I remember hearing about the Teforia a long time ago. The story around it was that it was this comically overpriced tea brewer, often compared with the Juicero, that symbolized what was wrong with Silicon Valley.
So, of course, I took very little interest in it. I like brewing tea and, having brewed it at least a few thousand times, I’m pretty good at it. What’s the point of a machine that’s not going to do it as well as I can?
I can’t remember why, but a few weeks ago, the Teforia came back on my radar. I searched and found that they had gone out of business and that the machines which were once $1000-15000 were now being sold as cheaply as $200 on eBay.
At the same time, I had been noticing something troubling about my productivity. I realized that because I made tea at my desk every day, and because it required a fair amount of manual intervention, I would avoid any tasks which required serious concentration for the first couple hours.
Maybe the Teforia was the answer? I searched for reviews, but they were all very superficial or seemed to be from people who may not know that much about tea. The reviews were primarily by tech bloggers rather than real tea aficionados.
Curiosity finally got the better of me and I ordered one.
I don’t normally review products on my blog, but this device is so interesting and doesn’t seem to have any serious reviews from people experienced with. I think that’s a real shame. I’m also a bit of a hacker, so I’ve discovered some interesting things about it which aren’t mentioned anywhere else.
First, some background. I’ve been drinking tea nearly daily since approximately 2010. I first drank really crappy tea for the health benefits, but when I visited Samovar in San Francisco, and experienced high quality tea for the first time, I became obsessed.
Now I routinely travel to countries and cities for no reason other than to visit a tea farm or tea house, I have my own tea room in my house, and am building one in my cabin on our island. While I often meet people who’s incredible tea knowledge eclipses mine, I know a good bit about it and am very competent at brewing a wide variety of teas by their traditional methods. I’ve been to the best teahouses in the world and have brewed tea alongside their owners with similar results. Around half of what I travel with is related to making tea for myself and others.
In other words, while I may not be a tea monk out in Taiwan or something, I am really into tea, understand what good tea is, and don’t need a machine to do it for me.
The basis for making most tea well is to have a lot of leaf (4-7 grams), a small amount of good water (50-200ml) at the right temperature, and to brew it for the right amount of time. Not enough leaf will either make the tea very weak or force you to brew it a long time to get enough flavor. Brewing too long will generally make the tea bitter, as will water that is too hot. Water that is not hot enough may not bring out some of the flavors in the leaf, especially in darker teas.
The simplest way to make good teas is to use a gaiwan. This is a lidded cup which can hold the appropriate amount of leaf and water. I travel with one and good teahouses will give you one to brew most teas (especially oolongs).
Most good teas can and should be steeped multiple times. As the leaves open up different flavors come out. Using a gaiwan produces a small amount of tea, intended to be drunk from small cups, multiple times.
Until the Teforia, this was the problem with any “easy” way to brew tea. There was no easy or automated method to brew tea with a high leaf to water ratio multiple times. For example, tea bags are very convenient but use a tiny amount of (low grade) tea compared to a huge amount of water. The results are generally either very bitter or very weak.
No one actually writes down tea recipes, but you could express the way you brew a tea in a recipe. For example, if I were to brew a typical high-mountain Taiwanese tea, my recipe might look like:
6g of leaves
1st steeping – 100ml water at 185° for 60 seconds
2nd steeping – 100ml water at 185° for 25 seconds
3nd steeping – 100ml water at 185° for 15 seconds
4th steeping – 100ml water at 190° for 15 seconds
And a Japanese Gyokuro might be:
7g of leaves
1st steeping – 50ml water at 80° for 7 minutes
2nd steeping – 100ml water at 140° for 20 seconds
3rd steeping – 100ml water at 165° for 10 seconds
4th steeping – 100ml water at 165° for 20 seconds
What makes the Teforia really interesting is that it’s the first device that can follow recipes like this. And, actually, it creates the recipes itself based on what sort of tea you put into it.
The Teforia does this by using two chambers, one in which to brew the tea, and another in which to hold the final product. The first chamber is the equivalent of a gaiwan. It holds around 80ml of water as well as the leaf. Once it brews the tea for the correct amount of time it drops it to the carafe below for storage. It will brew the tea 3-4 times, thus creating a large amount of properly brewed tea in 4-7 minutes, depending on the recipe.
You then remove the carafe and decant into a cup for drinking. In fact, I have a carafe of puerh tea in front of me that I’m drinking as I write this.
When I got my Teforia I immediately had it make a Taiwanese oolong which I’m very familiar with and brew for myself all the time. I was stunned at how good of a job it did. I expected it to be a little worse than I could do on my own, but it was indistinguishable. I really couldn’t believe it. I then tried it with several other types of tea and it did an excellent job on each of them.
This little machine can actually make tea that’s just as good as when brewed by an expert. That is a massive accomplishment, as the learning curve on brewing tea properly is somewhat steep.
The vast majority of people, at least in the US, have never tried good tea and have no idea what it tastes like. That’s not because leaves or water are expensive, it’s because it’s relatively difficult to make good tea. But anyone can buy this machine and have all sorts of teas brewed absolutely correctly.
There are two ways to use the machine. It is primarily designed to use Sips, which are pods of loose tea with NFC tags on the labels. You tap the pod on the top of the machine, dump the tea in, and tap the light that magically appears on the base of the machine. From there the machine draws water from the reservoir, heats it to the right temperature, transfers it to the brewing chamber, sometimes aerates it, lets it steep, dumps it into the carafe, and then repeats a few more times to fill the carafe.
