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The Evolution of Coffee Tech

14 NOV 2019
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Stay-of-the-art roasting today - the Giesen-G15 at NOC's The Roastery in Sai Ying Pun

If you read our article on the most stylish coffee makers for your home, then you know that coffee making implements haven’t escaped the technological evolution. However, no matter how many new gadgets and gizmos you can find on Amazon to satisfy your high-tech coffee cravings, those old instruments that don’t depend on electricity or on a stable Wi-Fi connection are unlikely to fade into oblivion. From roasting to grinding to brewing to serving, you will find that every single stage of the coffee process has its own set of traditional instruments that were high-tech when they first appeared, but which we now consider as old technology. In this week’s post, you’ll meet the oldest instruments, sometimes in their latest incarnation, that people have used throughout history to give us our daily brew.

Old-Tech Coffee Roasting Equipment

The Ottoman Roasting Pan: the first record in human history of coffee roasting equipment goes back to the 15th century Ottoman Empire, when they used flat ceramic or metallic pans with long handles to roast the beans over burning coals. The pans frequently had holes to make roasting faster, and a long spoon was used to stir the beans.

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Antique Ottoman Coffee Roasting Pan | Credit: mehmetefendi.com

The Menkeshkesh (Traditional Ethiopian Roasting Pan): In many cultures, coffee is roasted with different variants of the Ottoman pan on a stove or an outdoor campfire. In Ethiopia, this pan is called the Menkeshkesh, which literally translates as “the shaker”, in reference to the continuous shaking motion that the roaster has to make to avoid the beans from being burnt. The main difference with the Ottoman pan is the length of the handle, which is a lot shorter in the Ethiopian version.

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Ethiopian Coffee Roasting Pan from the Oromia Region | Credit: advocacy4oromia.org

The Malaysian Coffee Roaster: In Malaysia, coffee is traditionally roasted twice to produce a very particular type of coffee known as Malaysian black coffee (Kopi O). The first roast is made in a sort rudimentary wood or log oven. However, after the beans reach a light roast, they are poured in a large wok and further roasted with butter (or margarine) and sugar, turning into a thick black paste that resembles tar that is laid out to cool on long. For a more detailed description of the entire process check out anywayinaway.

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Drying Kopi O after its second cycle of roasting with sugar, butter and oil | Credit: anywayinaway.com

Traditional Coffee Grinders

The point of grinding is to break coffee beans into small grains to make it easier to extract all the flavors and aromas when brewing. Before the electric grinder was invented, grinding was accomplished with the following instruments:

The Mukecha and Zenezena (Ethiopian Mortar and Pestle): this is low-tech at its purest! In the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, coffee is traditionally hand-ground by crushing the beans with a wooden mortar or bowl, called mukecha, and wooden or metallic pestle called zenezena. Grain size and uniformity are an issue with this kind of grinding, which makes it especially important for the host or hostess of the ceremony to be very experienced in order to offer his or her guests an unforgettable coffee experience. Coffeebehindthescenes.com have a fantastic overview of the whole process if you want to read more.

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The Mukecha and Zenezena at work in Ethiopia | Credit: coffeebehindthescenes.com

The English/French/Italian Traditional Hand Grinder: Espresso calls for a fine grind to ensure that the best flavors of the coffee beans are effectively extracted in the small amount of time it takes to brew this special coffee. Invented by an Englishman (Nicholas Book), commercialised by the French (Peugeot), and made beautiful by the Italians, the hand-operated grinders are among the easiest grinders to recognise. The Italian version, with their square wooden box at the bottom, brass or other metal funnel in the middle and the spinning handle at the top, are the ones that can still be found in shops today. They are a type of burr grinder, which means that they crush the beans between two hard conical surfaces (made of metal) as opposed to blade grinders that cut and crush the beans with high-speed rotating metallic blades. Italian hand grinders can be as simple or elaborate as you can imagine, some of which are made of precious woods and have gold encrusted motifs in the funnel or on the wooden box.

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Famous today for its cars, Peugeot originally manufactured coffee mills | Credit: club.atlascoffeeclub.com

Traditional Turkish Coffee Grinders: If espresso needs a fine grind, Turkish coffee needs a powder closer to matcha tea. Very few grinders can accomplish such a fine grind, but traditional Turkish hand-grinders are especially designed and built to do so. The cylindrical shape of this grinder is reminiscent of the pepper grinder you’re bound to have at home, perhaps with the only difference of having a foldable handle at the top and a cylindrical reservoir to store the grounds at the bottom. Nevertheless, it’s the quality of the grind that sets these grinders apart from all others. They are also burr grinders, and they are traditionally made of many different metals to cater to all strata of Turkish society. As with most Turkish artifacts, they are always decorated with elaborate patterns, which are either painted or chased on the surface of the metal.

