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Coffee sits on the black, subtle Bottomless WiFi-enabled scale. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

In my home, we’d rather run out of toilet paper than fresh coffee. The former can be replaced by facial tissue. But nothing adequately substitutes for the latter as a kickstart to our get-up-before-dawn day.

So when I heard of Bottomless’ solution to home caffeine deprivation, I had to give it a try.

Bottomless is a Seattle startup that holds the promise you will never, ever run out of coffee. Created by coffee lover and entrepreneur Michael Mayer, the subscription service combines a WiFi-enabled coffee scale and machine learning with fresh beans and just-in-time direct shipping. The result is supposed to be an endless — that is, “bottomless” — supply of coffee, though you still have to brew it yourself.

Now, on the Seattle coffee snob continuum, I’m probably no deeper than a medium. I’m not so light as to drink the output of stale ground coffee pods. But I have upgraded my coffee equipment over the past few years, going from a whirring blade grinder and Mr. Coffee automatic drip brewer, to a stainless-steel burr grinder and an Oxo On coffee maker — the one review site The Wirecutter gives top marks.

However, I don’t do French press or home espresso devices. I’ve tried both; too much work and mess.

Plus, I’m only recently a convert to freshly roasted beans due to the improved flavor, and have had to make occasional late-night runs to Whole Foods or Caffe Appassionato when I miscalculated how much coffee I actually had on hand to avoid a next-morning disaster. So getting the same taste benefit without having to leave the house appealed to me.

Preparing: choices, choices, choices

Signing up for the Bottomless service was painless, with just one small confusing moment.

Starting on Bottomless.com, I scrolled down to “Beta Tester Sign Up,” entering my email address and ZIP code with a promise to be notified when a beta test invitation was available. Almost immediately, I received an email.

“Our Bottomless scale prototypes are made in-house using 3D printed plastic. Because of this, our availability is limited,” it read. “To reserve a unit, click the button below and buy your first coffee. Otherwise, we will send you an email when we have units available.”

Fair enough. I needed to have beans in the game. I clicked through “Reserve Now” in the email, created an account, and was presented with a wide range of coffee choices and methods to narrow the options. More than a dozen roasters, including familiar names such as Anchorhead and Caffe Vita, as well as a dizzying array of filters for everything from roast and origin to process, varietals and tasting notes. Dizzying, at least, to me; a true coffee connoisseur likely will appreciate the ability to fine-tune the granularity.

Choices, choices on the Bottomless coffee website.

Keeping it simple, I focused on the roast, and chose both “Dark Roast” and “French Roast” together. Up popped 24 options, ranging in price from $13 to $18.95 for a 12-ounce bag, as well as a couple of two-pound bag options. Looking over the pretty photos and detailed descriptions, I selected Ladro Roasting’s Diablo which promised to be a dark roast, at $14.29 for the bag. A quick check of Ladro’s own website put the price at $13.50 plus sales tax, bringing the total to $14.86 before shipping charges.

So far, so good. And Bottomless’ page stated “All prices include shipping” at the top, saving me a $5 minimum shipping charge from Ladro directly. I clicked “Make Bottomless” under the Diablo bag.

It was on the next screen that the small confusion set in. Despite the “all prices include shipping” text on the previous page, it turned out use of the scale and “free” shipping was actually $2.99 per month, billed annually, after a free trial. Still worth it, but I wouldn’t have been confused if the language on the earlier coffee selection page hadn’t been there.

Next up was the ability to customize timing of re-orders. I chose the default of “just right” out of a range of “very early” to “much later,” which estimated I’d run out on average once every 12 shipments. There was also the opportunity to “Kickstart your Algorithm” by revealing current coffee consumption habits.

Fine-tuning the Bottomless reordering algorithm.

“How many cups of coffee do you expect to drink per day?” it innocently asked. I froze. How does the algorithm define a “cup?” Is it a mug filled with coffee? Six ounces of water, which is what most coffee bags want you to match with two tablespoons of ground coffee? I selected eight, because that’s how many strong cups my wife and I make from an amount of beans ground for 10 cups.

It became clearer later that perhaps I should have chosen “10” instead. I was encouraged that I could change my coffee choice at any time, thanks to a helpful Bottomless FAQ.

Finally, I entered my shipping address, credit card info, and then received confirmation: “Hooray! You’re all signed up … we will send you a scale when one is ready. Current estimate: 1-25 days.” I prepared to wait.

Literally less than 15 minutes later, the email arrived saying the scale had shipped, and welcoming me to the beta program. I was told the coffee and scale would arrive separately — the coffee would come directly from the roaster for maximum freshness — and encouraging me to reach out anytime to give feedback to the small team of one full- and one part-time staff.

