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Coffee Talk : The Frustrating Mechanics of a Cup of Joe


"In light of all the difficulties of making a good cup of coffee in the 19th Century," says Ian Bersten, "I really don't know why coffee-drinking continued."

Bersten, an ultra-jovial Australian and all-around coffee guy ("If you can put the word coffee in front of it, I've done it: roaster, grinder, brewer, shop owner"), has written a huge volume--something between a scholarly study and a, well, coffee-table book--on the history and technology of tea and coffee, entitled "Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks."

The name sums up the problem. Coffee grounds, buoyed by gases formed in roasting, float when hot water is added, while tea leaves immediately get wet and sink. When you're making coffee, you have to find some way of getting the water into the grounds so that you can brew the flavor, but before the bitter tannin starts to be extracted.

"People are always saying coffee never tastes as good as it smells," Bersten points out. "They never say that about tea."

Unfortunately, the coffee-making inventions that the 19th Century produced so enthusiastically missed the mark most of the time. At that time, the French were at the center of coffee innovation, but their leading thinker, Antoine Alexis Cadet-de-Vaux, believed coffee should be "brewed" with cold water the day before and then heated up. "That would absolutely guarantee a bitter cup," says Bersten.

And wrong theories were only the beginning of coffee-lovers' troubles 150 years ago. Bersten ticks off the problems: Roasting equipment was primitive, so coffee must often have had either a flat or a burnt flavor. The coffee itself was likely to be stale (beans were stored in leather pouches sealed with grease) or adulterated with chicory, acorns, figs or used grounds.

Often the beans were physically damaged. Seawater turned them gray outside and green inside, and fresh water turned them white and smelly, so coffee merchants dyed them with rust, indigo or beef blood (caramelized in sulfuric acid), or glazed them with eggs or gelatin. An 1845 Dutch coffee-roasting recipe included cocoa beans, lemon pips, cinnamon and bread to improve the aroma, and added: "If the coffee has been damaged in any way, evidenced by false color, take out the bread and replace with onions. When the coffee is half-roasted, take out the onions, add two cloves and one peppercorn and continue roasting."

On top of all that, it was impossible to grind coffee properly. "You never read, 'Use fine grind' in 19th-Century writings," says Bersten. "Their grinders didn't have sharp enough cutting faces. The necessary precision was beyond their technology." He has scores of antique coffee grinders, and none of them can grind fine, so they would have made coffee that was either weak or bitter or both.

So why did people keep on drinking coffee? "Maybe," Bersten speculates, "it's the fact that coffee always smells good when it's just ground, even when badly roasted. This may have been the only thing that kept coffee-drinking going. It must have set up a Pavlovian conditioning." In our own time, coffee advertisements have often shown people delighting in the smell that comes out of a can of coffee when it's first opened, rather than in the aroma of the cup.

Back up there a second. Bersten owns scores of antique coffee grinders? Yes, scores, and hundreds of coffee makers, dating back as far as 1790. "I keep my antiques all over," he says, "150 in the dining room, 400 under the house, 200 in the garage, crates of stuff in my factory. I'm building a 600-square-foot museum on top of my house in Sydney."

Hundreds of photographs from this obsessional collection, together with diagrams from various European patent offices, fill his book, providing an oddly impressive view of human ingenuity at its most hopeful, deluded and downright cranky. All the designs were dealing with the same problem: It can take water as long as five minutes to penetrate to the center of the "foam bed" of floating coffee grounds, but the bitter tannin starts being extracted in about 45 seconds.

What can you do about this? You can just pour hot water over the grounds and either accept the bitterness, as with Turkish coffee or cowboy coffee, or try to pour the liquid off the grounds before it gets too bitter. Probably most coffee was made in some such rough-and-ready way in the 19th Century.

Or you can push the spent grounds away from the water, as in the French plunger pot. This makes a good cup, Bersten says, if you make sure to stir the grounds so that they break up and start brewing quickly. (The plunger idea goes back to 1852, but like fine grinding, it was an idea ahead of its time. It wasn't until this century that we had the technology to make a plunger that actually separated all the grounds from the brew.)

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