People all around the world start their day with a cup of coffee. However, how they drink it can vary greatly. Some people prefer pour-overs, others love espresso machines and the French press, and some are fine with instant coffee. But there are many other ways to enjoy a cup of coffee, and most aficionados like to think their method is the best.
However, coffee has been around much longer than cafes and Keurig machines. In fact, people have been drinking coffee for hundreds of years if not more, and the did it with some methods we might recognize today but that feel a bit more like ancient history. So, let’s take a look at how the technology of coffee brewing has evolved since coffee first became popular over 500 years ago.
The roots of coffee as a globally traded commodity start in the 13th century on the Arabian peninsula. During this period, the traditional way of brewing coffee was seeping the coffee grounds in hot water, which was a process that could take anywhere from five hours to half a day (clearly not the best method for people on-the-go). Coffee’s popularity continued to grow, and by the 16th century, the beverage made its way to Turkey, Egypt, and Persia. Turkey is home to the first method of coffee brewing, the Ibrik method, which is still used today.
The Ibrik method gets its name from the small pot, an ibrik (or cezve), that is used to brew and serve Turkish coffee. This small metal pot has a long handle on one side used for serving, and coffee grounds, sugar, spices, and water are all mixed together before brewing.
To make Turkish coffee using the Ibrik Method, the above mixture is heated until it’s on the brink of boiling. Then it’s cooled and heated several more times. When it’s ready, the mixture gets poured into a cup to be enjoyed. Traditionally, Turkish coffee is served with foam on top. This method revolutionized coffee brewing to be more time efficient, turning coffee brewing into an activity that could be done every day.
Biggin Pots and Metal Filters
Coffee made its way to Europe in the 17th century when European travelers brought it back with them from the Arabian Peninsula. It soon became widely popular, and coffee shops popped up all around Europe, starting in Italy. These coffee shops were places of social gathering, in a similar way coffee shops are used today.
In these coffee shops, the primary brewing method was coffee pots. Grounds were put inside and the water was heated until just before boiling. The sharp spouts of these pots helped to filter out the coffee grinds, and their flat bottoms allowed for sufficient heat absorption. As coffee pots evolved though,, so did filtering methods.
Historians believe the first coffee filter was a sock; people would pour hot water through a sock filled with coffee grounds. Cloth filters were primarily used during this time even though they were less efficient and more costly than paper filters. These wouldn’t come onto the scene until about 200 years later.
In 1780, the “Mr. Biggin” was released, making it the first commercial coffee maker. It tried to improve some of the faults of cloth filtering, such as poor drainage.
Biggin pots are three or four-part coffee pots in which a tin filter (or cloth bag) sits under the lid. However, due to unadvanced coffee grinding methods, water would sometimes run right through the grinds if they were too fine or too coarse. Biggin pots made their way to England 40 years later. Biggin pots are still used today, but they are much improved over the original 18th-century version.
Around the same time of the Biggin pots, metal filters and improved filter-pot systems were introduced. One such filter was metal or tin with spreaders that would evenly distribute water into the coffee. This design was patented in France in 1802. Four years later, the French patented another invention: a drip pot that filtered coffee without boiling. These inventions helped to pave the way for more efficient modes of filtration.
The earliest siphon pot (or vacuum brewer) dates back to the early 19th century. The initial patent dates from the 1830s in Berlin, but the first commercially available siphon pot was designed by Marie Fanny Amelne Massot, and it hit the market in the 1840s. By 1910, the pot made its way to America and was patented by two Massachusetts sisters, Bridges and Sutton. Their pyrex brewer was known as the “Silex.”
The siphon pot has a unique design that resembles an hourglass. It has two glass domes, and the heat source from the bottom dome causes pressure to build and forces water through the siphon so that it can mix with the ground coffee. After the grinds are filtered out, the coffee is ready.
Some people still use the siphon pot today, although usually just at artisan coffee shops or homes of true coffee aficionados. The invention of the siphon pots paved the way for other pots that use similar brewing methods, such as the Italian Moka pot (left), which was invented in 1933.
In the early 19th century, another invention was brewing – the coffee percolator. Although its origins are disputed, the prototype of the coffee percolator is credited to the American-British physicist, Sir Benjamin Thompson.
A few years later, in Paris, tinsmith Joseph Henry Marie Laurens invented a percolator pot that more or less resembles the stovetop models sold today. In the United States, James Nason patented a percolator prototype, which used a different method of percolating than what is popular today. The modern U.S. percolator is credited to Hanson Goodrich, an Illinois man who patented his version of the percolator in the United States in 1889.
Up until this point, coffee pots made coffee through a process called decoction, which is just mixing the grinds with boiling water to produce the coffee. This method was popular for many years and is still practiced today. However, the percolator improved upon that by creating a coffee that is free of any leftover grinds, meaning you would not need to filter it before consuming.
The percolator works using steam pressure generated by high heat and boiling. Inside the percolator, a tube connects the coffee grinds with the water. The steam pressure is created when water at the bottom of the chamber boils. The water rises through the pot and over the coffee grounds, which then seeps through and creates freshly brewed coffee.
This cycle repeats as long as the pot is exposed to a heat source. (Note: Thompson and Nason’s prototypes did not use this modern method. They used a downflow method instead of rising steam.)
