The Evolution of Technology: #Coffee

Category: Evolution of Technology Series, Weekly Columns

The Evolution of Technology blog series is written by Bruce Sallan and Professor David E. Weber

Our series continues with the evolution of home coffee machines. Is there anything more ubiquitous in our lives? Oh yeah, television…but we did that already. How often do you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Ever think about what that costs on an annual basis? We’ll look at that but, first let’s hear from Professor Weber.

Draw one…cuppa mud…draw one in the dark…Are we referring to art here? refreshment from the bayou, maybe? Fun and games under the staircase, perhaps? No. These are what you would hear a cup of black coffee called in a diner in the 1940s-1950s.

We surely don’t enjoy our coffee any less than our parents and grandparents did, but we don’t seem to use their colorful expressions to talk about what Thomas Jefferson, I believe it was, referred to as “the favorite drink of the civilized world.” We must surely have, however, more terms for different sizes of coffee servings. Sixty years ago, in a diner, you ordered coffee, it was splashed into a five- or six-ounce mug made of heavy china. Now, at Starbucks, for example, it’s tall (12 oz.), venti (16 oz.) and grande (about 20 oz.), plus a couple of lesser-known specialty sizes — for example, draw one in a trenti, i.e., a 30-oz. serving!

Apart from an evolution in how we talk about coffee, though, Bruce and I would like in this column to reflect on the evolution of technology in making coffee. So, if I may use my own experience as a starting point, I have in my home kitchen an electric coffee bean grinder and nine ways of making coffee: a Krups electric drip brewer; a Keurig brew-one-cup-at-a-time system; an electric percolator; a stovetop espresso percolator; two coffee presses (one French style, the other for making Vietnamese-style café filtre); an espresso machine; an old Melitta filtration coffeepot; and a finjan (used for making Turkish coffee). In case some kind of java apocalypse prevents me from using any of those tools, I have in the pantry a jar of instant coffee, not mention a small box of coffee bags, which look and are used as one would a teabag. Great for camping!

Speaking of camping, serious coffee drinkers who venture into the wilderness can purchase lightweight, compact versions (powered by a variety of portable sources) of any of those electronic devices. Unpowered systems – finjan, coffee presses, stove toppers – work on their own anywhere as long as you have water and a heat source. Some of the best coffee I have ever tasted (well, maybe it was the ambiance that made it so) was the “cowboy coffee” we used to make while backpacking: dump a small handful of ground beans into boiling water for a few minutes, then let it steep another few, and pour carefully, or strain through the cleanest tail among our shirts, so that the grounds stay out of the cup. Rich, fragrant, delicious…and as low-tech as you can get!

Wow! Can you believe that this was acceptable "back in the day!"

Contrast all of that to when I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when my mother had exactly one “coffeemaker”- a stovetop percolator. In the late ‘60s, she went contemporary and bought an electric model. Indeed, I have an electric percolator today simply because I bought one (a discontinued item, no less) before my mother’s first trip to North Carolina to visit me from California; she prefers classic mid-century middle-class percolation to other methods of coffee preparation. In my youth, Mom brewed ground Yuban coffee exclusively – no coffee bean, let alone a coffee grinder, crossed our threshold.

The stainless steel coffee brewing apparatus in the famous Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, is for me the emblem of the best practices in commercial coffee brewing. I enjoy coffee from these machines most when it sluices out from the spigot hot and freshly made (Is it my imagination or are the bubbles formed in a cup of coffee being poured bigger when the coffee is freshly brewed?). Coffee brewed in and dispensed from such a device was standard fare for decades in diners, coffee shops, truck stops and other establishments, louche as well as classy. The joe may not have been perfect but it was often excellent. I am convinced that in the past twenty years if not more, the quality of proletarian coffee has declined, tasting watered down. One reason is surely a shift from the tall, hot-to-the-touch kiosk-like coffee machines to cheaper systems that make coffee quickly. One aberrant trend is combining coffee concentrate with hot water in a machine that dispenses the “coffee.” Something’s wrong when a manufacturer can in theory use the same template for writing instructions for making both frozen orange juice and hot coffee.

It is difficult to talk about the evolution in coffee-making technology without addressing the evolution in coffee drinking, and to do so, we must use the S-word: Starbucks. Despite all the anti-corporatist rhetoric aimed at it, despite the claim that it raised coffee snobbery to high art, I personally like Starbucks in principle and practice. Their regular brew is on the strong side for my taste, but enough sugar and half-and-half fixes that. Their Christmas blend beans grind down into very tasty coffee at home, where I can adjust the strength. More than that, though, I like the idea of Starbucks. According to company histories I have read, Starbucks as we now know it was envisioned as a chain of shops where people could linger in their communities. Even though I have a comfortable office at the university, I often suggest to students, colleagues and clients that we meet at the Starbucks near campus for dialogue. Conversation, checking email, composing or editing a digital document or file on a laptop, reading the newspaper—all these activities improve when done slowly and reflectively, with your coffee close at hand.

