales grew, but only slowly.
“Probably three times I was at a point where I know if I didn't sell a machine that f---ing week, I would go out of business,” Mr. Prefontaine says.
Cafes found the Slayer required too much maintenance, particularly on a valve that modulates the water flow. The machine also didn't have a way to standardize a brew. Mr. Taylor, from PT's, tested an early model.
“It was just awesome,” he says. But he didn't buy one for his cafe. “If I put this on my bar, how on earth would my baristas serve a consistent coffee?”
So the Slayer team redesigned several elements, including that problematic valve. They built a robotic arm that simulated making a shot every seven seconds and ran it a million times. The robot broke before the valve did. Another change also let baristas set an automated timer for the prebrew, creating the consistency Mr. Taylor and others wanted.
In late 2013, Slayer started selling the updated machine, and Mr. Prefontaine says sales grew from roughly $1 million a year to $4 million in 2014. This summer, Slayer moved from a hip studio with exposed brick at an old beer factory into a banal office building built in the 1990s. The digs are less inspiring, but there's room now to accommodate all 17 employees.
Mr. Taylor's latest cafe, which opened in Kansas City, Mo., was one of those new sales. He customized his Slayer to have a pearly white finish, which he figured would make the machine versatile enough to resell if it doesn't work out. He says baristas now apply for jobs specifically to work on the machine. It's attracted customers, too, Mr. Taylor says. “We had people come in just because they heard we had a Slayer.”