The History of Coffee Technology (Part 1)

The History of Coffee Technology (Part 1)

We take a look at the history of coffee technology, from it's invention right up to the 21st Century.

Technology: ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry’.

Coffee is synonymous with technology. You can’t make a great cup of coffee without the application of technology at almost every step of the way. Whether it’s the methods utilised in harvesting the bean at source, brewing your own cup in your kitchen or simply transporting your coffee to your lips, coffee is and always has been reliant on the very definition of technology suggested above.

But how has technology shaped the origins of the coffee industry? 

When was coffee invented?

Coffee berries and the goat

It is not known for sure when coffee was first discovered however it is largely accepted that its origin is 9th Century, Ethiopia. The legend tells of a goat herder who observed overly energetic behaviour from his flock having witnessed them eating a particular form of berry. Excited by his discovery, he told his story to the village Abbot who sharply went about distilling the berries into a drink, to see if the effects could be replicated. To his amazement, they were, he found himself revitalised and much less susceptible to tiredness during prayer. 

Of-course, the story spread like wildfire, one monastery told the next and such began the spread of and birth of coffee around the world.

The Early Days

Over the next 300 years, coffee spread exponentially through the Arabian Peninsula. In that time the recipe and brewing technique remained largely true to the original methods discovered back in Ethiopia during the 11th Century. Typically coffee would be ground and then steeped with hot water, a process which from start to finish could elapse over 5 hours - making it apparent there was no such thing as “grabbing a quick coffee” 500 years ago. 

The earliest evidence of coffee beans being roasted dates back to the middle of the 15th Century, inside the Sufi shrines of Yemen. This is really the first emergence of coffee as we know it today.

By the 16th Century the coffee bean made its way to Turkey and in particular Istanbul. It was within the walls of Istanbul that a new technique for brewing coffee was born, ‘The Ibrik Method’ (Still used today in Turkey and around the world). 

The Ibrik Method

Ibrik Coffee Pot

A huge step in terms of technological advancement, the Ibrik Method allowed for a much shorter brewing session. An Ibrik (also known as a Finjan or Cezve) is a small pot with a long handle. It typically has a wide base before tapering in at the neck, to open out again with a wide mouth. To brew using the Ibrik, the coffee grounds and other ingredients including sugar are poured into the pot together with the required water. Ibrik coffee is typically served with a slight foam on top. To achieve this, the water is heated to just below boiling until the foam forms. It is then removed from the heat and repeated again before serving. 

Why Not Have A Go Yourself?

Ibrik Coffee Recipe:

  • 1 cup water (cold)
  • 1 tablespoon extra finely ground coffee (powder consistency)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (or 1 cardamom pod, crushed)
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon sugar (or more, to taste)

Method: 

  1. Pour the cup of water into your Ibrik, add the sugar and bring your water to just below a boil.
  2. Take it off the heat and add your ground coffee and crushed cardamom.
  3. Return your pot to the heat and again bring to just below a boil (until it starts to foam). Once you have a foamed layer, remove from the heat.
  4. Repeat step 3 one more time
  5. Serve! (You can either leave or remove the cardamom pod!)

The 16th Century also saw the introduction of coffee houses in Istanbul, known as ‘Qahveh Khaneh’. This was the first time in recognised, civilised society that people were gathering inside to purchase, share and enjoy coffee over a conversation, book or a game of chess. It didn’t take long for word of what was happening in Istanbul and across Turkey to reach the ears of those in Europe, with many European lands opening their own coffee shops during the 17th Century.

17th & 18th Century (1600-1799)

Coffee arrived into the port of Venice

It is understood that coffee first appeared in Europe in 1615, arriving with merchants into the port of Venice. There was some skepticism at first, with many labelling this newly discovered, black liquid “the bitter invention of Satan”. 

Such was the level of uncertainty that it took the intervention of Pope Clement VIII to intervene, taste the coffee himself and publicly declare his approval for public perception to shift. Despite the controversy, public coffee houses had already started to pop up across Europe and now armed with the Pope’s vote of confidence, coffee was spreading quickly, in the way it always has.

The Beginnings of Filtered Coffee

The primary way of brewing coffee in the 17th Century, particularly inside the coffee shops, was to heat ground coffee inside pots to serve as a breakfast drink. These coffee pots were typically attached to a long spout designed to separate the ground coffee from the water, prior to serving. This is possibly the first appearance of a system similar to what we today call, ‘filtered coffee’. 

Throughout coffee drinking history, many brewing techniques have arrived and disappeared. There was one in particular, thought to be first used in the 17th Century, whose absence today (although possibly not entirely) we can be particularly thankful for. It is understood that one of the first techniques for making filter coffee was to pour hot water through a sock filled with coffee grind (a clean one of course…). Thankfully, over the years filter coffee technology has seen significant advancement!

Towards the end of the 18th Century, technology in coffee was beginning to modernise, the use of socks and the more commonly used cloth to filter coffee were replaced by a string of new coffee brewing inventions. 

The first of these, engineered by “Mr Biggins”, was the ‘Biggin Pot’. 