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An example of a Traditional Turkish Coffee Grinder
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The modern, minimalist take on the hand-grinder that we know today | Credit: hario.jp

Old-Tech Coffee Brewers

The Cezve or Turkish Coffee Pot: This is a small conical-shaped metallic pot used to make Turkish coffee. The best ones are made out of copper, but other metals are also traditionally used. The Cezve has a wide bottom that narrows down to a longer slim neck at the top, which helps create a layer of foam on the top, a hallmark of well brewed Turkish coffee.

The Bialetti, A.K.A. Aluminum Greca or Moka Pot: This is not exactly old-tech, as it was invented in the 1930’s, but it is definitely a low-tech version of an espresso machine. The Moka pot is a stove-top coffee pot that pushes hot pressurized water trough coffee grounds and collects the freshly brewed coffee on top. Just like in an espresso machine, the bialetti uses steam to increase pressure and push hot, boiling water upwards through the coffee grounds and a metallic filter or sieve. You can’t really control too many aspects of the brewing process other than the water to grounds ratio, but it’s a quick and easy way to get something like an espresso at the lowest possible budget.

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Cocca Moka Espresso Pot exclusive to MoMA | Credit: MoMa (https://store.moma.org/)

La Caffettiera a Stantuffo or Cafetière: The name doesn’t sound familiar, does it? Yet this is none other than the famous French Press or coffee plunger. The two names correspond to how this presently ubiquitous coffee brewer was originally called in the place where it was invented (Italy) and where it was later modified, patented and popularized (France). Just like the Italian bialetti, this coffee brewer was invented at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s made of a glass or metallic cylindrical pot where hot water and coffee grounds are added, and then a metallic cheesecloth is pressed down like a piston to push the grounds to the bottom, leaving the brew on top.

The Olla and Manga de Colar Café (coffee filter substitute): If you ever go as a guest to a South-American home, chances are they’ll offer you a cup of freshly brewed coffee more than once during the day. You’ll also notice that, in most cases, coffee is brewed by heating water in a dedicated pot called la olla de café, the grounds are added once the water is hot, left to rest for about 10 minutes, and then filtered. The big difference is that they’ll never use paper filters. It’s much more common (and cheaper as well) to use a reusable conical cheesecloth filter called “manga de colar café” or coffee sleeve. The fact that the manga is usually only rinsed with water after every use, imparts a history of flavors to each fresh brew, giving the coffee in that home a unique character.

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Olla and Manga de Colar Café, the South American way

Traditional Coffee Cups

In many cultures where coffee takes a leading role, it is always served in special types of cups. While in some countries these cups tend to be more generic, such as in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony in which coffee is served in normal everyday china cups, other traditions call for a very specific type or style of cup. Such is the case in Turkey and Italy:

Turkish Coffee Cups: There are basically three different types of Turkish coffee cups. The most common one was originally introduced in Turkey by the French as the demitasse ceramic cup, which was a 60-90 mL cup with a handle and a saucer. The Turks quickly made these cups their own by painting elaborate designs on both the cup and the matching saucer, usually with arabesque patterns and religious motifs. Besides this style of cups, in Turkey you can also find the Gawa, which is a porcelain or ceramic no-handle cup, and the Ottoman style cups, which are ceramic or glass cups inserted inside a metal filigree basket called zarf. These metallic baskets can be made of any metal, but the most luxurious are made of gold or silver.

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Turkish Demitasse Ceramic Cup | Credit: thespruceeats.com

Traditional Italian Espresso Cups: Another type of traditional cup worth mentioning is the espresso cup. Italy is the birthplace of this brewing method, and they jealously stick to tradition when it comes to serving their favorite coffee. You’ll find that some Italians prefer thick ceramic cups, while others prefer fine porcelain china, and still others will only drink in glass cups. Yet there is one thing that characterizes espresso cups: their size. Just like Turkish coffee cups, the espresso cup is also a demitasse cup that holds half the volume of a regular teacup, in other words, 60-90 mL. Espresso cups always have a handle, they’re usually plain white (except the glass cups, of course) and bring a saucer.