A bit more information, that goes well with your favorite cuppa mud…

From a 1999 book about the coffee and coffee drinking, read this digest (in a review of the book) of information about coffee and its place in human history and culture. And, if you think 411 about coffee should be packaged in smaller nuggets (or should I say “beans”), here are twenty-two facts about coffee.

Thank you, Professor. Reading your musings makes me realize that this apparently simple topic has much complexity. We can only “cover” coffee superficially so I’ll just add a few random thoughts:

~~ When I was a kid, small American restaurants were called “Coffee Shops.” You could go there for a cup of coffee, desert and a cup of coffee, or any meal they happened to serve. Coffee probably cost about 10 cents then.

~~ Recently, I met with a boutique coffee roaster and learned much about the complexity of making and roasting coffee beans as well as the major differences in how they are ground and stored. Simply put, a good grinder is expensive. Forget those $10-$20 Krups and other brands, according to this coffee expert. Ground coffee is “fresh” for only about a week. It’s best stored in an airtight container at room temperature. The beans are best stored in the freezer also in an airtight containter.

~~ The notion of convenience has reduced “the art of coffee” to yet another fast-food item. Starbuck’s has recently announced changed some of their stores to drive-through only! Isn’t that exactly the opposite of their mission of creating and nurturing community?

~~ Visiting the Northwest I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be a coffee kiosk on just about every corner. I know that Seattle is the “home” of Starbuck’s, but these kiosks were much more ubiquitous than even the famous corner in downtown Seattle that used to have Starbuck’s on three of its four hubs!

These kiosks all have fun designs and names, but why so many? It finally dawned on me that the answer was simple. In that part of the country, it’s dark and wet a LOT of the time. Coffee/caffeine is a great and obvious cure for surviving in that environment.

~~ Coffee, like wine is a learned and acquired taste. But, for many of us, all we care about is that it’s either real hot or over ice. I cannot tell the difference between many coffees except if it’s especially strong.

~~ The great book about money – The Millionaire Next Door – explains how the seemingly innocuous and inexpensive habit of buying a daily coffee and donut can add up to a substantial annual expense. I make two black coffees on my basic espresso machine. I treat myself to a specialty coffee now and then – especially when Pumpkin-flavored options are available. The cost differential is HUGE. BTW, the same applies to wine. Drinking wine “out” costs about four times what it does at home. Both coffee and wine (all alcohol for that matter) mark-ups are the biggest in the food industry and their biggest profit center.

We want your thoughts on coffee. What machines do you use? Does anyone have as many as Professor Weber does? Is that crazy or what! Do you like the Keurig-style coffee makers? I think they are a waste. At least there’s a re-useable container now sold via infomercials. That at least makes sense. But really, is it that hard to make a cup ‘o joe yourself?

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  • David Weber

    Just reading this column I can wake up and smell the coffee!  

    Bruce, thanks for calling attention to the now-complicated concept of “coffee shop.”  I try to reserve the phrase coffee shop for the traditional diner-like restaurant (like Nick’s in the photo, wherever Nick’s is) and refer to Starbucks-type places as coffee stores, or Starbucks outlets.  

    Of course, that strategy is only as good as everyone’s else’s willingness to do what I tell them to…consequently, “coffee shop” today does, more often than not, mean Starbucks or Peets or (in my part of the world) Port City Java shops.

    My favorite non-recreational use of coffee is to “cure” (or blunt) the migraine-like headaches I get a few times a year.  These usually come on in the late afternoon, often so strongly that I perspire and have some nausea and have to leave the office (I live quite close to where I work).  If I take a couple of aspirin, lie down in a dark room and, before that, sip some fresh coffee, the headache recedes after a few hours.  Bruce once explained to me that the caffeine causes the blood to flow more freely in the head…poor blood flow is one reason why headaches occur.  Or maybe it’s the other way around!  In any case, coffee is part of my self-medication when the headaches come.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Professor, do you remember Stats on Pico Blvd? THAT is my image of a “Coffee Shop” but I couldn’t find any images of those long-gone local landmarks. There were three, I believe, at one time.

      As long as I’ve known you, I never knew you also got migraines!? Coffee did help mine a long time ago, but no longer do…I have meds that are amazing and knock out the headache within an hour 95% of the time. Mostly, I get them these days if I drink too much which, sadly, isn’t a lot at all. 

      Every locality has their own local coffee stores…The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf actually began near where I used to live in Brentwood and grew way beyond Los Angeles, I think? We have a fun local place called “Bean Scene” that I like to frequent. 

      Eager to hear other comments and names of their local favorite coffee stores!?


    I love this and especially timely for me. I’ve just written a post on “Latte support” and trying to get the ideal shot of the ideal Latte. It’s  new way of thinking for #Kaizenbiz a twitter chat that has been around since 2009.

    It’s amazing how the American attitude towards coffee has changed since I moved here. I grew up in a household with a German grandmother who had owned coffee shops in the old country, the kind where they roasted and ground the coffee right there…. and according to my father who was a customer, you could smell the roasting coffee from two or three blocks away.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Ahhh, what a lovely smell that must have been…the only thing better (for me) would be the smell of baking bread!

      • Mauriciof Martinez

        Great post man. Greetings fron Santa Barbara

        • Bruce Sallan

          Thx Mauricio – Did you know I’m in Santa Barbara every Thursday doing my radio show!?

