July 15 - August 27, 1995
What makes coffee so different? Why does it have holy grail characteristics? The humble egg can be cooked in many different ways and yet people don't discuss at length the best way to boil an egg or which eggs have the best flavor. It must be the aroma which excites the senses and raises expectations of what is to arrive in the coffee cup. The wonderful thing about coffee is that no matter how badly you roast the coffee there is a reasonably good aroma in the cup while the bean has resolutely resisted all attempts to get it to release its secret.
When the first roasted coffee aroma was released in Damasucs and Aleppo in the 1530s, the quest took off to make the grail in the cup. In Stamboul it was initially served in half coconut shells without sugar. The search was on. Every idea with even the slightest logic that might brew coffee and make it more palatable to Cossack's throat was tried and appraised. It was to be four centuries before the parameters were even imagined, and even then only a few could see their way through the morass of conflicting dogma.
By 1682 when an Englishman, John Chamberlayne, wrote that coffee making was so simple that it did not need further description, the age of filtering had started. Reversible Napoletanas in the 1750s were followed by steam powered reversible machines in Germany in the 1800s called vacuum pots and a working domestic espresso in 1838. We can only wonder what gave a French optician, the foresight to make the first espresso machine - of course M. LeBrun did not know that he was making an espresso machine - he just thought that he was making another coffee machine with some advantages over all the others.
Bit by bit the bean was being forced to release just a little more of itself. You could not be sure of the roast, you could not be sure of the grind and you could not be sure of what would end up in the cup, but the discussion was heating up. Was it the hardware or the software, the bean or the machine? Extraction rates were so poor that French merchants made a business from buying once used coffee grounds from French houses. Balance machines, theater on the table, Karlsbaders, Lyonnaises, Russian Coffee machines, Prussian, Milanese, Napoletanas, there was no limit to what passed for a good cup of coffee. What was a good cup of coffee? Indeed, what was a good cup of coffee?
...I can only imagine that from time to time, or more often, a reasonable cup of coffee came to the table and alerted drinkers to the fact that there was something very good available if only they could find the secret.
At the turn of the century, the French began drinking cups of coffee brewed at the table which they called, Cafe espres - coffee made expressly for you. The Italian Bezzera, took the same idea, attached it to a large boiler and espresso coffee was born. It wasn't like what we know today as an espresso coffee but neither was a car like what we know as a car today. One thing it did was to bring a large machine with an eagle atop into the serving area and the customers thought that the grail had come just that little bit closer. The espresso was an Italian invention. They served it with frothy milk and called it a cappuccino, but I suspect that it never really caught on...As time went on, it became clear that more and more pressure was required to extract just that little something more than would deliver the grail right into the cup. Pumps of all sorts were used. hand pumps, bicycle pumps, both together, levers and finally electric pumps in 1961 brought the machinery to the point where it could deliver the grail. Well it could deliver, but most operators did not have a clue how to make the machine work because the machine only spoke Italian. The world looked and wondered how Italians could drink such a strong syrup - the thing that made the spoon stand up was not the coffee but the sugar, however that was conveniently ignored. The net effect was that most of the English speaking world adopted the cappuccino and the latte.
The other big development was electricity and it was adopted in the USA at great speed...The first electric appliance ever used was an electric coffee grinder in New York in 1884. then appliances appeared everywhere and the first known electric coffee pot was in England in 1894. Alonzo Warner invented a few refinements to the percolator in 1907 and the Landers, Frary and Clark company produced them with the name The Universal. there were others from the Manning Bowman company. General Electric had its own models as early as 1906. It is difficult to say which models dominated the market but they certainly grew in popularity as electricity spread.
Coffee drinking spread in the USA - a nickel a cup, bottomless cups, more water, the same amount of coffee - a cup of coffee retained its essential color but lost its flavor along the way. No matter how badly you could make it on the ground, they found new ways to make it worse in the air - the hazards of flying were increased by what passed for coffee. Reconstituted coffee was called coffee but powdered milk was rarely offered as milk.
From the depths of poor quality arose the idea that coffee could be made properly in the USA: roasted properly, served freshly, with some of the qualities that make a fine cup of coffee. The American approach was to make it bigger and better. Lord Sandwich would choke on an American sandwich - he invented the sandwich by putting a filling between two pieces of bread. The American sandwich was a whole meal between two pieces of bread. The Italian cappuccino fared the same - the Italian quantity of coffee essence was diluted with half a cow to make the American cappuccino. A latte took on a new meaning altogether - the other half of the cow without the froth. To make any impression on the flavor of the milk the coffee had to be burnt and then some.
The wide variety of coffee equipment in this exhibition represents the results of many different nations' attempts over several centuries to find the grail. Their haphazard attempts reflect the diversity of what is a cup of coffee.
- Ian Bursten
Exhibit consultant and author of the book Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks