George Washington’s Instant Cup of George

G Washington's Instant Coffee

G Washington’s Instant Coffee

We imagine tender hands reaching for the perfect purple cherry and plucking it from the coffee tree, the expert roasting and the perfect grind. We pretend we’re firing up our fancy Italian espresso machine and pumping out delicious demis of paradise.

But it’s a fantasy. Our host only has instant coffee, so we smile, hide our horror, and stir our spoons without saying a word.

Instant coffee? Who drinks that stuff anymore?

Fact is, about a fifth of American coffee drinkers prefer instant coffee (or at least are willing to sacrifice personal dignity and moral decency for convenience). With many food relics from a bygone era like canned cranberry sauce and egg foo young, people cling to comfort, what they know, and the good feelings they generate. Instant coffee is one of those comfort foods for many people.

But the question was hanging in the air like stale dragon breath: who is responsible for instant coffee and why not just use a French press? Well, it turns out that George Washington was the first to mass produce instant coffee. True story.

Coffee Powder on a Tarnished Silver Spout

Coffee has always taken time to make, which is funny if you consider how impatient drinking it makes people. Maybe that’s why the dream of a coffee you could make in an instant goes back a long way in the murky history of coffee. The first known patent for a soluble coffee was granted in Britain in 1771, but little is known about this so-called “coffee compound” except that it must have tasted really awful.

Both American armies during the Civil War tried various instant coffee schemes, but they too were unimaginably unpalatable. Armies had a huge interest in a viable instant coffee solution because coffee can’t be foraged by an army marching on its stomach and has to be horsed in with the bullets and the bandages.

So the demand for something—anything—coffee-like to mix in hot water was big, and around 1901, a Chicago chemist named Satori Kato invented the first truly soluble coffee. Strangely, nothing became of his 1903 patent. Maybe it tasted funny or something.

Instead, a few years later, a Belgian immigrant to Brooklyn named George Constant Louis Washington (apparently so as not to be confused with other famous George Washingtons) used his own patent to mass produce Red E Coffee, the first instant coffee available to the public.

Legend has it that Washington was inspired by seeing crusted coffee powder on a silver coffee pot. Maybe, but generals and majors definitely took notice of Red E Coffee, especially when World War One broke out over in Europe.

Instant coffee was a national security secret weapon. E. F. Holbrook, coffee czar at the US War Department, thought coffee was a vital cure for exposure to mustard gas, something the Doughboys would surely have to deal with over in France. (Yep, coffee was so important the War Department had an office for it!)

So Washington’s company, G. Washington Coffee Refining Company, got the juicy government contract to supply the US Army with instant coffee. It was an Edwardian marketer’s dream, soldiers writing glowing letters home about the glories of Mr. Washington’s instant, trench-friendly coffee beverage product! Most troops, however, knew caffeine when they saw it and often drank their “cup of George” cold.

A Real, Red E Monkey on Your Shoulder

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, G. Washington Coffee was a nationally known brand. Washington himself was somewhat of an eccentric, known to attend swanky jazz-age parties with a pet monkey on his shoulder. He filled his New Jersey estate with a menagerie of exotic animals.

But in 1937, chemists in Switzerland invented an allegedly better process for making an allegedly better tasting instant coffee product called Nescafe. Troops going off to the Big One sometimes had a cup of George, but more often, it was a Nescafe in their foxhole rations. By the beginning of the 1960s, G. Washington Coffee was sold off and dissolved.

Caffeine, It’s My Wife, It’s My Life

CaffeineIt’s a debate we’ve had for ages—is caffeine bad for you? Why do some people seem to thrive on it while others become jittery basket cases? The research is still inconclusive about the overall effects of caffeine use on health, and perhaps it always will be.

