The German Entrepreneur Who Took the Clump out of Coffee
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this inventor transformed the way we drink our morning brew.
By Carly Stern
Melitta Bentz was tired of scrubbing residue from the pots she used to make her husband’s coffee, and she couldn’t get rid of the bitter taste. So the inventive hausfrau in Dresden, Germany, began tinkering with kitchen items, and eventually stumbled on her eureka moment when she used a nail to punch holes in the bottom of a brass pot. She ripped blotting paper from her son’s schoolbook, placed it in the punctured pot and added ground coffee, or so the legend goes. After pouring in boiling water and letting it drip through the grounds, Bentz sipped the filtered liquid and declared it sludge- and bitterness-free. Gefunden! The world had its first paper coffee filter.
Coffee lovers needed that breakthrough, notes Robert W. Thurston, managing director of the Oxford Coffee Co. and senior editor of Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage and the Industry. Before Bentz, Thurston says, coffee drinkers boiled grounds in pots or used percolators. The boilers experimented with some decidedly oddball tactics to settle the grounds, including recipes with eggshells and fish skins. Others strained the java with cheesecloths or even socks.
Just as significant as the filter breakthrough were the progressive workplace policies that Bentz established.
Bentz wasted no time, securing a patent for her invention in June 1908. Her successful application was all the more remarkable given that Germany has one of the starkest gender gaps within the Patent Cooperation Treaty system. More than a century later, less than 20 percent of international patent applications filed by Germans include female inventors, according to a 2016 World Intellectual Property Organization report.
Six months after the patent, Bentz and her husband, Hugo, registered a company called Melitta and launched it with less than 100 pfennigs. A room in their apartment served as company headquarters. But success didn’t take long to find them, given Melitta’s relentless experimentation. In 1910, the filtration device won medals at the International Health Exhibition and the Saxon Innkeepers’ Association, according to the Melitta company’s official biography.
During a period when few women secured their own patents, let alone co-founded companies, and expectations were rigid surrounding traditional gender roles, Thurston considers it surprising that Bentz’s husband was so supportive. Most female business owners back then were widows who were strong enough to prevent other men in their lives from horning in on the action and pushing them aside. Still, Thurston isn’t surprised that the public was receptive to her idea. After German unification in 1871, innovation was thriving, and many Germans were starting businesses.
Bentz continued to refine her filter design over successive decades and introduced additional household products to broaden the revenue stream. Company leadership stayed within the family for generations, and the international Melitta Group currently employs more than 3,000 people.
Just as significant as the filter breakthrough were the progressive workplace policies that Bentz established, starting in 1930 with Christmas bonuses. In the years that followed, the company offered 15 days of paid vacation per year, gave workers Saturdays as well as Sundays off and started a social fund for staffers in need called Melitta Aid. The company also offered anniversary bonuses, subsidized apartments and robust health insurance.
Although Melitta eventually took its filters worldwide, Thurston notes that it likely took a number of years for the product to match its European success elsewhere. World War I halted non-war innovations until 1918 — Hugo was drafted, and Melitta supported herself by selling cartons, according to the company biography — and the filter didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the 1920s, when once again the design was improved upon.
The simple filter’s appeal has extended beyond affordability to play an important role in the most recent coffee boom. The pour-over method is favored among high-end consumers, according to Nick Brown, editor of the online Daily Coffee News for Roast Magazine. It’s attractive to those who want to know where their coffee comes from and to control the brewing parameters, like temperature and the ratio of water to ground beans.
Though many caffeine lovers have never heard of Melitta Bentz, the green-and-red boxes of Melitta products line the shelves of countless grocery stores in the U.S. and elsewhere. “I think it’s going to be an enduring method for making coffee so long as coffee is able to exist on this planet,” Brown says.