5.19 — Coffee: brewing innovation

Host Walter Isaacson and guests discuss the innovative history and bold future of the world’s most popular drink.
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In this episode:

  • Welcome to the cupping room (0:00)
  • The origins of coffee (4:02)
  • Percolating productivity (9:24)
  • Quality vs. quantity (12:30)
  • Espresso in America (17:22)
  • The third wave (21:47)
  • Coffee without the bean? (26:37)

For centuries, people have relied on coffee to fuel innovative ideas, revolutionary movements, and everyday morning routines. But how did we start drinking coffee and how do we continue to disrupt a $100 billion global industry? Could a beverage made from boiled beans become more responsibly sourced or even rebuilt at the molecular level? Get an inside look at your cup of joe on a new episode of Trailblazers.

Settle in with a cup of coffee and some quality content:

  • Executive Bruny Rios learned many leadership lessons on the coffee farm.
  • Just like coffee farmers today must adapt to climate change, farmers in all areas of agriculture must also. Some are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to do it.
  • Coffee surpassed beer as the most popular breakfast drink in the Western world. Learn more about another revolutionary beverage in our beer episode.

“Soon after you came in the store, we would hand you a little sample cup of something that would just blow your socks off.”

— Zev Seigl, co-founder of Starbucks

Guest List

  • Trish Rothgeb is co-founder and roastmaster for Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, California. Her experience in the industry spans over 30 years as a coffee roaster, quality control specialist, green coffee buyer and entrepreneur. She teaches quality evaluation practices to coffee professionals around the world, and is credited with coining the term "third wave coffee" and identifying its relevant concepts.
  • Professor Jonathan Morris is also known as The Coffee Historian. He’s the author of “Coffee A Global History” and co-creator of the History of Coffee Podcast series. Jonathan is vice president of the Royal Historical Society and holds a Chair of Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K.
  • Jarrett Stopforth is the chief scientist and co-founder at Atomo. He holds a doctorate in food science and microbiology from Colorado State University. Over the last 20 years Jarret has been involved in product development for many creative food and beverage companies such as Soylent, Chobani, Campbell’s, and Kettle and Fire. Jarret is an avid writer and has over 50 peer-reviewed publications in the field of science and has spoken internationally on topics ranging from disruptive innovation to food safety.
  • Zev Siegl is a co-founder of Starbucks Coffee Company. He’s also committed to and passionate about enabling young entrepreneurs around the world to make good decisions regarding starting, acquiring and growing small- and medium-size enterprises.
  • Kent Bakke is the CEO of La Marzocco International. He has been involved with sales and development of commercial espresso machines since 1978 and today continues to be passionately involved with the people in the coffee and equipment industry. Kent continues to be very interested in helping and supporting coffee quality from bean to cup.

Walter Isaacson:

The year is 1968 and Erna Knutson, a secretary of the B.C. Ireland coffee Import brokerage in San Francisco, is sitting at her desk on a coffee break. Knutson is sipping a delicious brew of Indonesian Mandheling Sumatra, when she realizes that the cup of joe in her hands is better quality than most of the coffee her company imports. And she should know. Not only does Knutson’s job allow her to sample many exotic coffee blends, it’s also given her a keen understanding of where to find the best beans. In fact, she’s responsible for tracking B.C. Ireland’s coffee shipments coming from all around the globe.

Walter Isaacson:

But Knutson has bigger aspirations. She wants to put her taste buds to work as a taste tester, or cupper, for B.C. Ireland. But in 1968, women weren’t allowed in the cupping room, where cuppers sample beans to ensure their quality. It’s at this moment, sipping her coffee at her desk, she senses an opportunity. Knutson noticed that smaller roasters are popping up all over the US, and that their customers are willing to pay a premium price for better coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

But these roasters are struggling to source their coffee because most of it arrives in huge containers at a volume too big for them to handle. So she decides to take a risk. She asks her boss if she can buy the whole container of Mandheling Sumatra for herself, more than 150 bags. After some consideration, he replies, “If you can sell it, it’s yours.” It takes Knutson only a month to sell all 150 bags, so she decides to order more. In the months that follow, Knutson jumped from secretary to trader, becoming one of the first women to do so in the industry.

Walter Isaacson:

Then in 1974, Knutson forever stamped her legacy on the coffee world. During an interview with the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, she coined the phrase “specialty coffees” to refer to the product she sourced and sold. The term stuck, immortalizing Knutson as the godmother of the specialty coffee movement.