One characteristic of the research on caffeine is the tug-of-war nature of its generally accepted  findings. For every alleged benefit of caffeine, you can find a counterbalancing negative side effect:

  • Caffeine reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Fantastic! Drink up! But, oh, it increases your blood pressure. Bummer. Better be careful.
  • Caffeine can sharpen your alertness and boost your attention span. Terrific! No wonder you can’t work without it! But wait a second—caffeine is also physically addictive and can cause anxiety and insomnia. Looks like we can never have nice things!
  • Caffeine can lower your risk of developing diabetes and increase your metabolic rate. Sweet! It makes a good diet aid, then, right? Not exactly. Caffeine can also hamper your concentration by reducing fine motor control of your muscles. And it makes you have to pee a lot, that’s for sure.

Any caffeine junkie coffee aficionado knows that if you skip your coffee in the morning, you’ll have a raging headache by lunch. That coffee does require more trips to the comfort station than if you consumed the same amount of water. That late-night cups do sometimes cause some tossing and turning. Which leads to another recurring debate of ours….

To Decaf or Not to Decaf? Oh, Don’t Go There, Hammy

We always found the apocryphal tale that French philosopher and enfant terrible Voltaire routinely consumed 70 cups of coffee per day. Doctors still refer to a 6-ounce cup of coffee as a dose, and a 70-cup dose, administered at once, is fatal for our lab rat friends.

So caffeine, like many psychoactive drugs, can be fatal, but you would have to drink 70 cups in an hour to see such drastic side effects. Still, caffeine overdose is a well-known medical condition that befalls many who over-consume caffeine products: severe irritability and anxiety, restlessness and confusion, seizures, trembling and twitching, rapid breathing and heartbeat, dehydration and fever, ringing in the ears, nausea and vomiting, delirium and hallucinations.

It ain’t pretty, but these days, coffee is one of the weaker caffeine-delivery agents available—many so-called “energy drinks” contain megadoses of caffeine equal to 4 or 5 cups in one 8-ounce can. One of those drinks would be unmarketable without the monster caffeine content. After all, have you tasted one?

Born in a German Decaf Lab

Caffeine’s jittery side effects were noted immediately as coffee spread around the world beginning in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1903 that a practical decaffeination process was perfected by two German coffee sellers and chemistry buffs, Ludwig Roselius and Karl Wimmer.

They used brine and benzene to rinse the caffeine out of green coffee beans. It ain’t pretty, but it removes up to 99% of the caffeine, allowing more people to enjoy coffee’s rituals

And in many ways, that’s really what drinking coffee is for many, a cherished ritual, an engine for social interaction.

How Do You Make It? Percolating Thoughts on Percs

Presto 02811 12-Cup Stainless Steel Coffee Maker

Presto 02811 12-Cup Stainless Steel Coffee Maker

One of our fondest childhood memories is the splash of brown liquid that periodically popped into the bubble in the center of the chrome lid and the rich aroma flooding the kitchen from the frosted formica countertop. It was almost enough to overpower the vast clouds of cigarette smoke.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, all the grown-ups we knew smoked 2 packs per day and brewed endless cups of coffee in percolators. Everyone had one in the kitchen and it was always perking away.

Sleek, streamlined, and way more efficient than traditional stove-top coffee-making methods, the percolator epitomized the modern world of Mad Men and Madison Avenue. Housewives everywhere loved the lack of mess and convenience these little chrome pots offered, even though the coffee they brewed tended to taste a bit muddy.

That’s because the brewing process in a percolator often overheats the water and forces brewed coffee back through the grounds, producing a less than optimal cup. When percolators were popular, few people cared much that coffee tastes better when brewed at temperatures slightly below boiling. Indeed, that percolators produced perfectly plasma-hot pots of coffee was one of their principal appeals.

Count on a Rumford to Burn on a Stove

That’s no surprise because the percolator was invented by one of science’s pioneers of heat studies, Sir Benjamin Thompson. Known in Germany as Count Rumford, Thompson was born in colonial Massachusetts, where he first developed his interest in science and things that go boom. During the American Revolution, Thompson abandoned his wife and fought for the Loyalists, helping the British develop more effective explosives, which drew nods from the Royal Society in London.