The next notable invention in coffee brewing, the espresso machine, came in 1884. The espresso machine is still used today and is in virtually every coffee shop. An Italian fellow named Angelo Moriondo patented the first espresso machine in Turin, Italy. His device used water and pressurized steam to make a strong cup of coffee at an accelerated pace. However, unlike the espresso machines we are used to today, this prototype produced coffee in bulk, instead of a small espresso cup for just one customer.
In a few years, Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni, who were both from Milan, Italy, updated and commercialized Moriondo’s original invention. They developed a machine that could produce 1,000 cups of coffee an hour.
However, unlike Moriondo’s original device, their machine could brew an individual cup of espresso. Bezzerra and Pavoni’s machine premiered in 1906 at the Milan Fair, and the first espresso machine came to the United States in 1927 in New York.
However, this espresso does not taste like the espresso we are used to today. Because of the steam mechanism, espresso from this machine was often left with a bitter aftertaste. Fellow Milanese, Achille Gaggia, is credited as the father of the modern espresso machine. This machine resembles the machines of today which use a lever. This invention increased the water pressure from 2 bars to 8-10 bars (which according to Italian Espresso National Institute, to qualify as espresso, it must be made with a minimum of 8-10 bars). This created a much smoother and richer cup of espresso. This invention also standardized the size of a cup of espresso.
Given the name, one might assume that the French Press originated in France. However, both the French and the Italians lay claim to this invention. The first French Press prototype was patented back in 1852 by Frenchmen Mayer and Delforge. But a different French Press design, one that more resembles what we have today, was patented in 1928 in Italy by Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta. However, the first appearance of the French Press we use today came in 1958. It was patented by a Swiss-Italian man named Faliero Bondanini. This model, known as the Chambord, was first manufactured in France.
The French Press works by mixing hot water with coarsely ground coffee. After soaking for a few minutes, a metal plunger separates the coffee from the used grinds, making it ready to pour. French Press coffee is still widely popular today for its old-school simplicity and rich flavor.
Perhaps even more straightforward than the French Press is instant coffee, which doesn’t require any coffee brewing apparatus. The first “instant coffee” can be traced back to the 18th century in Great Britain. This was a coffee compound that was added to water to create coffee. The first American instant coffee developed during the Civil War in the 1850s.
Like many inventions, instant coffee is attributed to several sources. In 1890, David Strang of New Zealand patented his design of instant coffee. However, chemist Satori Kato from Chicago created the first successful version of it by using a similar technique to his instant tea. In 1910, instant coffee was mass produced in the United States by George Constant Louis Washington (no relation to the first president).
There were some hiccups during its debut due to instant coffee’s unappealing, bitter taste. But in spite of this, instant coffee grew in popularity during both world wars due to its ease of use. By the 1960s, coffee scientists were able to maintain coffee’s rich taste through a process called dry freezing.
Commercial Coffee Filter
In many ways, people have been using a coffee filter ever since they first started enjoying the beverage, even if that coffee filter was a sock or cheesecloth. After all, no want wants old coffee grinds floating in their cup of coffee. Today, many commercial coffee machines use paper filters.
In 1908, the paper coffee filter made its debut thanks to Melitta Bentz. As the story goes, after being frustrated with cleaning coffee residue in her brass coffee pot, Bentz found a solution. She used a page from her son’s notebook to line to the bottom of her coffee pot, filled it with coffee grinds, and then slowly poured hot water over the grinds, and just like that, the paper filter was born. The paper coffee filter is not only more efficient than cloth in keeping coffee grinds out, but it is easier to use, disposable, and hygienic. Today, Melitta is a billion dollar coffee company.
The practice of drinking coffee is as old as many civilizations around the world, but the process of brewing has gotten much easier as compared to original methods. While some coffee fans prefer more ‘old school’ methods of brewing coffee, there are a plethora of modern machines available today that simplify the brewing process and make coffee faster and with a richer flavor.
With these machines, you can have an espresso, cappuccino, or a regular cup of joe at the press of a button. But no matter how we make it, every time we drink coffee, we are participating in a ritual that has been a part of the human experience for well over half a millennium.
Bramah, J. & Joan Bramah. Coffee Makers – 300 Years of Art & Design. Quiller Press, Ltd., London. 1995.
Carlisle, Rodney P. Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity from the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven. Wiley, 2004.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Von Rumford.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Sir-Benjamin-Thompson-Graf-von-Rumford.
“First Annual Report”. Patents, Designs and Trade-marks. New Zealand. 1890. p. 9.
“History.” Bezzera, www.bezzera.it/?p=storia&lang=en.
“The History of Coffee Brewers”, Coffee Tea, www.coffeetea.info/en.php?page=topics&action=article&id=49
“How One Woman Used Her Son’s Notebook Paper to Invent Coffee Filters.” Food & Wine, www.foodandwine.com/coffee/history-of-the-coffee-filter.
Kumstova, Karolina. “The History of French Press.” European Coffee Trip, 22 Mar. 2018, europeancoffeetrip.com/the-history-of-french-press/.
Stamp, Jimmy. “The Long History of the Espresso Machine.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 19 June 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-long-history-of-the-espresso-machine-126012814/.
Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1922.
Weinberg, Bennett Alan., and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. Routledge, 2002.