Walter Isaacson:

Then in 1985, on its 100-year anniversary, Knutson bought B.C. Ireland, and renamed the company Knutson Coffee Limited. And what do you think was her first order of business after buying the company? Knutson fired the man who had kept her out of the cupping room. In the coffee industry, Erna Knutson wasn’t just an innovator, she was a legend.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

Is this coffee? This is a coffee pot at work.

Speaker 3:

Help me out, will you? Harold hates my coffee. What kind do you use?

Speaker 4:

Don’t just shake your head. Explain why the coffee’s so good.

Speaker 3:

Good taste.

Speaker 2:

Instant Folgers. Listen to it perk.

Walter Isaacson:

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” and it seems most of humanity does too.

Walter Isaacson:

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks, with almost 2 billion cups consumed every day. In fact, coffee is the second most sought after commodity in the world, with the global coffee industry being worth more than a whopping $100 billion.

Walter Isaacson:

But it’s been a long journey from deep within the African forest foraging for coffee cherries to standing in line at a hipster cafe ordering a triple venti, half-sweet, nonfat, no-foam caramel latte.

Walter Isaacson:

According to folklore, coffee was first discovered many centuries ago by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi.

Jonathan Morris:

Now, the coffee plant grows in the forests under the trees, and Kaldi notices that some of his goats are eating the red berries of the coffee plant.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Jonathan Morris. He’s the author of Coffee: A Global History.

Jonathan Morris:

They then, these goats, become very excited. They start dancing.

Walter Isaacson:

And when Kaldi himself tried a cherry, he also began to dance. Believing they were magic, he took the cherries to his local imam who tried them, declared they were disgusting, and spat them into a fire, where they roasted.

Jonathan Morris:

The perfume from the berries is very attractive, and for reasons that still aren’t really clear, from that point they decide to make a beverage with these roasted beans. And hence we get coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

Historians agree that this story is likely more fiction than fact, but they also generally agree that coffee originated in Ethiopia.

Walter Isaacson:

But it wasn’t until coffee arrived in Turkey during the 16th century that it really started to resemble the drink so many people love today. It was here that the earliest method of manually brewing coffee was created using a tool called a [jesvay 00:06:32]. The jesvay, more commonly referred to as an [ebreck 00:06:36], was a long-handled pot that could be placed over a fire.

Jonathan Morris:

Because you would’ve basically used a pestle and mortar to create this very, very ground coffees. But you’d put it straight into the ebreck with the water, you put it over the fire, you boil it. There are then various styles which go around the base of how many times do you boil this to a foam and then let it fall and then foam it again and let it fall. The end result, however you look at it, is it becomes a very concentrated boiled taste into the coffee. So very, very dense, very dark, very strong, as we would say.

Walter Isaacson:

Suddenly, brewing coffee was an activity that could be done every day, and this led to perhaps the single greatest disruption in coffee’s history, the coffeehouse.

Walter Isaacson:

For the first time, people of different classes and ranks were encouraged not only to gather together, but to sit side by side and talk. Here they shared ideas that were political, philosophical, and even revolutionary. And like all great disruptions, not everybody was happy about it.

Jonathan Morris:

So the figure who most embodies this is Sultan Murad IV. He’s an Ottoman sultan, rules from the 1610s through to the 1640s, is very worried about sedition and rumors. So Murad decrees that basically all coffeehouses can no longer be opened. And he goes somewhat further and says that people should go around and wherever they find a coffee housekeeper with a coffeehouse open, they should literally string him up from his own doors. This is a pretty dramatic approach, pretty drastic.

Walter Isaacson:

But he failed to get people to stop drinking coffee, as did [Karabag 00:08:50], the governor of Mecca, King Charles II of England, and King Adolf Frederick of Sweden. These leaders weren’t wrong. History tells us the French and American Revolutions, among others, were planned in part in the dark corners of coffeehouses. But even under the threat of death, people still wanted their cup of joe. So coffee continued its journey into Europe and North America, where it began to unseat the most popular breakfast drink in the Western world, beer.

Jonathan Morris:

The time that coffee first appears, nuns, that’s to say women in convents, were drinking about eight points of small beer. I’m sure it must’ve been very small, but nonetheless, you see that this would not probably be conducive to being extremely active and mentally agile.

