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The development of coffee machine design

The development of coffee machine design
Down the years, the way we brew our coffee has changed considerably, and each new style has seemed to mirror the age to which it belongs. The development of coffee machine design is an informative story of innovation, so let's have a closer look at the major stages of its progression.

The percolator

If you grew up before the 70s, you may have fond memories of a gurgling, spluttering percolator filling the house with the delicious aroma of coffee as it spat out the morning brew. Even if you were born later, you still might remember your grandparents faithfully continuing to brew with such a device. These were the original stovetop coffee makers; they're not so common now, although you can still buy them.

Their beauty was in their simplicity. You filled it with water, attached the funnel, filled the basket with coffee and placed it over the heat. Then you waited for it to do its thing.

Percolators brew by forcing water up the funnel under the pressure of steam (in much the same way as a moka pot). When the water reaches the top, it drips down through the coffee in the basket and back into the pot below. This process continues until you remove the percolator from the heat. They are easy to use, inexpensive and reliable; for generations, this remained the most common and popular way to make coffee in North America.

However, the problem was always that, since they recycle the water until removed from the heat, it is very easy to over-extract the coffee when using a percolator, producing a bitter, unpalatable brew.

Mr. Coffee and the filter coffee machine

The old-fashioned percolator served its purpose for many years, but in the 1970s it was largely supplanted by a new brewer, the electric drip coffee maker.

These new machines, of which Mr. Coffee was the first, were, in some ways, similar to the old percolator: heated water was still forced up from the reservoir and dripped down over the ground coffee.

The main difference was that instead of percolating down and being recycled, the brewed coffee was collected in a carafe, where it was kept warm on a hotplate. This meant the coffee was much less likely to be over-extracted during brewing, making it easier to produce a tastier brew.

The temperature of the water was also slightly lower, allowing for a more refined flavor.

However, the taste wasn't the only attraction of Mr. Coffee machines. The modern-looking, electric brewers were a perfect fit for the forward-looking and optimistic America of the 1970s, and every modern household wanted one. The somewhat rustic and old-fashioned percolators of the past couldn't compete with the stylish, futuristic new electric machines, and within a short time, percolators had largely been replaced.

Keurig and the K-Cup – the next iteration

Having banished the percolator from the modern American kitchen, the electric drip machine reigned supreme for the next three decades. Although some people continued to use percolators – or other coffee makers like the French press – America took the electric drip machine to heart. However, like the percolator before it, the electric drip machine was destined to be replaced by another, more modern device.

The problem with drip machines was that once the coffee was brewed, if it sat on the hotplate for too long, it would quickly stew and become bitter – much like percolated coffee that had been left to recycle for too long. In particular, this kind of bitter, bad coffee that had been sitting around for hours became a familiar feature of American office life up and down the country. Then, in the early 2000s, somebody came up with an idea to solve the problem of awful-tasting office coffee. That idea was to create a machine that brewed individual cups of coffee from single-use pods; the company that came up with this concept was called Keurig.

Keurig's design

Although originally only intended for office use, Keurig machines (and Nestle's similar proposition, Nespresso) proved so popular that a home version was soon released. Nowadays, it is estimated that one in three American households owned a Keurig machine. How did this happen?

Keurig machines tapped into a need for ever greater convenience and speed – coupled with a growing awareness about coffee and the desire for a better product.

The design of the original Keurig machines was minimalistic. Customers didn't want to be confused by an array of buttons, knobs and lights, they just wanted their coffee to be ready with the minimum of fuss. With a Keurig, all you do is pop in a pod, hit brew and wait for your drink to be served. Every cup is perfectly brewed and there is no problem with stewed, bitter coffee. There's no measuring or dosing, and there's no cleaning up after.

The return of the drip coffee machine?

Keurig machines aren't perfect, however. Using pods is not cheap, and there is also the significant ecological problem of what happens to all those used – non-recyclable – pods and cups. Furthermore, coffee drinkers have become ever-more discerning and knowledgeable. With the advent of the "Third Wave" coffee movement has come a heightened awareness of brewing techniques, origins, varietals and, above all, specialty coffee.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America is an organization dedicated to promoting the production and appreciation of the very best coffees, and they have created what is known as the "Golden Cup Standard" – their guidelines to brewing the perfect cup. These guidelines are intended to help baristas brew by carefully controlling all the parameters involved in brewing, including water temperature, dosing, brew time and so on.
However, the SCAA has also approved a very small number of brewing machines – those that have been carefully designed to mimic the barista's art and produce the highest-quality cup of coffee possible.

For coffee lovers who want to move away from the over-simplified and restrictive brewing process of pod-based machines, these SCAA-approved brewers offer the chance to rediscover the craft of an expert barista at home.

It could be argued that these brewers reflect a wider shift in consumer habits away from speed and convenience toward the desire to take the time to enjoy and appreciate high-quality food and drink – as well as a desire to explore and modernize more old-fashioned practices.

A coffee-brewing revival?

While there's no suggestion these machines are about to bring about the imminent demise of the ultra-popular pod-based machines, this new generation of brewers designed for the precise brewing of exceptional coffee certainly gives coffee lovers an extra option to consider. These SCAA-approved electric drip brewers can comfortably take their place among other brewing techniques – including modern versions of the classic percolator – that are currently undergoing something of a revival.

Kathy Gallo is a self-confessed coffee fanatic.

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