I’d bean chosen.

Setting up: the internet of beans

That was Wednesday. By Friday, my first bag of Ladro’s Diablo arrived via USPS in a brown paper package with an ink-jet printed label. On Saturday, a small white box followed, from Bottomless HQ. I also received emails confirming each delivery and offering brief tips (“For best results, leave your current bag on the scale until you run out.”). I also learned the scale has a battery that lasts 6-18 months, and I’d be notified when it dies. If nothing else, communication was a strength.

Bottomless coffee scale and setup card. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Inside the box, sandwiched in protective foam, was a rectangular 3D-printed black plastic scale measuring about 5 inches by 3.5 inches, and a half-inch tall. Along with it was a small card with straightforward WiFi setup instructions.

Having been bit by “straightforward” WiFi setup instructions before (I’m looking at you, now-discontinued Amazon Tap), I waited a few days until I’d have time for the inevitable troubleshooting. I needn’t have worried.

Smartphone setup for the Bottomless scale.

After taking a few moments to find, then press, a circular black button on the bottom of the black scale, up popped a new WiFi network on my Android smartphone called “Bottomless_Scale.” As sometimes happens on my Samsung Galaxy 7S, the new-network notification disappeared after connecting without giving me an expected pop-up form, but the setup card helpfully suggested that if no form appeared, to open a browser and navigate to http://bottomless.local. That did it.

I entered my home WiFi network password to complete the connection, auto-calibrated the empty scale, then set the resealable bag of Diablo beans on it. Total setup time: less than five minutes.

In operation: skirting decaffeination disaster

Now the real test: How smart was the service? Would the algorithm, which regularly checked the weight of the beans’ bag on the scale, adjust appropriate to my real-time coffee consumption?

And would it be confused by my burr grinder? After all, the grinder had a hopper for beans which I usually kept filled. Would that throw off the calculations as to how much coffee I really had left?

Just in case, I made sure I still had an unopened container of Trader Joe’s Five Country Espresso Blend on standby. It wouldn’t expire until, um, Aug. 8, 2019.

On Sunday, two days after I set up the scale, I received another email. “We’ll be ordering a new bag for you early tomorrow morning,” it read. “Our system minimizes the likelihood of you running out of coffee, while keeping in mind its peak freshness window (3-14 days after roasting).” That seemed soon, but what the heck. I had been moving coffee to my grinder to keep the hopper about half full and perhaps that had thrown it off. Algorithm knows best.

Replacement coffee arrives directly from the roaster. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Monday morning, along with the order confirmation, came a personal apology from Bottomless that it wasn’t likely the coffee would arrive before I ran out. “In general, Bottomless has a hard time keeping up with customers who go through more than a 12oz bag every week,” Mayer wrote. He suggested either switching to 2 lb. bags, or adding a second scale. I decided to tough it out and see what happened; I still had beans in the grinder hopper, too.

Tuesday and Wednesday coffee was made and consumed. And I was completely out of beans.

Late Wednesday afternoon, my doorbell rang. It was my postal carrier, alerting me to a first-class mail package delivery. From Ladro Roasting.

I was saved.

The next few orders didn’t cut it as close. Coffee automatically ordered one Friday arrived on Saturday; a subsequent order on Monday arrived on Wednesday, leaving me to balance two bags on a single scale. Yet if the algorithm seems too eager, on any pre-order notification I can click “Delay Order” to help it learn.

So far, I remain caffeinated to an acceptable level.

Bottomless or not?

After nearly a month of testing, I’m impressed with Bottomless. On the plus side, it’s simple to set up, prices are on par with what you’d pay for fresh premium beans in a coffee shop, communication is good, at least in this beta test phase, and — most importantly — you don’t run out.

It’s a great example of how the internet of things (IoT) can embody simplicity for the benefit of the consumer, leaving the heavy machine-learning lifting to the company. The most difficult task I had was deciding what coffee to order.

The $3 per month fee for the scale and shipping seems reasonable for the convenience. I do wonder if it fully covers the shipping cost for a heavy user like me, though there may be some postage allowance embedded by the roaster in the price of a bag of beans.

Not yet known is how the algorithm will adapt when I go on vacation or a business trip. And not quite as good is the mildly confusing shipping cost language on the Bottomless website. The company could probably also extend its appeal to more potential customers by adding a few more well-known, regional roasters to its roster. But all, so far, are not grounds for dissatisfaction.

Could I save a few bucks by buying beans in bulk at Costco? Or in containers at Trader Joe’s? Definitely. But my savings would be offset by the lack of convenience and freshness. For the moment, that’s a price difference I’m willing to pay, both for the sake of my taste buds and my early morning mental alertness.

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