Jonathan Morris:

Now, in the context of the work environment, throughout time people have worked and traded, in particular, by networking, by coming together, and so forth. So a lot of that was being done in taverns. The tavern is not, again, a place that’s perhaps conducive to good decision making. The coffeehouse, with coffee exciting the brain, making one more functional as it were, almost hyperfunctional, obviously has the reverse activity. And quite early on, people noticed that difference.

Walter Isaacson:

It turns out, as people sobered up, they could be incredibly productive. As Europe and North America moved into the caffeine-driven age of enlightenment during the 1700s, coffeehouses became the center of innovation. In fact, both the London Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange began in coffeehouses.

Walter Isaacson:

Over the next century, there were many innovations in coffee brewing as people continued their search for the perfect cup. One of the most notable came in 1870 when a Parisian tinsmith invented the Biggin coffee pot, which used a cloth barrier to filter coffee grounds. But the undesirable taste of the cloth was often transferred to the coffee itself. Modern percolators were also rising in popularity, but a percolator left boiling a fraction too long resulted in a burnt drink.

Walter Isaacson:

By 1906, a German woman by the name of Melitta Bentz was getting very frustrated with bad-tasting coffee.

Jonathan Morris:

We always refer to her as a housewife, but I think it would be much better to refer to her as an innovator and an entrepreneur, Melitta Bentz. The story goes, she noticed her son’s blotting paper and thought that this would be a useful thing to imitate to solve this problem of coffee and contact. And from this, she developed the filter paper.

Walter Isaacson:

Her innovation remains a precursor to all modern pour over and drip coffee brewing worldwide. Melitta Bentz went on to found Melitta Inc., which is now a billion dollar company located in 50 countries.

Walter Isaacson:

With the rise of Melitta’s filtered brewing technology, it was finally easier to brew coffee. But that didn’t mean the coffee itself was better. Because just as brewing innovations improved, other innovations were driving coffee quality and the price down.

Walter Isaacson:

First, the invention of vacuum-sealed tins allowed larger quantities of coffee to be kept fresh in the home. Then in 1938, Nestle introduced Nescafe instant coffee. The incredible success of both marked the decline of coffeehouses and the increase of mass-produced, lower-quality coffee. It was called commodity coffee and prized mainly for its quick caffeine fix. By the middle of the 20th century, good coffee wasn’t even on most people’s radar. But as it turns out, there were some people who still wanted better coffee.

Zev Siegl:

When I was growing up, my mother and father were quite interested in having good coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Zev Siegl. He co-founded Starbucks with Gordon Bowker and Jerry Baldwin.

Zev Siegl:

So I would say that by the time the idea of coffee appeared in the minds of the young founders of Starbucks, that, yes, I had some exposure to coffee and was inclined in that direction. Gordon Bowker and Jerry Baldwin and I were friends. Around 1970, early 1970, Gordon and Jerry and I started having lunch together once in a while. And eventually over a cup of really bad coffee at a restaurant that no longer exists, it occurred to us, “Coffee’s pretty terrible here in Seattle. Does it have to be that way?”

Walter Isaacson:

So Siegl and his partners started doing some research and discovered a company called Peet’s Coffee, one of the first specialty coffee companies in the United States.

Zev Siegl:

So I got in my car and I drove to San Francisco, it was about 11 or 12 hours, and walked into one of his two stores. I was completely blown away. It was just one of the greatest moments of my life. By the end of that day, he had offered to become a mentor to me and my two partners, which he proceeded to do. He was not interested in equity or fees or any of that. He just wanted to help three young guys.

Walter Isaacson:

Starbucks in its first decade of existence was not the coffee shop Goliath we know today. It was a small coffee roasting business, where customers bought quality beans to brew at home. One of their suppliers was quickly moving up the ladder at B.C. Ireland, and her name was Erna Knutson. Knutson and her efforts to get quality beans to small roasters such as Starbucks was the beginning of the second wave of coffee.

Zev Siegl:

It helps charge up the industry to give it more energy and provide that first group of small roasters with the beans they really wanted.

Walter Isaacson:

Slowly, people started leaving their homes again for coffee, but it was more expensive than the coffee in the vacuum-sealed tins. By some estimates, specialty coffee roasters were selling their coffee at almost triple the price of commodity coffee. So the question Siegl asked himself was, “How do we convince people to pay more?” At the small roasting company named Starbucks, the answer was simple, free samples.