The pods sold for $2-6 originally. I have discovered that the tea contained inside was sourced from Rishi Tea, which is essentially the only high quality tea vendor that does serious scale. I order their tea all the time to supplement really special teas I pick up while I travel.
That’s a relatively expensive price per gram (each Sip is 4 grams). I bought a bunch of Sips from ebay and really liked the experience of using them. It’s extremely convenient and works really well. I still feel like they’re expensive and I prefer 5 grams, but it doesn’t feel like the ripoff it initially appeared to be. I could even see myself buying them if they still existed.
If you bought the $399 machine (called the Leaf), that was the only way you could make tea. But if you paid $1000-1500 for the Classic (later called the Leaf+ with minor changes), you could use your own tea as well. You have to weigh it out yourself, and then you use the app to tell the machine which tea you put in. If it’s not in its database, you can create a custom tea by specifying the type of tea (Oolong, Black, Green, etc), the shape of the leaf, and the color of the tea.
The Android version of the app is broken and the custom teas won’t brew, but it works on iOS. I also created a web version of it for myself (more on that later).
I was very impressed at how well this worked. Every time I put in a custom tea, it did a good job brewing it. The control freak in me would have preferred to be able to customize individual aspects of each cycle, but the results never left me wanting.
As is probably obvious to you by now, I love this machine. A leaky water tank in the first one broke it, and I immediately ordered a second one. It has changed my morning routine for the better and has made tea incredibly convenient for me. I still like to sit in my tea room and make tea by hand when I have guests, but when I’m at home working (especially on calls), this machine is perfect.
There are a few flaws. The seal for the water tank doesn’t seem to be great, as my first one leaked (and eventually destroyed it). There was no user manual online or in the box, so I actually had to email the founder of the company to figure out what an error light sequence meant. The Android app doesn’t work with custom teas and both mine and a friend’s said that the wifi password was wrong on the first bootup (but then worked when rebooting).
The Teforia didn’t sell well, and the company went out of business. Right before they did, they sent an unlock patch to the cheap ones so that they could also brew custom tea. Very classy move, and the right thing to do.
It actually upsets me that Teforia didn’t succeed. The design is absolutely genius, as it makes a fairly complicated process extremely simple. It would have been much easier to make a machine that produced acceptable results rather than excellent results. The comparison to the Juicero is completely unfair and ridiculous. I actually think it’s a good value even at $1500 / $399 + Sips pods. Now that I’ve used it, I would pay that amount.
The fact that this thing wasn’t even on my radar when it was still for sale commercially speaks to just how difficult it is to educate a market. I knew about it, but I don’t know what it would have taken for me to seriously consider buying it.
The good news is that you can still buy them pretty easily on eBay or Amazon. Used ones are around $200 and new ones are $380. I’ve thought about buying a second one as a backup so that when it eventually breaks I will have a spare. It’s hard for me to imagine another company succeeding at this, so this might be the last good tea brewing machine.
I’d recommend this to anyone for whom the price isn’t a major obstacle. If you’re a little bit into tea, this will make it very easy to have good tea without the hassle of figuring out how to do it yourself. If you’re very into tea, it will brew tea as well as you do and will do it automatically.
Bonus: Hacking the Teforia
Because I fell in love with this thing and am sad that it is no longer and active product, I took it upon myself to figure it out and create my own utilities for it.
The Teforia runs an embedded Intel Edison linux platform. It has an SSH port but I haven’t been able to figure out the password. I did intercept the traffic to it and discover that it has an API on port 8337. For example, if you go to http://TEFORIA_IP:8337/state you will get some good information on it. I haven’t figured out or documented the whole API, but I have figured out a lot of it.
I created my own PHP programs to send custom tea brews to it by specifying type of tea, leaf shape, and leaf color. I also made a complementary utility to poll the machine and record what it is doing. I started making a web app that would allow you to specify the brew and then see in real time what is happening.
There are several parameters I haven’t figured out. The iOS app allows you to schedule a brew, but the Android one doesn’t, and I haven’t figured out how to send that command. It also appears that you can modify the recipe by specifying high or low caffeine, antioxidants, and tasting notes. I suspect that was never fully implemented. I guessed at how to do it through the API but it didn’t seem to work.
I have also figured out the NFC tags and have successfully duplicated them. I am putting them on the bottom of my tea tins so that I can just tap the tea tin, put the tea in the brewing chamber, and go. The tags are NTAG213 tags and they pass a single URL, which is actually the code for the tea. One example is: “https://tfrln.com/t/b17krfekl1ng00m8j3q0025101ojcooo107”
I believe that it’s not actually connecting to the internet and that the b1XXX… string is either an encoded recipe or, more likely, a lookup string in the internal recipe book on the machine. All of the combinations (black/whole leaf/brown) map deterministically to a string like that, but I don’t know if there’s a formula or if it’s just a lookup table.
I opened up my first Teforia after it broke. It’s very hard to open up without damaging it and it is much more complex inside than I expected. There seems to be a second touch sensitive area on the base that I’ve never seen used. There are about 10-12 wires that go to the main board and I suspect that one group of them is for sensor data and that the other is relays to the components. I may try to reverse engineer it and put a raspberry pi inside.
If anyone else hacks on it, I’d love to hear what you figure out.
Photo is pretty obvious!
We’re one month out from the Superhuman Event #1. I’m really excited about it!