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.

Mocha Madness Dribbles Down the Side of the Cup

Monin.Flavored.SyrupsIn only the last 20 years or so, coffee sommeliers have begun rivaling their wine-tasting counterparts in specialization and mystique. Our coffee this morning is described on the package as “offering a burst of cherry, almond, and lavender with a soft oak finish.”

Indeed, it went well with bacon, the true test of any breakfast blend, in our humble estimation. And it’s fun to experience so many varieties of coffee. We’re lucky to live in a Golden Age of Java, benefitting from better growing techniques, more free trade growers, and more diversification and experimentation, and a better understanding of coffee’s almost infinite potential.

But to many tongues, coffee is too bitter to be consumed, pure like wine from a bottle. That’s one reason most coffee drinkers have deeply personal and often very particular ways of fixing their fixes.

The Bittersweet Tale of Gustatory Calyculi and Joe

Many take their coffee like The Wolf in Pulp Fiction: Lots of cream, lots of sugar. And they won’t take it any other way. We’ve seen baristas visibly shaken when a customer, without even thinking, reaches for the sugar. But in defense of the unwashed masses, coffee has always been tolerated for its bitterness. Adding sugar or other flavors to cut the dominant flavor of coffee was how the Turks first introduced the magical beverage to Europe.

On the other hand, we’ve never seen anyone spoon 5 lumps of sugar into their chardonnay before toasting. Wine comes bundled with sweetness, often the dominant taste on the palate. People everywhere have sweet teeth (and as a result, often no teeth), but on a flight-or-fight-or-faint scale, something with a bitter taste sends throbbing primordial signals to people that what they are consuming may their last morsel.

Red color coupled with bitter taste may explain why coffee’s caffeinated goodness was such a late discovery and coffee drinking a late invention and why it was sometimes met with official condemnation when it first appeared.

Surfing on the Fourth Wave of Java

So we feel for the emerging coffee sommeliers. They’re up against a full industry of coffee flavorings, all designed to make the drinker forget what coffee really tastes like. But given the continuing popularity of instant coffee and non-dairy creamers—with artificial almond amaretto no less—kind of tells us that many people don’t think of coffee as gourmet anything, much less find hints of cherry on their supermarket blend.

No doubt people are more sophisticated when it comes to coffee these days, which some are calling the “Fourth Wave of Coffee.” We’re not sure what the first three waves were, only that we caught some awesome curls. And took them black.

Coffee in America: A Weird Geographic Switcheroo

Mayan ChocolateWe always found it curious that today, South America is the leading coffee-producing region in the world, while most of our chocolate is cultivated in Africa.

“Why is this so curious?” you ask. For the simple fact that coffee is native to Africa and chocolate to South America. Driven by European colonialism and economic demand, these two caffeine-bearing plants have pulled a geographic switcheroo.

Just how this happened took a very long time and has far more to do than similarities in climate.

Xocolati, Coffee’s Mesoamerican Cousin

Chocolate is made from roasting beans of the cocoa plant and infusing the crushed beans with water. Sound familiar? The Maya first cultivated chocolate in the 6th century BCE, but they also fermented the beans and called the bitter drink xocolati, which means “bitter drink.”

The caffeine punch from chocolate is mild compared to coffee’s full body blow, but the mind-altering effects are still potent, especially when you consider that xocolati was entirely ceremonial: only the king and his guests were allowed to touch it, and only on special occasions. The no one ever developed a tolerance for chocolate, so the experience took on mythic proportions.

The Spanish learned about chocolate from the Aztecs around the same time they first brought enslaved Africans to their new colony in Cuba, and like coffee before it, chocolate—albeit with a lot of added sugar—was soon in huge demand among European tongues.


Like a slaughtered calf, all the places in the world where interesting and tasty foods come from were carved up and one time or another by European powers, powered by their overwhelming technology and murderous energy. Chaos ensued as a Frenchman named Gabriel de Clieu brought some living coffee plants to his plantation in Martinique in 1720.

Within 50 years, coffee cultivation had spread to Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil, where vast tracts of rainforest were transformed into coffee plantations, especially after independence in 1822. Brazil is one of the world’s leading coffee producers to this day.

Meanwhile, cocoa cultivation spread around the Tropics throughout the 19th century as Colonialism spread its tentacles into spicy islands and jungle books everywhere. The combination of slave labor and closed markets created dozens of Banana Republics, one-crop economies utterly dependent on the “Mother country.”

A Cuppa Joe and a Bagga Doughnuts

No doubt the giant market north of the Rio Grande contributed the most to making Brazil the world’s coffee giant for most of the 20th century. Even after slavery ended with independence in most of Latin America, the seemingly endless spaces made coffee a herd of cash cows.

How cocoa, which is very hard to grow commercially, became a dominant crop in Africa had more to do with colonialism than with endless acres of farmable land. Demand in Europe and America, for so long the world’s biggest markets, cemented this weird continental switch.

The effects of colonialism still affect the markets for coffee and chocolate—hard labor for very little profit, controlled prices and fixed markets that favor the buyer—and why we insist on only free trade coffee and chocolate.