Zev Siegl:

So we brewed coffee all day, every day and kept the batches fresh. Soon after you came in the store, we would hand you a little sample cup of something that would just blow your socks off. People would say, “What’s this? This isn’t like my coffee that I’ve been buying.” And we’d say, “No. No, it’s not. It’s more expensive, but it’s a lot better.” We would then explain about importing good coffee, roasting, selling it fresh, et cetera, et cetera. We, one customer at a time, converted almost an entire city,

Walter Isaacson:

But for Starbucks to make the leap from boutique coffee roaster to coffeehouse empire, they needed another big disruption to happen first. Luckily, the technology that would propel them up the coffee hierarchy had been invented nearly a century earlier.

Kent Bakke:

I don’t know if I can quantify when and where, but there’s a story that the original espresso coffee machines were invented because people got tired of waiting for their coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Kent Bakke. He’s the retired CEO of the Italian espresso company, La Marzocco International. He’s credited for bringing the La Marzocco espresso machine to America and supplying Starbucks’ first coffee shops.

Walter Isaacson:

Bakke’s love of espresso began after he and some friends decided to start a hamburger shop. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was their good fortune that their new shop came with an old espresso machine.

Kent Bakke:

I had never seen one before and had no idea what it was, but I thought it was really cool. So we started using the machine without any clue. It really wasn’t working like it’s supposed to be, but brown water would come out. So I assumed, well, maybe it’s doing something. We started going around town in that era, around 19 … let’s see ’76, ’77. There were probably about eight espresso machines in Seattle, some of them working, some of them not. I was very intrigued by the mechanical and technological part of it, so I would go around and pretend to be a espresso machine technician. That was kind of started my brief education about it.

Walter Isaacson:

Bakke decided that there might be a business in importing these machines. So he went to Italy where he met with La Marzocco’s owners in Florence and came back to Seattle with a handshake agreement to import their machines to the Northwest.

Kent Bakke:

I always say it only took a year to sell the first machine, and after we sold the first machine, I thought, “Wow, we must be in business.”

Walter Isaacson:

Espresso machines, at their most basic, brew coffee by forcing pressurized, near boiling water through a puck of ground coffee. In 1970, La Marzocco modernized the espresso machine with a double boiler system. This allowed baristas to keep the water for espresso shots separate from the boiling steam for the milk. This sped up the whole process for making espresso.

Walter Isaacson:

Once Howard Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987 and started concentrating on building cafes, the speed of the La Marzocco espresso machine made their partnership inevitable because, let’s face it, nobody likes to wait in line at Starbucks.

Kent Bakke:

But as coffee bars started to open up, the espresso also provided an economic advantage. The beverages are more expensive, they were more custom. You could charge more for them, and hopefully they would be more profitable. Actually, part of the economic advantage was what helped to create the popularity of espresso beverage. I would say that the specialty coffee movement coincided with the growth of espresso.

Walter Isaacson:

But as the price of coffee went up, a dark truth became difficult to ignore. There was a harsh disparity between the price of coffee and the living conditions of the men, women, and children who were harvesting the beans.

Kent Bakke:

I think I had a subconscious thought that because espresso is handmade and it’s a more expensive beverage, that that would just by default trickle down to the farmer. At some point, I realized that had not happened, even though the price of a cup of coffee had gone up two or three or four times between an American cup of coffee and a specialty coffee espresso beverage. It was stunning that when I finally realized that in spite of all that extra money in the chain, it wasn’t going to where it needed to go.

Walter Isaacson:

This awareness coincided with the third wave of coffee. Endeavoring to serve coffee superior to even the specialty beans of second wave coffeehouses like Starbucks and Peet’s, a new wave of coffee roasters appeared on the scene.

Trish Rothgeb:

So third wave coffee is a term that I thought up to define a new way to look at what had come before. So that obviously indicates there was a first and a second wave.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Trish Rothgeb. She coined the term “third wave coffee’ and is the co-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee.

Trish Rothgeb:

We learned through the second wave where coffee came from, and we also learned eventually words like cappuccino and cafe latte. We learned these things, and then we wanted to know more.

Walter Isaacson:

Questions about brewing methods and bean origin eventually led to questions about how the beans were grown and the farmers who raised the crop.

Trish Rothgeb:

We found that there was a portion, a certain ratio of coffee drinkers, that was turned on by that kind of information, as anyone who loves wine is very interested in the terroir of the wine or the people who are into cheese. It’s the same with coffee. So when I say Guatemala, where in Guatemala did it come from? And did I know that there are several regions in Guatemala with different conditions for growing that coffee? And actually, a certain farmer’s husbandry means everything to the reason why this coffee tastes a certain way. Or the fact that it lives next to a marine layer in the mornings and direct sun in the afternoons, or something like this. And so we started to get really into that kind of thing.

