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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 1
Coffee is the original productivity hack. A cup or two of the good stuff helps many of us feel more focused and puts us in a better mood, while a trip to the coffee machine can provide a short, refreshing mental break just when our brains start to go fuzzy.
All of this benefits not just workers, but their employers, too. So it’s no wonder that coffee has been a mainstay of the modern Western workplace for over a century, with workers’ reliance on java evolving in tandem with industrialization and the rise of periodic union-mandated breaks. (In most of the Eastern Hemisphere, tea is still the caffeinated beverage of choice.) A free pot of fresh, burbling coffee is among the most common, and most appreciated, contemporary Western office perks. And in the pre-Covid era, white-collar companies from Goldman Sachs to HubSpot were upping the ante with in-house baristas and cold brew on tap.
The ways in which people get their coffee fix have changed a lot over the years, from steeping ground beans in linen bags back in the 1700s all the way to the highly controversial Keurig—a device rued by its own inventor. But the link between coffee consumption and Getting Stuff Done has always remained firmly intact.
There’s also no denying the pleasure many of us take in a good cup of joe. And since we can’t pop by our local coffee shop for a latte or take advantage of office perks right now, we’re thinking more about the ways we make the good stuff at home.
Brew another pot, we’ve got some reading to do.
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 2
15: The number of minutes workers at Barcalo Manufacturing got for coffee breaks when they were first implemented in 1902
36: Pounds of coffee allotted to each Union soldier during the US civil war
50%: The percentage of US offices that offer single-serve coffee
75%: The percentage of office workers who take advantage of free coffee
$7,500: Cost of each of the 21 deluxe espresso makers the European Commission purchased for its headquarters in 2008 (employees complained the coffee wasn’t even that good)
5: Previous Quartz Obsessions that are related to coffee—and we may even have missed a few (takeout coffee, espresso, instant coffee, cold brew, and fika)
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 3
No history of coffee and work can be complete without a look to the labor that goes into producing the beverage. Slavery and worker exploitation has long fueled the production of coffee, as detailed in books like Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland and Antony Wild’s 2004 Coffee: A Dark History. The issue hasn’t gone away: A 2019 Reuters investigation, for example, revealed that slave labor and unsafe working conditions continue to pervade Brazil’s coffee plantations—even those that produce beans certified as slavery-free. While Fair Trade labels can’t always be trusted to indicate better conditions for coffee farmworkers, it is at least one step towards finding ethically-produced coffee. Better supply-chain mapping, surprise audits, and government sanctions can go a long way, too.
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 4
“’Tis found already, that this coffee drink hath caused a greater sobriety among the Nations. Whereas formerly Apprentices and clerks with others used to take their morning’s draught of Ale, Beer, or Wine, which, by the dizziness they Cause in the Brain, made many unfit for business, they use now to play the Good-fellows in this wakeful and civil drink.”
—James Howell in 1657, discussing the introduction of coffeehouses to London
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 5
The innovation of at-home coffee-making methods over the years is a testament to the push and pull between convenience and taste. On the highly utilitarian end of the spectrum, during the US Civil War, Sharps Rifle Co. memorably began producing a rifle with a coffee grinder built into its handle for Union soldiers. “If your men get their coffee early in the morning, you can hold,” Gen. Benjamin Butler said of the beverage’s electrifying powers.
A few decades later, in 1889, the stovetop percolator came along—a system that historians concur was “a terrible way to make coffee.” Because the process involves recirculating brewed coffee through ground beans, the finished product often has a bitter taste. Coffee-roasters would spend the next few decades trying to convince Americans to give up the method, but its comparative ease meant that those efforts were in vain until the rise of instant coffee and, later, automatic drip machines.
If coffee makers have long been designed to maximize efficiency and productivity, so too do certain models reflect other highly-valued traits in the modern workplace. The popularity of the automatic drip machine can be attributed to its promise of speed and consistency. The lure of the Keurig lies in its championing of individuality: Families and coworkers don’t have to get into turf wars about whether they prefer their cups decaf, fair trade, or flavored with pumpkin spice.
The plunging device AeroPress gained fandom in Silicon Valley because it can be endlessly hacked. Chemex is beloved by design geeks for its elegant simplicity, while siphon brewers are perfect for science types who want their brewers to double as spectacle. (“With Silex, coffee-making is fascinating,” one vintage advertisement promises of the vacuum-brewing technique.) High-end automated kiosks like Briggo, meanwhile, promise to produce perfectly standardized coffees and cortados for all those robot-centric futurists. Whatever one’s approach to work, it seems, there’s a coffee-brewing method that suits.
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 7
Pre-1000 AD: According to folklore, a shepherd in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) discovers coffee after noticing his goats prancing about after consuming the berries.
1400s: Coffeehouses open in Constantinople and spread throughout the Middle East.
1840: A French inventor known as Mme. Vassieux popularizes the siphon coffee brewer.
1889: Hanson Goodrich, a farmer in Illinois, patents the stovetop percolator.
1908: A German woman named Melitta Bentz invents the coffee filter, using blotting paper from her son’s notebook as a prototype.
1929: Milanese designer Attilio Calimani patents the French press.
1938: Nestlé debuts its instant coffee product, Nescafé, in Switzerland.
1939: German chemist Peter Schlumbohm invents Chemex, an hourglass-shaped pour-over coffee maker inspired by Bauhaus design.
1972: Mr. Coffee, the first automatic drip coffee maker, is born.
1998: Keurig introduces its single-cup commercial coffeemaker for the office.
2000: Comedian Tom Green brings a coffee maker as his date to the MTV Movie Awards.
2005: Alan Adler invents the AeroPress. (He also invented the flying disc Aerobie.)
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 8
Not only does coffee help people get to work—it’s inspired many works of art, too. Among the most unique is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Coffee Cantata, a 1735 comic opera about a young woman who wants to drink coffee and her mean dad who won’t let her.
Among its poignant lyrics:
Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn’t, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 9
Quartz CEO Zach Seward is internally famous for his strong feelings about the stuff (lately he’s chasing morning Chemex with cans of La Colombe Triple Draft Latte in the afternoon), and personally influenced Things editor David Yanofsky into carefully considering how he makes his coffee at home. At the moment, he can count eight separate devices in his own kitchen, despite being personally unable to handle more than one cup a day, if any. “My relationship with coffee is very strange,” he admits.
This Obsession’s author, Sarah Todd, gets by on two to three cups of French press coffee a day, whereas this Obsession’s proofer, Nicolás Rivero, has one miniature mug of espresso from a manual espresso maker. This Obsession’s editor, Susan Howson, wonders how anybody can stomach coffee at all.
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Quartz Obsession — Coffee makers — Card 11
Quartz’s Anne Quito sees an esports chair in your future.
If the label gives you the jitters, consider it like this: many of us are spending a lot more time hunched in a chair that was not made to support us for several hours at a time. Gamers, whose numbers are only increasing, have long been in need of chairs that protect their spines.
The home office industry is swiveling to satisfy the demand, with options that even border on the stylish. And as the billion-dollar esports industry continues to expand, telecommuting is growing along with it, so designers say we can expect more innovations soon.
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