The History of Coffee
Much as it is today, coffee has always been an important everyday custom. Originally, the word ‘coffee’ was derived from the Arabic word ‘qah’wa’ which meant ‘wine fermented from the husks and pulps of coffee beans’. The energizing properties of coffee are thought to have been realized in Ethiopia between 1 and 500 AD, various legends hold claim to this discovery.
One story states that it was discovered by the Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who noticed his goats became rather energetic after eating berries from a particular tree. Kaldi relayed this new found knowledge to a passing monk who in turn reported the discovery to the abbot of the local monastery. The monks of the monastery were said to have made themselves drinks with the berries and found that this kept them alert through the long hours of evening prayer. The monks passed this discovery on by word of mouth and the knowledge of the energizing berries escalated. As word spread about the powers of these berries and the magical drink they produced they began to grow popular across the globe, staring in the east and then later permeating the western world.
After this, the coffee plant was exported to countries all over the world; today over 70 countries cultivate coffee plants. The history of coffee within British society is quite difficult to trace back however. The Earliest recorded reference to the substance in the English language was in 1582 when it was referred to as ‘Koffie’- the Dutch word which was said to be taken from the Turkish word ‘Kahve’, derived from the Arabic ‘qahwah’ (which was taken from the verb qaha which means lack of hunger).
As well as being consumed as a beverage, coffee has played other roles in society; during the 10th and 11th centuries it was also used as currency for trade. Its value therefore, is evident through means other than its taste and invigorating properties.
The Dawn of the Coffee Pot
The processes of brewing and serving coffee have changed somewhat over the years. The earliest form of the drink was made in an old brewing pan of hot water, using a cloth to then filter the brewed water through. In 1710 furthermore, the brewing process of coffee was taken one step further: the coffee was wrapped in a linen cloth and this was then placed in the pan of boiling water to help get a stronger brew. As popularity and demand for coffee grew in the 1700s, so did the need for specialised vessels such as coffee pots. These pots were specially designed for the brewing of coffee, featuring an attached lid to help the infusion process. The bottom of the pot would be made wider than the top in order to help catch the sinking coffee grounds; spouts on the side were added for the same purpose. Another reason for the sudden necessity of coffee pots was so that coffee could be consumed within the house. As a result of the fact that women were excluded from the 3,000 or more nationwide coffee houses, a design specific to the home became necessary; coffee could now be enjoyed as a part of family life.
As the centuries progressed, the social aspects of coffee drinking expanded and there was therefore a need to produce larger quantities of coffee. This resulted in the dawn of the coffee urn.
The Evolution of the Coffee Pot
Silver coffee pots were first used by Pascal at St. Germain's fair in Paris, 1672. From this point onwards, English and American silversmiths began to create the most amazing forms of silver coffee pots. At the beginning of the 18th Century the consumption of coffee (as well as other beverages including tea and chocolate) escalated in popularity, resulting in the mass manufacture of coffee pots. Coffee pots were largely akin to chocolate pots, the only distinction being that the finial of chocolate pots could be removed so that a rod could be inserted to stir the chocolate. Because of this surge of popularity, the 1700s saw the dawn of beautiful coffee pots, particularly those with tapering paneled forms. There are some magnificent examples from this period: from plain cylindrical forms to pear shaped deeply fluted bodies and elegant flat chased ornamentation.
Soon after this, coffee pots began to be crafted in a tapered cylinder shape with a high domed cover. The spout was placed low on the body, along with the classic right angled handle. Octagonal designs were introduced circa 1710. This style encompassed a flatter wider base, along with a top in the tear-shaped drop form.
The spouts on pots weren’t placed on the opposite side of the handle till the 1720s. The incurved base of the coffee pot became standard in the 1730s along with the plain tapered form.
The pear shaped coffee pot came into fashion around the 1740s and prevailed until the 1760s. These jugs tended to sport shorter spouts than the previous type. This design is likely to have been originally intended for Turkish coffee which was of a much thicker consistency.
Biggin Coffee Pots
A Biggin coffee pot, named after its maker, originated in the late 18th century. The key to the Biggin coffee pot is that it had an upper compartment which held ground coffee, allowing the water to be poured onto it, passing through a cloth that would strain the liquid, leaving the coffee to drip through into the lower compartment.
The spout of the coffee pot was in the lower compartment, meaning that coffee was given a chance to brew before being poured out and served.
The Biggin coffee pot was something of a flawed design, however, due to the way the water was poured over the ground coffee beans. The coffee bean grinding process was not as precise or advanced as it is today, and so it was challenging to achieve a specific level of coffee strength. If the beans were too finely ground, the coffee would be too strong and bitter, but if the beans were too coursely ground, then the water would pour over them and through the cloth too quickly, leading to weak coffee. The fabric used to create the cloth filters was also far less advanced than today's filters, making it difficult to achieve properly saturated coffee.
Rather than being an early version of the drip coffee pot, the Biggin pot used more of a steeping method to make a proper brew, similarly to how tea is brewed. This is part of why the Biggin coffee pot design was inevitably replaced, since the brew had to be carefully monitored in order to get the right level of coffee strength.
During the rococo (or ‘late baroque’) era the popular style of coffee pot changed yet again. The pots became massive and even more impressive, in a more ornate style. Festoons also became a prominant ornament. In the late 18th Century some beautiful examples were crafted by the likes of Paul De Lamerie; they featured classic rococo ornamentation which consisted of flowing, asymmetric details and natural motifs including shells (which would often be the chosen shape for a finial). This renowned London silversmith was (and still is) well recognised for his craftsmanship in producing fine and collectable coffee pots. One coffee pot created by him sold at auction in 2013 for around £4.5 million.
By the 1780s, filters were added to coffee pots in the form of a cloth or sock placed over the mouth. Coffee grounds were placed in the sock and hot water was then poured over them. ‘Mr. Biggin Coffee Pots’ was the first company to introduce a coffee pot with a place for the filter and these pots received instant popularity. A prevalent issue however with this seemingly ingenious advancement, was that the taste of the cloth filter was often undesirably transferred to the coffee itself. This is problem that was not overcome until 1908 when the paper coffee filter was invented by German entrepreneur Melitta Bentz.
By the early 1800s, espresso machines and coffee percolators were introduced (circa 1818), and by the end of the century, the plunger filter was invented. The Napier vacuum coffee machine came in to the game in 1840, and then the first drip coffee maker was introduced in 1908.Thus began the demise of the coffee pot.
Today however, coffee pots remain collectable and desirable items, particularly those crafted in high quality sterling silver or by specifically important makers.