Walter Isaacson:

Indeed, third wave coffee takes the innovations of the second wave and shines a light on every player in the coffee supply chain responsible for helping make a great cup of coffee. As their dedication to consumer education put more attention on the farmer, an economic innovation was pushed farther into our North American consciousness, fair trade coffee. Starting in Holland in 1988, fair trade is a global sustainability label that guarantees a minimum price for coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

But unfair pricing wasn’t the only thing affecting coffee farmers, climate change and rising temperatures forced some off their land to find better growing conditions. This led to instances of devastating deforestation. Third wave importers became known for helping farmers develop ways to effectively adapt to climate change. Over the first two decades of the 21st century, a growing consumer demand to buy fairly-traded, ethically-sourced, and sustainable coffee became synonymous with third wave coffee. But change was slow.

Trish Rothgeb:

So someone like me, and it is true that I pay many times the going rate for commodity coffee because the product I buy is of a higher quality, but it’s still a very tiny portion of the whole coffee industry’s coffee. That has yet to really fully influence what the bigger companies do.

Walter Isaacson:

So today, third wave coffee importers and roasters use their tremendous coffee knowledge and expertise to concentrate on what they can do, convince consumers one at a time, in a nod to the Starbucks founders before them, of the benefits of drinking a truly amazing cup of coffee.

Trish Rothgeb:

What I’m hoping is that more and more people can be turned on to specialty coffee, or third wave coffee, if only to know that it exists. It might not be something that you like to spend money on every single day, but you have to know that there’s a reason why that coffee costs a lot of money. The more that maybe treat themselves to those things, we have a better chance to influence the larger machine that exists for coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

And in doing so, inspire the palettes of coffee drinkers for years to come.

Walter Isaacson:

So what does the future hold for coffee? Is there a fourth wave on the horizon?

Jared Stopforth:

Hi, my name is Jared Stopforth. I have my doctorate in food science and microbiology, and I am the co-founder and CSO of Atomo Coffee.

Walter Isaacson:

Atomo is molecular coffee. In other words, coffee without the beans.

Jared Stopforth:

When we first started this process, we were in my garage, and we were mixing compounds and we were stirring things up and we were creating all kinds of stuff. Man, we would spit it out. There was a time, like three or four months in, that we looked each other in the eye, and we’re like, “What are we doing here, man? This is really crazy what we’re trying to do.”

Jared Stopforth:

Then there was this one day where we actually stirred a batch and we tasted it and we looked at each other and we were like, “Man, that’s coffee. That’s not great coffee, that’s not even good coffee, but that’s coffee.” We looked at each other in the eyes, and we said, “Oh my gosh, we’re going do this. We are going to do this.”

Walter Isaacson:

They succeeded in converting the compounds found in farmers’ plant waste into compounds found within green coffee beans. They used those converted compounds to rebuild coffee from the ground up. They roasted, ground, and brewed it just like conventional coffee. Because they use farmers’ waste that already exists, their coffee doesn’t hurt the environment.

Jared Stopforth:

We use 94% less water than conventional coffee to get to Atomo coffee, and 93% less carbon. If you think about just the millions and millions and millions of acres of coffee and the amount that is being used today, you can understand that a 93% reduction is tremendously positive.

Walter Isaacson:

For some people, the idea of molecular coffee makes them uncomfortable. Where does the coffee farmer fit into this beanless coffee world?

Jared Stopforth:

Our intent is not to replace, it’s to help with the growing demand. We call ourselves the Tesla of coffee, and there’s a reason for that. That is, before Atomo came along, you only had the choice of conventional coffee. There was no other choice. Now that Atomo is here, there’s a choice. So consumers who want to enjoy their daily brew and make a better choice, a sustainable choice, a choice for the planet, now have an option.

Walter Isaacson:

So don’t despair, coffee lovers. While exciting innovations are changing the coffee landscape, we haven’t seen the last of coffee beans just yet. From a dark cup of Turkish coffee, to frothy brews adorned with intricate latte art, or a humble cup of instant coffee on a camping trip, history teaches us that people will always go to great lengths for their favorite cup of coffee. Because for centuries, humans and coffee have traveled together, inextricably linked, trying to bring out the best in each other. That job is far from finished.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. To learn more about the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.