A two part article in which we explore the development of coffee preparation techniques from the 17th Century Ottoman Turks to the Italian Espresso of the mid-20th Century.
Europeans have been drinking coffee since about 1615 when Venetian traders obtained it from the Ottoman Turks. The first European coffee house outside of Istanbul opened in Venice in 1645. But if you were to hop into that secret time machine I know you’re working on in the basement for a trip to Venice in 1645, you might be surprised at the equipment being used by the baristas.
Here in the 21st Century we associate Italy with espresso, that intense potion that clears your foggy head even after the most dissolute of nights out. But back in 1645 coffee was being made the way the Turks still do it today. Finely ground coffee is boiled together with water and sugar in a small copper pot with a long handle called a cezve, and then poured into a cup for you to drink. If it’s done properly the grounds will settle to the bottom, but be careful of that last sip! Turkish coffee is a fine beverage, but it’s quite different from espresso.
How did we get from a Turkish-style preparation of coffee to the more complex and machine-dependent ritual that is today’s espresso culture? About 50 years after coffee first entered Europe through Venice, it could also be found in the Netherlands, England, France, Vienna and Germany. The Dutch had even begun farming it in their colony of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). For the next 285 years or so, the French were the taste-makers in new and fashionable coffee preparation methods. In the first move away from Turkish-style coffee, the French placed the ground coffee in a linen bag and infused it in the water, thus eliminating that final gritty sip. Around the same time, aficionados also discovered that making coffee with boiling water destroys the delicate, volatile essences where much of coffee’s flavor resides. A temperature just below boiling, makes for a vastly more flavorful cup. At this time a “coffee pot” was just a serving vessel, not the container in which you prepared the coffee.
In about 1800 Jean Baptiste de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, invented the first drip coffee pot. This French drip pot had two parts, the ground coffee was placed in the upper container which was then stacked on top of an empty lower container with a cloth filter placed in between. Then hot (not boiling) water was poured over the grounds in the upper pot and the coffee would slowly drip through the cloth filter into the lower chamber from which it was then served. The main problem with this method was that it took quite a while, and by the time it was finished the coffee might only be lukewarm.
While doing research for this article, I discovered that the French drip pot is still widely used in Louisiana where it is called une grégue. This page has some lovely reminiscences from people who grew up drinking coffee made that way.
An eccentric Anglo-American inventor by the name of Benjamin Thompson stepped in at this point to solve the temperature issues with the original French drip pot. Thompson fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War and moved back to London afterwards where he became a minister in the government and knighted by King George III in 1784. Beginning in 1785 he worked for the Bavarian government where he helped the military with everything from food to explosives. In 1791 he was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire and from then on is referred to as Count Rumford. He left Bavaria around 1799, after which he lived in both England and France.
On one of his sojourns in France, Count Rumford improved on the Archbishop’s drip coffee pot by enclosing it in an insulating jacket which could be filled with hot water, keeping the pot warm throughout the dripping process. Sometimes Rumford is credited with creating the first percolator, but this is a bit of a misnomer. The verb “to percolate” describes what happens when a liquid passes through a permeable substance. In that sense, the first drip coffee pot was a percolator. Modern usage of the term “coffee percolator” usually refers to the “pumping percolator” — more on that later.
Up until now you needed two containers to make coffee, one for boiling the water, which was then poured into the coffee maker proper containing the ground coffee and a filtering device. That changes in 1819 when two different Frenchmen came up with a way to do it all in one pot.
A Parisian tin smith by the name of Morize made a clever design innovation to the drip pot. He created a pot with three chambers instead of two. The water goes in the bottom section, the ground coffee in the middle, and the top chamber is left empty. The pot is placed on the stove, when the water boils you take it off the heat and flip it upside down. The now no-longer-boiling water drips through the coffee grounds into the empty pot, which is now on the bottom of the apparatus, and from which the coffee can be served. This design was taken up with great enthusiasm in Italy where it became known as the Napoletana or Neapolitan pot.
In that same year of 1819 a French patent for the first pumping percolator is given to a man named Laurens. This design was improved upon in 1827 by his fellow countryman Jacques-Augustin Gandais, resulting in a two-chambered pot with a tube connecting the top and bottom. The pot was placed on the stove with water in the bottom part and ground coffee in the top. When the water boiled it was forced up the tube and would spray over the grounds in the top chamber and drip through them back down into the bottom chamber (which was now empty). It is important to note that this cycle happened only once. In future, modifications were made to the pumping percolator so the coffee could be cycled through the grounds multiple times. This is a recipe for insipid coffee that has lost all of its volatile aromas and flavors. Some people blame the ubiquitous use of pumping percolator machines in America during the 1950s and 60s for the destruction of American coffee culture.
Improvements in the manufacture and availability of glass, along with scientific advances in the understanding of fluid dynamics and vacuums paved the way for the next innovation in coffee preparation methods, the glass vacuum pot. The first patent for such a device was granted to a Frenchwoman, Mme. Jeanne Richard in 1838. Mme. Richard based her design on an existing German pot made by a company called Loef in Berlin. In 1841 another French woman, Mme. Vassieux of Lyons, made some important improvements which solidified what became known as the “French Balloon” design. These pots were not meant to be hidden away in the kitchen, instead they were proudly displayed in the dining room where guests could witness the spectacle of the coffee being made.
The glass vacuum pot consists of two globes, one on top of the other, which are connected by a tube that reaches almost to the bottom of the lower globe. There is a filter at the top opening of the tube. Water is placed in the bottom globe, and ground coffee in the upper one. The water is then heated (for dramatic effect it can be done with a candle or spirit lamp). As the water heats it expands and is forced up through the tube, where it mixes with the waiting coffee grounds. When most of the water is gone from the bottom globe and the coffee has been steeping in the water for an amount of time that suits your taste, the candle or lamp is extinguished. As the water vapor cools, a partial vacuum is created which draws the coffee through the filter and down into the lower globe, from which it can be served.
Around 1850 the design of the vacuum pot changed and the two glass containers were placed side-by-side and connected via a siphon tube. Britain’s James Napier in particular is well known for this design. The principle of how the coffee was made however, remained the same. Interestingly, the French Balloon style vacuum pot was revived in the United States in the early 20th Century where it became the basis of the famous Silex coffee pot. As in France, the double globe vacuum pot design was promoted and improved by women. In 1915 two sisters from Massachusetts, Mrs. Anne Bridges and Mrs. Sutton had it manufactured from Corning’s newly invented heat resistant Pyrex glass which made it much more durable than the previous incarnations of this almost century-old design. The Silex pot became so popular in America that it became a generic name for any glass vacuum pot. The company was sold to Frank Woolcott in 1924. It then merged with Proctor to become Proctor-Silex in 1957.
Stop by Comestibles next week when we will continue our investigation of coffee preparation techniques through the ages in Part II of this article.