In the “olden days,” somewhere in the early 1600s, London coffee houses were the epicenter of lively conversation, business deals and a continuously available pot of coffee, all for a penny.
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Coffee had been introduced to England, and all of Europe, by traders from Arabia and Africa, who brought back with them the coffee-making customs of the regions where coffee was first discovered.
At first, coffee grounds weren’t filtered but allowed to sink to the bottom of the pot. If any effort was made to clear the brew, some fabric or an old sock was wrapped around the grounds, and coffee brewers (people, not machines) squeezed it tightly to get every last drop out of the sock and into the cup. (The “coffee sock” is a fixture even today in some parts of the world. It’s easy to use and can be rinsed out to be used over and over again, but the flavor of the textile, whether it be hemp, cotton, wool or burlap, can definitely be tasted in the brew.)
The birth of paper filters
Since then there has been continual innovation to perfect the filtering out of coffee grounds and sediment, though the first patented filters — made of metal and introduced in France in 1802 — actually didn’t filter grounds so much as help the water drip evenly over the grounds.
Although Mr. Coffee popularized the thin paper filter here in America beginning in 1975, the main credit goes to Melitta Bentz, a German woman who thought that she could make coffee less bitter by pouring boiling water over ground coffee, then filtering out the liquid. She experimented with many types of paper, settling on her son’s ink blotter paper (used during the days of pen and ink in the classroom). The year was 1908, the patent was filed by Bentz and her husband, Hugo, and paper-filter history began.
Since then, paper filters have evolved from “blotter paper” to designs shaped to fit various coffee brewers, such as the flat-sided ones sold under the Melitta brand and the pleated variety made popular by Mr. Coffee.
Bleached or non-bleached?
The hot debate now is over bleached or non-bleached filters. Consumers have become concerned as to whether the snowy white bleached filters impact flavor and/or cause health problems from the release of chemicals used in the bleaching of pulp and paper.
Unbleached paper filters have a less attractive kraft color, but they may help eliminate (or at least reduce) dioxins that can easily transfer into the natural oils of coffee and carry their chemical taste right smack dab into the cup. (Most manufacturers, of course, insist that their white filters pose no health risks, including Melitta, which touts the “ogygen-cleansed” technology it uses in its bleaching process.)
Go for the gold (filter)
If paper filters are a bother, there is an alternative that is both ecologically sound and easy to use: permanent filters in nylon, stainless steel or gold-plated metal. They’re sized for one cup or to fit in all major automatic-drip coffee makers, with no need for paper filters, ever. They’re also a snap to rinse clean. A word of caution, the nylon and steel filters are prone to giving off odor and taste (the coffee ends up quite acidic), but the gold-plated filters do not. My recommendation is to only use the gold ones.
A new wave — the French press
Another alternative to drip-filtering is the increasingly popular French press, a manual coffeemaker that “presses” the ground coffee through the water, thus keeping the grounds tidily under the pressing mechanism while the resulting coffee remains on top, ready to pour. The resulting brew is very rich and fresh-tasting, though critics have complained that the stainless steel pressing device — which is essentially a filter in reverse — can transfer a metallic taste to the coffee.
And what about the old wave?
Finally, you can make coffee in a style similar to that of the 17th century coffee house. You probably know it as Turkish coffee. Simply boil the grounds with the water, allow the sediment to fall naturally to the bottom of the pot, pour into a heated cup and add sugar, taking care not to stir. The result? The thick, sweet coffee that has enchanted cowboys of the American West as well as patrons of the bazaars of the Mideast and parts of Africa.
There are, of course, other coffee-making methods, including espresso and percolation (the latter not recommended because it tends to “overcook” the coffee). Want to know more about making the best cup of coffee? Sign up for Phil’s free newsletter at www.coffeechatnews.com.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to email@example.com or by using the mail box below. You can also visit his Web site at www.supermarketguru.com.