    • Bruce Sallan

      TY @Casudi:twitter for your thoughtful comment! I could use some “Latte support” now and then, but begin #vegan, it means it has to be in the form of soy, almond, or rice milk!

    • David Weber

      Wish I could smell that roasting coffee. 

      I live in Wilmington, NC, which among other things has its very own home-grown coffee chain, called Port City Java (PCJ). I am not sure how far beyond Wilmington or NC PCJ may be found but I do know there is a store in Jakarta, Indonesia, of all places. 

      The main roasting facility for PCJ used to be about a mile down the road from where I live.  I couldn’t smell the roasting beans from my house but I could when I drove or walked past the building. 

      Several years ago, PCJ built a store next to the roastery and you’d drink your coffee and smell the roasting beans…wonderful!  The roastery was moved a couple of years ago to somewhere relatively isolated on the outskirts of town. The building was converted to a natural- and local-food market.

      • Bruce Sallan

        Personally, I soooo prefer the local stores of ANY kind, especially coffee ones. There seems to be a caring and homeyness about these local owner-run stores that I like. The regulars there also seem different than those at a busy Starbucks. Plus, I like supporting small businesses!

  • Jack Durish

    There are two tales that explain most of life to my satisfaction: Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby and The Emperor’s New Suit of Clothes. Starbucks is more than adequately explained by the latter of those two. Bad beans burnt and sold at exorbitant prices. Go figure. Yeah, I know – de gustibus non est disputandum, or each to their own. Sorry, I can’t imagine anyone actually liking Starbucks. However, there must be something wrong with me. I’m not about to waste my money just because the herd is.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I’ve NEVER followed the herd, Jack – and I never intend to…

    • David Weber

      Jack is making a meritorious rational case against Starbucks.  I agree, the coffee is often brewed from burnt beans and is sold at high prices and so on. 

      The difference between Jack’s reaction to Starbucks and mine, however, well illustrates the difference between rational thought and emotional experience.  

      When I was finishing my dissertation in the late 1990s in Denver, CO, I would write for several hours a day and then, a few days a week, I would wrap up at about 3.30 and visit a Starbucks about a mile away. I would order a small cafe latte and read the newspaper I hadn’t read  that morning (in those days, Denver had two daily newspapers). It was an hour or so of pure relaxation. Sometimes I would arrange to meet a friend or professor there. 

      For me, then, Starbucks has a strong emotional pull thanks to its place in my memory as a haven.  It’s not a herd mentality at work.  If the coffee store had been a Peets or some other chain, I would have surely cultivated the same feeling for it, and would now be rationally discrediting Starbucks for many good reasons.  But it’s unwise, as Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) said in O Brother Where Art Thou,  to “look for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

      • Bruce Sallan

        It seems that every BIG and SUCCESSFUL franchise has its lovers and haters. Starbucks really tends to bring out a lot of the latter. To me, the coffee is fine, but I rarely buy coffee out except the occasional coffee “treat” drink.

  • James Dabbagian

    Feel this is relevant for me since I have an office in Starbucks…just like every other freelancer. 

    Fun fact about me: I’m the only person I know who hates drinking hot coffee, or hot drinks in general. But give me an Iced coffee, and I’m pleasant for the day! 

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx for dropping by JD…I, too, occasionally set up shop at a Starbucks, usually when I’m stuck waiting for my son to finish something at school!

    • David Weber

      I lived in Japan for several years in the mid-1980s. There I was introduced to iced coffee. It was served with a small pitcher of simple syrup–very sensible (since granulated sugar is very difficult to dissolve in an iced drink).  Always tasty.

      I say “introduced to it” in Japan because as of the time I relocated there, iced coffee was very rare to encounter in the U.S.A.  Over the past 20-30 years, though, this has changed; and I am guessing it’s due to Starbucks and its menu of iced coffee drinks.

      • Bruce Sallan

        Actually, I think the Coffee Bean introduced the first blended coffee drinks – they’re called Ice-Blended drinks. Starbucks copied later with their Frappucino’s – but I’m open to being corrected on this? 

        My father always enjoyed iced coffee and would simply ask for a cup of ice and a cup of coffee. The “coffee shops” we went to did not have it as a menu item…we’re talkin’ the late 50’s and 60’s here, btw…

  • Daniel Alexander Dinnie

    Interesting post. Evolution of anything is something that I’m interested in. I can’t however comment much, as I’m not really a coffee drinker 🙂 I’ll have a cup here and there, but I don’t have a machine at home, it’s not that drink I’ll usually order when out. I’d like to ask does it really “do anything” for you? I guess what I’m getting at is, is it really necessary to drink so much coffee, or is it just marketing hype…? They (some company) did a blind test some time ago. They gave the two participants a flask; one with caffeinated coffee and the other non. Both of them said they needed caffeine to “get up” in the morning. After a week they revealed the results. The person with non-caffeinated coffee actually had a better start to their day then the other person. So is the caffeine hype all in ones head…

    • Bruce Sallan

      Daniel, I find the caffeine helps me and I love the taste of coffee…

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