But it was in Germany, Bavaria to be more precise, that Thompson really made a name for himself as an Enlightenment Geek of the highest order. The Holy Roman Emperor appointed Thompson to reorganize the army and eradicate poverty.

Made a Count of the HRE and taking the name of his childhood home, the newly named Count Rumford invented Rumford Soup, an early attempt at nutrition that includes 1 part barley, 1 part yellow peas, 4 parts potatoes, salt, and sour beer which became a common soldier’s ration in Eastern Europe into the twentieth century.

Count Rumford experimented widely on the nature of heat and refined many household items, inventing the Rumford Roaster, the Rumford Fireplace, and the percolator, an entirely new way of brewing coffee.

No Match for Mr. Coffee’s Unbelievable Hitting Streak

Rumford’s heat studies made him a household name at science academies and other egghead clubs everywhere. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences even forgave his Loyalist activities and made him an honorary member as early as 1789. But Rumford never patented his percolator and it didn’t become widely available to consumers until the 1920s, long after he had been forgotten.

Then, almost overnight, around the early 1970s, percolators went the way of the mastodon. What happened?

In short, a guy named Mr. Coffee killed the percolator. He was a dapper, grandfatherly gentleman who looked remarkably like Yankee great Joe DiMaggio and appeared on television hawking a new-fangled machine called an automatic-drip coffee maker.

Tricks, Traps, and Illusions in the Coffeehouse Chess Game

Coffeehouse ChessThis month in St. Louis, Missouri, the US Chess Championship is taking place, which reminds us of those endless hours at the college coffeehouse we spent, lost in the luscious embrace of caffeine and Cassia, the goddess of chess.

The term “coffeehouse chess” describes a wild, trap-laden style of play that often relies on bizarre gambits and razzle-dazzle. You can see it in action at the lively chess tables in New York’s Washington Square Park, where seasoned chess sharks play each other countless blitz and bullet games, the pieces flying as each player tries to cram an immoral masterpiece on the board in 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute.

The Mecca of Chess in a Cup of Mocha

The intimate connection between coffee and chess began in Europe in the 1700s. In Paris, the cultural capital of the continent, the Cafe de la Regence near the Louvre was where all the Enlightenment geeks would hang out for hours, sipping cups of mocha while playing chess. On any given Sunday circa 1780, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Franklin could be seen there kibitzing over the rented-by-the-hour chess boards while discussing politics, science, and philosophy.

One of the regulars at the Cafe de la Regence was Francois-Andre Philidor, one of the pioneers of chess theory. Philidor was also a distinguished composer, producing more than 20 operas during his career, but his name is most associated with the royal game today. ”Pawns are the souls of chess” is his famous axiom, and he was widely considered to be the strongest player of his day, often battling his rivals at coffeehouses around Europe.

Philidor’s most curious opponent was the Turk, an elaborately designed hoax lauded as a chess-playing automaton. Built by Austrian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770, the machine consisted of a boxy chess table with the torso of a turban-clad gentleman seated on one side. The Turks arms actually moved, lifting the pieces with startling precision.

The Kick Is in the Machine

The Turk amazed everyone who saw it. They believed they were witnessing the first chess-playing automaton, a human-beating computer, a strange visitor from 1996. Even more incredibly, the Turk won most of its games with bloodthirsty swiftness. Its inventor, however, rarely exhibited the Turk, even dismantling it, so its secrets remained a mystery for years.

In 1783, however, the Emperor Joseph II of Austria practically commanded von Kempelen to showcase the Turk in the coffeehouses of Europe. It won most of its games at the Cafe de la Regence, but Philidor easily defeated it in their much anticipated match.

The Turk was in fact an illusion—a chess master, probably one of short stature, was hiding in the box, moving the Turk’s arms with levers and magnets. After von Kempelen sold the machine, its new owners took it all over the world, where it defeated Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte before being destroyed in a Philadelphia fire in 1854.

That was about the time Cafe de la Regence moved to a different location and an era in the history of chess and coffee ended. Although chess is still played in coffeehouses today, saying your opponent has a coffeehouse style is a bit of an insult. That’s a shame.