Opinion: Considering the history of coffee makers

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A popular gift this Christmas was the new gee-whiz, hotsie-tottsie coffee maker. You know, the one where you insert a packet of your choice, and the machine makes a fresh cup of anything from a caramel latte to chicken soup.

This is only the latest innovation in a long and robust history of coffee makers.

In the beginning, folks just dumped ground coffee into boiling water and then spent the day picking the grounds from their teeth. That’s the way they made it in the old cowboy movies too. Gabby Hayes always manned the chuck wagon in those films, and when the coffee was hot he’d toss in a couple of eggshells, “to settle the grounds,” he said.

The French changed coffee making in the early 1700s when they started putting the grounds into a cloth sack and immersing it into hot water. The problem with that was, sometimes they used a sock instead of a sack and the coffee took on the taste of whatever the sock owner had walked through.

In 1780 the French came up with something called the biggin, a two-level coffee maker with a cloth filter in the top. Hot water poured over the filter seeped through the grounds and dripped into the lower pot.

To solve the filter flavor problem, another French inventor came up with the vacuum pot. Cold water heated in the bottom chamber was forced through a tube into the upper chamber. When you turned off the heat, the bottom chamber cooled and created a vacuum, which sucked the brewed coffee through a strainer into the bottom pot.

The Silex company made one of these totally of glass during World War II when metal for making coffee pots was in short supply. My folks bought one when their old nickel-plated percolator died.

The percolator was a major innovation in coffee brewing. An Illinois farmer named Goodrich patented the concept in 1889. In a percolator, heated water is forced up through a tube into a basket holding the coffee grounds.

Even though most households have turned away from percolators for more modern techniques, the 30-cup models are still popular in most church basements.

The next big news in coffee makers was the electric dripolator, where cold water in a reservoir is heated and sprayed into a basket containing coffee grounds in a paper filter or a filter pack.  A lot of folks still use these.

For impatient coffee drinkers, like my wife and I, the Bunn coffee maker is ideal. The water stays hot 24-seven, and brews coffee instantly.

Still, a coffee maker that can make chicken soup is something to think about.

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