The Weber Workshops story starts in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. It’s where Douglas Weber was born and raised, in the city of Arcadia. The neighbourhood he grew up in had a large Taiwanese and Japanese population. His best friend was Japanese, which is how he picked up the language. But he picked up more than that. As he told Coffee t&i magazine: “Growing up with very close Japanese friends, the culture and the people have always been very influential in my upbringing. The cleanliness and attention to details are aspects that have resonated with me strongly ever since childhood,”
While studying Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, he was offered the opportunity to study abroad. Without hesitation, he headed to Japan. Before graduating, Weber got a job offer from Apple. Which he declined. Instead, he chose to go back to Japan to study… pottery. We chat about that choice in this interview.
When Weber graduated, he received another offer from Apple. And, this time, he took it. He was one of the original members of the iPod Product Design team. He also had a hand in the development of the first iPhone when he was tasked with integrating the glass display face into the product, a late-in-the-game decision that sparked an entire new sub-industry in smartphone cover technology.
Japan had not seen the last of Douglas Weber, though. An opportunity arose at Apple for Douglas to move to Asia to found a multinational team focused on advanced materials and innovative manufacturing technologies. Over the course of 7 years he grew his team to 15 material scientists and product designers spread throughout Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The result of his work at Apple is an extensive patent portfolio, dozens of strategic vendor relationships, and several core technologies that Apple uses throughout its product line to this day.
In 2014 Douglas left Apple. He explains why coffee was the natural next step, in this interview. He founded Weber Workshops with a mission “to break the cycle of wasteful consumption” and “create heirloom-quality instruments by rethinking and reimagining the products used in specialty coffee preparation.”
His mission and vision is articulated perfectly on weberworkshops.com:
“We founded Weber Workshops because of a common desire to build products that are intelligently designed and meticulously crafted; daily instruments that make the daily process easier and the quality better; tools artists use to drive the art forward.
We set out to build products that aren’t measured in fleeting annual revisions but in lasting human generations; machines as reliable and steadfast as the day they are made; heirlooms families cherish as they are lovingly handed down.
We build products that inspire.
We based our company on these values. The creative diversity and well-storied backgrounds of the founders and board members reflect these beliefs. We are artists, engineers, dreamers and madmen. Through this lens we look at things differently, often with a critical eye on how and what we can improve, or when we might need to start over and come up with something entirely new.”
And in the space of 10 years, Weber Workshops has delivered on that promise. Bringing to market some of the most innovative and covetable products the specialty coffee world has ever seen. An experience with a Weber Workshops product is immeasurably impactful. As James Hoffman explains in this video.
In 2021Weber Workshops won “Product of the Year” with The KEY Grinder at SCAA New Orleans, and in 2022 it won several product awards with the Unifilter™. We discuss those as well as the latest launch, the Moonraker.
Please introduce yourself to those who don’t know you yet and tell us what you do.
My name is Douglas Weber, and I am the Founder and CEO of Weber Workshops.
Do you remember the first time you had really good coffee? How do you take your coffee? Brew method and origin. Do you make coffee at home?
The first coffee that really floored me was the espressos and cappuccinos I would drink at the Blue Bottle kiosk in Hayes Valley and Ritual Coffee on Valencia St. in San Francisco before commuting down to Cupertino for work, back in around 2004 – 2005. This was then one-upped when I had an espresso at Coffee Collective in Copenhagen in 2008 roasted and served by Klaus Thomsen. We didn’t know each other yet at the time. I’ve been making coffee myself at home since the early days, preferring espresso or espresso-based drinks made with vintage lever machines that I refurbish and modify myself. I drink all varietals and origins, but generally prefer medium roasts from an air-roasting machine.
You were born and raised in Los Angeles. What made you want to settle in Japan? How has Japanese culture influenced your design philosophy?
I first travelled here when I was 12 and tagged along for a summer when my best friend moved back to Japan. I then spent a couple of years during university in Kyoto and Fukuoka respectively. I used that experience to convince the senior management at Apple to let me come and start a new team inside the Product Design division that focused on new materials and manufacturing processes. I built that team over about 7 years ago and decided to stay permanently even after leaving Apple. Japan has always been at the center of my upbringing more than something I studied per se, so it’s inherently ingrained in everything I do.
When you graduated from Stanford, you were offered a job at Apple. Which you declined. Why? What advice would you give graduates who are considering pursuing their passion versus a reliable paycheck?
I got the job offer at the same time as the Japanese Ministry of Education offered me a paid scholarship to go and study at a university and do pottery for a year. I figured I could get a job in Silicon Valley anytime, but how many chances would I get to do pottery without worrying about feeding myself? As you may have heard I got an even better offer after returning from that year in Japan, and I’m sure Jobs would have approved of my choice had it been on his radar. My advice would be to always do what you’re passionate about, and trust that if you’re following your passion the paycheck will come… eventually.
You did eventually move to Apple. How did your time at Apple influence your design philosophy?