Biggin pots consisted of several coffee pots which would filter the coffee with a tin filter (sometimes still a cloth) as the water passed through. These gained immediate popularity however were not without fault, with coffee grounds or off-flavours from the filter choice/sock often passing through into the cup (nice). It would be almost 200 years until this concept was perfected with the introduction of filters papers in 1908. 

Unlike the sock filter technique, the Biggin pot concept is still used today, although much improved in its design and efficiency.

19th Century (1800-1899)

The 19th Century was revolutionary in its contribution to the advancement of technology in the coffee industry, from milling methods to brewing techniques.

Drip Pot Coffee

Drip Pot Coffee

In the early 1800’s, French engineer, Jean Baptiste de Belloy conceptualised the first drip coffee pot. A simple design of two parts, an upper container which would hold your ground coffee, placed above a second container, with the two separated by a cloth filter. You would pour hot water over the coffee ground which would filter through into the bottom container. 

This was an effective way of filtering coffee to reduce any bitter flavouring, however the process was generally pretty slow, resulting in lukewarm coffee at the end. This was later improved by insulating the pot with a jacket designed to help retain the heat.

The french drip pot method is still popular today in Louisiana, USA.

Coffee Percolators (Stovetop Moka)

Stovetop coffee

France continued to be instrumental in coffee technology advancements during the 19th Century (and actually, ever since!). In 1819 a fresh brewing concept was invented by a Parisian tinsmith named Joseph-Henry-Marie Laurens, the 'coffee percolator'.

This one was a real game-changer. Before this, coffee brewing using a pot had required the coffee and water to be boiled together, a process known as ‘decoction’. With a coffee percolator, the two are separated during the brewing process so there is no need to filter the coffee before you drink it.

So how does this one work? The pot is placed onto a heat source (a stove, or open flame) which heats up a bottom chamber filled with water. Steam pressure is generated by the heat, which rises up an internal tube which connects the bottom chamber with a second chamber above (this is where you put your coffee!). 

The steam pressure/water is then dispersed evenly over the coffee by the spreader plate at the top of the pot to ensure an even brew. Once the rising water has mixed with the coffee and extracted their flavour, it gradually drips through a filter in the base of the top chamber, back into the chamber below. This is repeated continuously throughout the brewing process. Once the pot has reached boiling point, the pot will create a ‘’perking’ action sound to let the brewer know that the coffee is ready to drink.

This technique remained generally popular until the late 1970’s when electric methods started to rise to prominence, however! it is still favoured amongst coffee purists and traditionalists!

Siphon Pots & Vacuum Brewers

Siphon Pot Coffee

In 1840 a new style of coffee pot was introduced to the market, the siphon pot (also known as a vacuum brewer). Originally patented in Berlin in 1930, the siphon pot introduced a new, unique way of brewing coffee. This method may appear similar to the percolator method at first glance, but there are subtle differences in the brewing technique.

The pot consists of two chambers, one placed upon the other. The bottom chamber is filled with water while the coffee grounds are placed in the top section. The bottom chamber is then heated (typically by an open flame) which creates vapour pressure, which then forces the water to rise into the top chamber and into the coffee beans. The heat source is then removed which causes the water to pass back through a filter and drip back down into the bottom section. 

The loss of heat creates a gravity enforced vacuum which is what pulls the water down into the chamber to leave you with your cup of coffee. The justification for this brewing method is that mixing boiling water with coffee beans (as with other methods) can inhibit or ‘burn off’ the flavours of coffee. With siphoning, the water which is sent up into the coffee is just below boiling temperature, so a better flavour is retained. Oh, and it makes for a great bit of theatre!

Espresso Coffee

Espresso Machine Coffee

It's 1884, we've stepped into the era of steam, we've got steam trains, steam presses, steam coming out budding engineering ears, So why not steam in coffee production? Enter Angelo Moriondo...

Angelo, a young inventor from Turin, Italy received a patent for "New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage, method ‘A. Moriondo'" after demonstrating a prototype at the Turin General Exposition 1884.

Angelo's device used water and pressurized steam to make a strong cup of coffee very quickly. The machine even saw Angelo receive a Bronze Award at the Innovation Fair. There was one issue however, this early espresso machine was only capable of producing espresso on a grand scale, not by the cup for an individual customer. It would take an adaption of his idea in the 20th Century for this to change... So... let's go...

20th Century (1900-1999)

The Espresso More Like We Know It Today

Surprisingly, it isn't actually the Espresso's original founder, Angelo Moriondo that most people associate with the invention of the Espresso brewing technique. This is possibly due to a lack of marketing prowess or his decision to share the concept with a relatively closed circle of partners. There is also no surviving machine or even original product photography.

It was in the early years of the 20th Century that through a culmination of ideas from Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni (also Italians) we saw the birth of the espresso machine much like we see it today. A few refreshed patents and design improvements on from Moriondo's and we arrived at a machine capable of rapidly producing 1000 cups of coffee at one time, or if required, just one.

