I didn't like coffee when I first gave it a try in my early teens. I loved the smell in the morning when my Mom started up the electric percolator that was common during the sixties, but the first time I tasted it, it was a disappointment. It was bitter. And my parents were Maxwell House drinkers...which, according to their ads on TV, "tastes as good as it smells." During college, I mostly drank tea. Coffee was an inexpensive energy drink that I relied upon mostly to fuel 48 hour "all-nighters" when a term paper I had put off until the last minute could not be put off any longer, and chemical boosts of the illicit variety were not readily at hand. I would make instant coffee and sit at my typewriter for hours on end, composing as I went along. I never even owned a coffee maker until after college.
When I went into the Peace Corps in 1979 I was sent first to Costa Rica for 3 months of training. It was there that I first began really drinking coffee, and saw a coffee brewing "technology" that was completely foreign to me. Every kitchen there (in a community of people of quite modest means) had what looked like a homemade filter that consisted of a small net on a hinged arm (think of a fish net for aquariums) that was mounted to the wall in the kitchen. This homemade filter looked like it was made from nylon stockings or something. Grounds were put into the sock, and boiling water from a tea pot was slowly poured through, with the coffee dripping into a small carafe below.
After training I served in Ecuador, where virtually every small restaurant I would go to had a cruet of cold, strong coffee liquid, almost condensed, on the tables. If you wanted coffee, the server would bring you a cup half filled with hot water, and you added coffee from the cruet to your taste. It was drinkable.
I thought I would conduct a short tour of how we have gotten our morning fix over the centuries, and some of the devices we have invented for that purpose.
First, here's a little music to get things percolating. A minor hit in 1962, this song took a riff from a popular Maxwell House coffee commercial and turned it into an instrumental using the Xylophone as the lead instrument:
The origins of coffee, most people know, are in Sub-Saharan Africa, around Ethiopia. Coffee lore has it that Ethiopian goat herders noticed that their animals would prance around and become quite energetic after eating the berries from the coffee bushes that grew wild there. The herders began chewing the green berries, sometimes mixing them with animal fat, for a "pick me up." That was sometime around 300 AD, give or take a couple hundred years. It wasn't until around 500 AD that Arab traders brought the coffee bean to the Arabian peninsula, and by 600 AD the first coffee houses were established in Cairo and Mecca. We can thank the Arabs for the first major breakthrough in coffee making technology, though it took at least 500 years to happen...roasting.
Previously, a weak tea was made by simply steeping the whole, green coffee beans, along with leaves from the plant. In the 1100's the Arabs discovered that by roasting the beans over an open fire, and them grinding them, a much stronger and better tasting beverage resulted. The first coffee making device was invented, basically a metal pot with a long handle called an Ibrik. Ground coffee and water were brought to a boil, and then poured into a cup. As ancient as the Ibrik is, it is still commonly used throughout the Middle East and Turkey to make what's called by most "Turkish Coffee", which sounds much more elegant than "Cowboy Coffee." (In fact, it is...Turkish coffee adds cardamom in addition to sugar, and is quite good, even if the grounds in the cup are a bit annoying)
This improvement in coffee making led to a rapid expansion in its popularity throughout the Middle East and into Turkey. Turkey, especially, embraced the beverage and it became enmeshed into their culture at that time. And Turks might take umbrage to the attribution of roasting coffee to the Arabs. Some claim it was the Turks who can rightfully claim credit for the innovation. What is a fact, however, is that by the mid 1400's, coffee was so important in Turkish culture that a law was passed making a husband's negligence or refusal to provide his wife with her daily quota of coffee legal "grounds" for a divorce.
Coffee making technology stagnates again for a few hundred years, but is finally introduced to Europe by Italian traders around 1600, by way of the port of Venice. Catholic priest at the time were highly suspicious of the "Muslim drink", and thought it to be a "gift from Satan." They petitioned Pope Clemente VIII to ban its consumption, but the Pope reportedly asked to taste the brew before making such a decree. After taking a few drinks, he sat the cup down and said "Now, that's good coffee." (No, he didn't...I'm making that up) Actually, he is reported to have said, upon declining to issue a papal decree banning the drink, "This beverage is so good it would be a sin to let only pagans drink it!" Or something along those lines. Whatever his exact words, the Pope's blessing led to widespread acceptance and popularity of coffee throughout Europe.
Coffee came to Colonial America onboard the ship with Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown in Virginia, in 1607. Coffee had to be imported from England, and was roasted and ground here in the colonies. A typical roasting technique was to use a horizontal metal drum, which would fit into the oversized fireplaces of the era, and rotated over a wood fire. After roasting, the coffee had to be ground using one a various types of hand crank grinders that were used at the time. How would you like to have to use a hand crank grinder every morning before you get your daily java fix?