That was where I really cut my teeth so to speak learning about design, manufacturing, and getting things done at a world-class level. My peers and colleagues were some of the most talented designers and engineers in the world, and the energy towards what we were creating at the time was contagious and electric. The constant push to question ourselves, and tirelessly working to simplify and trim back the fat of the designs, are two lessons that I will never forget. The exposure to the best of the industry is something I’ll be forever grateful for.
Apple granted you an opportunity to set up a development team based in Japan. What advice do you have for those new to corporate about selling upwards to management?
You’ll never know unless you ask. And if you’re worth it, they’ll find a way to make it happen.
What made you want to start Weber Workshops? And why start with grinders? You didn’t want to do an espresso machine?
I had wanted to start a company making coffee gear since the early 2000s when I got hooked on coffee and buying vintage and prosumer equipment. I had the wonderful problem of wanting to make that gear while also having a dream job at a company in the midst of its renaissance. Grinders were simply a quicker way to make a bootstrapped company profitable, but is by no means the limitation or definition of what we are to bound to in the years to come.
Are you going to focus on grinders going forward? You did develop a pepper mill once, for example.
We intentionally left “coffee” or any mention of in our company name. That’s our focus now, but the future is wide open.
Tell us about the EG-1. Why did you decide to create it? What were the opportunity areas you identified in grinders available on the market at the time?
Watching baristas weight the coffee grounds output from their grinders while throwing some away in cafés really begged the question of the capability of the machines they were using. Since the machines hadn’t really changed for decades, I was pretty sure I could make something that outperformed the incumbents. The EG-1 was our answer to that, and it helped set the bar for single-dosing and weighing the input as opposed to the output so that there was zero waste. And since we started with a blank sheet we also solved a few other pain points with grinders such as alignment, retention, and gleanability.
At that price point, the EG-1 is undoubtedly a premium product. Is it overpriced?
We have a primarily direct-to-consumer business model, where our products have a significantly smaller mark-up than almost any major manufacturer we can think of. As a result the consumer gets way more for their money than anything they would normally purchase from a standard retailer. In other words, our stuff might cost a little more than what it’s compared against, but it probably costs significantly more to produce given the materials, manufacturing processes, and care that goes into crafting them.
Your products are built to last a lifetime. You don’t subscribe to the idea of planned obsolescence, obviously. Do you think making a product that performs so well over time limits the market for you?
Even if it did, that wouldn’t bother me. I’d rather sell someone a grinder once and have them look fondly back on us. They most likely have friends and family interested in coffee and good products as well — our customers usually do the advertising for us. And we’ll be putting out other products than grinders, so there will be plenty of opportunities to have them back as a customer again.
There is a lot on the internet about the EG-1. Are there any misunderstandings about the product out there that you want to take this opportunity to set straight?
I’m not sure people understand the importance of machine cleanliness and maintenance. The EG-1 is designed to be cleaned within seconds, without tools, down to the burrs without affecting the grind setting or the alignment. This keeps every shot cleaner and tastier day-in and day-out, both in the cafe and at home. We cannot emphasize enough how important this is to cup quality, and are certain that it’s the only grinder like that on the market.
I’ve not yet been to Japan. But it’s top of my list. If I’m going to dig as deep into Japanese specialty coffee culture as I can, what should my 10 day itinerary look like? Cities, coffeeshops, roasters, etc. I’m not a fan of big cities. Will I miss much if I skip Tokyo?
Tokyo is great, but Japan is so vast and full of surprises you could spend a year just cafe hopping and still find unexpected gems in remote towns you’ve never even heard of. Poke around Kyoto, the outskirts of Nagoya, hop through Fukuoka and rent a car and drive out towards Nagasaki. Stop by Itoshima and peek into our R&D lab and studio (but shoot us an email first!). Get lost in Kumamoto and Kagoshima. 10 days just can’t do it justice.
Tell us about your latest product, the Moonraker. Why did you create it? How is it different from WDT today?
We created the Moonraker because we knew that WDT had the potential to significantly improve puck prep and the quality of espresso, but it inherently requires a level of skill and patience that makes it a no-go for most people. Especially in a busy cafe or while prepping kids for school at home in the kitchen, before coffee.
There are other tools out there, but in our testing and observations they do a mediocre job at best, usually causing more harm than good. This is because they ALL simply rotate about a fixed axis, creating trenches in the coffee bed even if the top kinda looks ok. We set out to create a movement based on planetary gears and a spirograph movement, iterating and perfecting the process with both simulations and trial-and-error for about a year. We added multiple heights to the needles to simultaneously do deep-bed WDT together with a surface raking to give a fluffy, flat, and tamp-ready surface. Since the gears movement doesn’t allow the needles to pass the same path twice, by definition it randomizes even better than an experienced hand can do. Kind of like how a calculator or a computer works better at doing menial tasks, the Moonraker takes the guesswork out of puck prep unlike any other tool to date.
What does the future hold for Weber Workshops?
Just stay tuned and I promise a constant stream of innovations and surprises.
We can’t wait to see what’s next.
Cover image by Eric Micotto.