It was Bezzerra who introduced the portafilter, multiple brew-heads, and many other innovations still associated with espresso machines today. He is also responsible for the single cup innovation.

How Did Bezzerra's Machine Work?

Pavoni espresso machine

A large boiler with built-in burner chambers filled with water was heated until it pushed water and steam through a tamped puck of ground coffee. The mechanism through which the heated water passed also functioned as heat radiators, lowering the temperature of the water from 250°F in the boiler to the ideal brewing temperature of approximately 195°F (90°C). 

Bezzerra continued to work on and improve his adaption of Moriondo's early espresso idea, however he lacked the financial muscle and like Angelo before him, the prowess to market his creation effectively.

It was here that his partnership with Desiderio Pavoni (you may know him from the La Pavnoi Espresso Machines range). Pavoni made some revolutionary improvements to Bezzerra's machine, including the much favoured pressure release valve designed to stop the barista being splashed with hot coffee every time it was used due to the sudden release of pressure. If you're a barista reading this, raise a glass to, Desiderio. 

Newly named the 'Ideale' the espresso machine was presented at the 1906 Milan Fair, sparking a new wave of appreciation, and of course, new found competition.

Further Improvements To The Espresso

At this point, Bezzerra and Pavoni (not forgetting, Moriondo of course) had developed between them not just a cutting-edge espresso machine but a completely new methodology of brewing and enjoying coffee.

There was however an issue with the 'Ideale' espresso machine, it was powered exclusively by steam. Steam tends to imbue coffee with a burnt and bitter flavour, which of course is an un-desirable tasting note for a modern day beverage. Steam is also only capable of generating two bars of atmospheric pressure - this would not be enough to satisfy today's espresso standards.

It wasn't until after the Second World War a machine was produced capable of producing more than two bars of atmospheric pressure without burning the coffee in the process. Achille Gaggia, a cafe owner from Milan built a machine that was able to produce 8-10 bars of pressure via a lever system. 

What Did Achille Do?

In the new improvement, steam pressure in the boiler forces the water into a cylinder where it is further pressurised by a spring-piston lever which would be controlled by the user. While increasing the pressure it also reduced the need for the large boilers seen previously, ultimately standardising the size of the espresso machine and removing the 100% reliance on steam.

Achilles's spring loaded lever discovery also provided the etymology of the phrase "shot of espresso". With the barista having to pull the lever to get a shot.

The lever system also introduced the 'crema' (the layer of foam which appears on the surface) to the drink, which is now seen as one of the defining characteristics of a high quality espresso.

Making The Perfect Espresso

Ernesto Valents took the espresso machine one step further in 1961 with the invention of his volumetric pump system. Ernesto's pump system removed the manually operated lever requirement and replaced it with a motorised pump. 

The motorised pump would pull water from a dedicated plumbing line, before sending it through a copper piping system inside an internal boiler to then shoot it through to the coffee grounds. The water was kept at an ideal temperature by an internal heat exchanger. Ernesto's machine was a leap forward for productivity and efficiency while retaining the fresh flavour of the coffee.

There have been continued improvements to the espresso machine since however these contributions in the 20th Century are some of the most critical in developing the espresso as we know it today.

The French Press (Cafetiere)

The French Press Cafetiere

The French Press, or Cafetiere, is one of the most recognisable and iconic ways to make a coffee. While it's initial conception was theorised and patented midway through the 19th Century by two Frenchmen, their original design didn't contain a seal. It wasn't until 1928 when Milanese designer Attilio Calimani filed a new patent for the coffee press of similar design albeit with improvements that we had something that resembles the coffee press we know today.

In 1958 the 'French Press' was reimagined by Swiss man, Faliero Bondanini. Faliero's improvements, including the introduction of a seal transformed the device, marketed as the 'Chambord', into the device we now use today.

How Does A Cafetiere Work?

The 1958 Chambord design was patented for "Apparatus in which ground coffee or tea-leaves are immersed in the hot liquid in the beverage container having immiscible, e.g. rotatable, filters". 

A cafetiere works by mixing ground coffee with hot water in a glass container. The coffee is steeped by the hot water for several minutes. Once complete, a metal, mesh filter is pushed to the bottom of the container to separate the coffee grounds from the water. The water is then poured into a cup to serve a filtered coffee. The mesh will allow some fine particles and oils through to ensure great flavour and body.

Instant Coffee

As a speciality coffee provider, instant coffee is something we usually speak about to be honest, nor something we recommend to those close to us. That said, it does have a role in the history of coffee technology, so here it is...

There are several sources who claim the invention of instant coffee however the initial patent was filed in 1771 by the British Government. Improved largely throughout the 20th Century, most successfully by Nestle in 1937 and then again in 1960. 

How Is Instant Coffee Made?

Instant coffee is made by either freeze-drying or spray-drying ground coffee, before rehydrating it afterwards.

So there it is. The history of coffee and the technology that has influenced it over the last 500 years.

Keep an eye out for part 2, where we step into the 21st Century to take a look at how it's changed since the year 2000, what the current coffee trends are and how technology will shape the future of the coffee industry.

Thank you for reading!


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