Incidentally, "Java" derives from the Dutch who smuggled a coffee plant out of the Yemen port of Mocha in 1690 (Yemen was the first major coffee growing region), and transplanted to their colony of Java in the East Indies. Similarly, a French Naval officer smuggled a coffee plant to the West Indies in the early 1700's, and introduced it to Martinique. From there it spread throughout the Caribbean Basin, Central and northern South America.
For all practical purposes, there weren't many innovations in coffee making from the 1500's until the early 1800's. Sure, there were various improvements in mechanical grinders, but roasting was still mostly done at the local level. While roasting improves the flavor of coffee, it also shortens its shelf life, and transportation technology was such that coffee beans were almost entirely sold unroasted, in bags, and roasting was done regionally, if not actually at the household level. We have the French to thank for the next leap forward.
Much design tinkering had gone into the actual shape of the vessel that coffee was brewed in, in order to deal with the issue of grounds. But at the end of the day, everyone still boiled their coffee in a metal pot, of some shape, before pouring it into a cup. Designs were made that included a wide bottom, to collect most of the sediment, which then narrowed before bulbing out in the middle before narrowing again. Thus, when one poured the brewed coffee, the grounds which didn't remain at the bottom of the pot would mostly settle in the middle when it was tipped, and the spouts were similarly curved to trap floating grounds. Various mediums were tried to strain the coffee through, but mostly with unsatisfactory results. Cotton, and other cloths, imparted an off-flavor to the coffee. Only hemp proved to be a good straining medium.
In the 1700's the French came up with the idea of using an oversized "teabag", made from linen, into which the grounds could be poured before steeping in boiling water. The linen imparted no flavor, and trapped all of the grounds. And had to be washed from time to time. The French also came up with the idea of a two-chambered coffee pot...the first "drip coffee." Then, in 1818 a Frenchman invented the first percolator.
Now things start to take off.
The French (not the Italians) also invent the first espresso machine, using steam pressure to brew the finely ground coffee. It was introduced at the 1855 Paris Exposition, after about 8 years of design tweaks. The first vacuum percolator is introduced in France, but it is made of glass, and has a tendency to shatter if heated to too high a temp. In America, inventor James Mason patents the first American made percolator in 1865. The main difference between the vacuum percolator and the first stovetop percolators is that the desired water temp remains constant in the vacuum percolator, while in the stovetop models boiled water is recirculated over the grounds, which results in bitter coffee. (That's why so many more people used sugar, at least, and cream in their coffee in years past)
The French also came up with the "French Press" coffee brewer, in which the grounds are placed in a filter compartment, lowered into water that has been heated to the optimum temperature, and then extracted from the water using a rod to prevent bitterness. This was in the 1890's, but it remains a popular coffee maker.
After 1900, it really moves. Paper coffee filters are innovated and patented by German housewife Mellita-Bentz. Instant coffee is invented in America by chemist Satori Kato in Chicago, it is further refined and popularized by English chemist George Constant Washington, who was living in Guatemala at the time and was inspired by observing the dried coffee residue at the bottom of his cup.
Once rail transport was ubiquitous and had shortened commercial transportation time to a matter of days, Hills Bros. is the first coffee company to market pre-ground, pre-roasted coffee to the mass market, leading to the demise of local coffee roasters/grinders around the country. There are various innovations in the mid 20th century with respect to espresso machines, mostly by the Italians.
In 1971 Starbucks opened its first store, in Seattle's Pike Place Market. In the following year a man by the name of Vincent Marotta invents a machine that has become omnipresent to this day...the Mr Coffee coffee maker.
Does it make the best coffee? No, it doesn't. Is it easy? Yes it is. Americans mostly agree...they prefer easy to good...or best possible. You can still buy a French Press, and though I've never used one, I'm told it yields superior coffee. The problem is, it doesn't do so while you are brushing your teeth, taking a leak and/or jumping in the shower. The same is true with most of the other high end coffee brewers out there that are mainly new fangled design interpretations of older coffee making technologies. They are hands on, at least to some extent, and require some babysitting. My sister bought a new machine last year for her home that looks like a home version of a commercial machine. You fill the water receptacle, pop in a foil capped coffee packet, close the lid, which pierces the foil, and within a couple minutes you get one cup of coffee. It's fast, convenient and expensive.
Not my idea, exactly, of a better mousetrap...but then I drink many cups of coffe throughout the day.
By the way...for those of you who, like me, have always been confounded by what the markings on your coffee maker say is "8 cups", and what your experience says is more like 3 cups (or mugs)...you aren't crazy. Coffee makers long ago settled upon a measuring convention that calls "one cup" of coffee something markedly less than the measuring cup in your kitchen cupboard. It is not "one cup."
I'll finish this diary with, what else? A tip of the hat to an old lady that at least some of you all remember...This commercial takes me back some...and it certainly wouldn't play today, but I love vintage commercials: