Coffee features quite often in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Whether my characters consumed it with dessert, dinner, or by itself, coffee plays an important role in the scenes as much as the food I’ve chosen for them to eat. Rather than bore you with the entire history of coffee or mention trivia such as how many cups are consumed in the world a day, I’ll focus on how coffee was prepared during the years my novel takes place.
By the time my novel opens in 1907, one of the simplest methods of brewing coffee involved placing grounds and water in a heat-proof container and bringing it to a boil over a heat source. It was that inelegant sometimes. Most of the containers were actually metal pots with a handle and spout intended for coffee, however, brewing coffee in a cooking pot wasn’t unheard of.
I imagine Johnny’s stepmother, Collie, might have brewed coffee in a pot without a filter, heated on a wood-burning or coal stove. I envision it looking much like the speckleware version pictured to the right. Careful pouring ensured that most of the grounds stayed in the bottom of the pot. Another name for this simple process is cowboy coffee. Riding the plains and herding animals didn’t lend much time for the more sophisticated methods of brewing, and in Collie’s case, neither did running a farm.
Perhaps Collie was lucky enough to own a percolator. She still would have heated it on the stove because electricity wouldn’t have been available as far out as the Welleses lived on their farm. The advantage to the percolator would have been a separation of the spent grounds from the final product, making a much more palatable beverage.
Percolating coffee pots consist of a chamber at the bottom with a vertical tube leading from the lower chamber to the top of the pot. Resting on the vertical tube is another chamber with a perforated bottom. This is where the ground coffee is placed. The water level should not touch the bottom of the coffee chamber. There was also a lid with a clear knob.
The heat source beneath the percolator heats the water in the lower chamber. Heated water starts to boil, and the boiling makes the water rise up the tube and spill over into the coffee chamber. The heated water seeps through the grounds, out through the perforations at the bottom, and back into the water chamber. This process is repeated until the desired strength of brew is achieved. Those using a percolator would check the clear knob on the lid to see if the brew has reached the right color and strength.
One source credits James Nason of Massachusetts with patenting a percolator design in 1865. Another says on August 16, 1889, Hanson Goodrich, a farmer from Illinois, received his patent for the percolator. Still another gives American-born, British physicist Count Rumford, AKA Sir Benjamin Thompson, the acclaim for the invention of the percolator somewhere between 1810–1814. Regardless of who invented or patented it first, earlier models used glass construction, but percolators made from the 1930s on were made of metal, mostly aluminum and copper.
Only John, his Aunt Prudence, and some of the wealthier characters would have had access to restaurants that served espresso, the result of making coffee with steam pressure, or friends who owned a French press, a pot that brews coffee then separates the final product from the grounds by use of a plunger. The classiest method the others might have encountered would be filter drip brewing invented in 1908 by German housewife, Melitta Benz, in an effort to eliminate the bitter taste produced by boiling loose coffee grounds
After experimenting with various types of filtration, Melitta Benz ended up using blotting papers from her son’s exercise book. The ensuing result was met with enthusiasm, and she patented her invention, started a company, and hired her husband and two sons. Melitta coffee filters and pots are still around today.
So the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee from your favorite establishment, whether it’s a simple cup of joe or a fancy latte, keep in mind coffee’s humble beginnings and that, as of this post, it’s still the world’s favorite hot beverage.