About Chris Gauthier

Chris is the Lemelson Center's Web and Multimedia Specialist.

The Elusive Perfectly Roasted Cup

My family is obsessed with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. The ubiquitous pink and orange logo is emblazoned in my memory. Grandpa Andy’s routine consists of a daily walk to the nearest Dunkin’s — about 500 yards from the house he built — for two cups of medium regular. Those cups sit on the counter until the moment comes to zap one in the microwave for a minute before he sits down with the daily crossword. His affection for the beverage is so well known that people bring him souvenir coffee cups from all over the world. His collection now contains over 2500 unique cups. The irony? He always drinks his coffee out of Dunkin Styrofoam, never out of a ceramic cup.

So when I flew the coop at the age of 18, the best coffee I’d ever had was a Dunkin iced hazelnut extra extra. Now, not an insignificant number of years later, I can’t even bring myself to drink the stuff. What changed? Sure, my tastes have changed. But back then, that’s all that was available in the small city I called home. These days, the proliferation of specialty coffee shops has fundamentally changed how the world consumes coffee. Innovations in coffee consumption are at the heart of this transformation.

Coffee History, In Brief

The roasting and brewing of coffee didn’t change much between the 1400s and late 1800s. From Yemen to China to Ethiopia, the process by which green coffee beans were converted into the dark, caffeinated liquid was pretty much the same: small batches of dried beans were cooked in a pan over a source of heat, then pulverized and steeped in hot water.

That all changed in 1880s, when Jabez Burns patented his coffee roaster.


Suddenly, coffee could be roasted in volume. At the same time, the industrial revolution introduced workers to unnatural sleep patterns and long hours. While coffee roasters previously had paid particular attention to sourcing good quality coffee beans, producing in large quantities to satisfy the needs of workers resulted in lower quality roasts. The invention opened a new market from which iconic brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House emerged.

Then, in 1890, an inventor from New Zealand named David Strang created instant coffee, and (in my opinion) the quest for the perfectly roasted cup took a huge leap backwards. I know some people swear by instant coffee. But instant coffee is a poor substitute for the real thing. Despite this, the popularity of the freeze-dried substance grew. It was sent overseas with the troops during the two world wars, and it became a staple in many households throughout the century. This was known as The First Wave of coffee.

Coffee Consumption

Folgers and Maxwell House may be the most well known mass producers of coffee, both instant coffee and the traditional kind. And up until the 1950s, most coffee consumption was done at home, in sit-down restaurants or on the fields of battle. But then came the second wave of coffee, with the introduction of the quick stop coffee shops like Dunkin’ Donuts, Peet’s Coffee, and Starbucks. It might not be fair to put all those in the same category, and depending on your loyalties, you might be offended by this notion. Peet’s Coffee is known to have been the first to rediscover, if you will, that coffee—depending on the origins and roasting methods—could have nuances in flavor. It was also at a Peet’s coffee that many Americans first encountered espresso and the myriad drinks that have since proliferated.

With this second wave, the emphasis shifted from the need for mass production to the desire for a better cup of coffee, and retail prices rose in conjunction with it. This lead to inventions such as the French Press coffee maker, the moka pot, the Mr. Coffee automatic coffee maker, and (my personal favorite) the Chemex.

The moka pot. From Wikicommons.

The moka pot. From Wikicommons.

CHEMEX from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

CHEMEX from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Chemex is my favorite because it was invented and is still produced in a town I consider a second home, Pittsfield, MA. It also, until recently, produced the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

The Third Wave

Last year, I discovered a coffee shop in Portland, ME, called Speckled Ax. It’s a specialty coffee shop where the owner, Matt Bolinder, is the roaster and also the main importer. He is part of a growing trend of coffee aficionados who will travel the world looking for the best coffee beans to bring home and roast. The third wave, according to Climpson and Sons, well-known coffee experts,

“…is focused on craftsmanship; where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries and roasting is about bringing out unique characteristics of a bean. …third wave is in the throes of achieving the same level of detail and understanding from bean to cup that wine connoisseurs have demanded for decades – farm, harvest, processing style, roast date, coffee variety and tasting notes.”

At Speckled Ax, and countless other small, independent shops popping up around the country, the emphasis is on creating a unique cup of coffee, unparalleled in flavor, color, texture, aroma, etc.

The quest for the perfect cup has lead to many innovations in roasting and brewing. At Speckled Ax, for example, Matt Bolinder roasts his coffee beans using wood fire—“Our object is to complement the distinctive flavors inherent to our select coffees with the subtle aromatics that only a wood fire can impart.”

On the brewing side of things, I recently came across a process called “Steampunk” at a coffee shop here in Washington, DC called La Colombe. This process produces the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted, using beans selected with utmost care by Todd Carmichael, a celebrity in the coffee world. The Steampunk process takes concepts as old as coffee brewing itself, and aims to use modern technology to achieve the perfect cup.

Steampunk Press.

Steampunk Press.

But can there really ever be a perfect cup of coffee?

No. No there can’t be. Perfection is impossible. But I’d love to be proved wrong.

Inventing the Modern Organic Farm

As I sliced into a perfectly ripe, farm-fresh, red tomato, thoughts of a hot summer day flashed in my head. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a juicy, salty, sweet tomato when the August sun is high in a cloudless sky. But it was late May, the temperature was a cool 45 degrees, and this wasn’t a typical tomato. It was grown during the coldest months of winter on a windswept peninsula off the coast of Maine, and it wasn’t grown using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. And guess what? It tasted absolutely divine.

Organic tomatoes.

Tomatoes just like these German Johnsons can be grown year-round in an unheated greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘impossible,’” says Eliot Coleman, the pioneer farmer behind this tomato. It’s a fascination that has lead Coleman to invent, create, and innovate tools and techniques that have taken on the “impossible” in organic farming. His innovations have been instrumental in changing the way people grow food through the coldest winter months. Indeed, without Coleman, the White House probably wouldn’t be growing greens in December.

American consumers’ eating habits are changing, and the latest iteration of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill reflects that. It’s considered to be one of the most progressive farm bills to come out of Washington in decades. With significant growth in spending on local and regional food systems (from $10 million annually to $30 million), and a new emphasis on organic foods, the 2014 Farm Bill—signed by President Obama in February—goes a long way to supporting the small farmer. Many of the ideas proposed in the bill find their roots in the early organic revolution of the 1960s, which was lead, in part, by Eliot Coleman.

As the son of a Manhattan stockbroker, Coleman came to farming by happenstance. After graduate school in Vermont, he found himself teaching Spanish at a college in New Hampshire, where he met his first wife, Sue. One day while shopping in a general store, Eliot came across the book, “Living the Good Life,” by Helen and Scott Nearing. Struck by the Nearing’s experience living “off the grid” in mid-coast Maine, Coleman was inspired to seek out a similar adventure of his own. He and Sue left New Hampshire in 1968 with $5000 in savings and bought a piece of property from the Nearings in Harborside, Maine. There, with not a structure in sight, some of the least ideal soil for growing crops you could want, and nothing but a few hand tools and boundless energy, the Colemans began what would eventually become Four Seasons Farm, and a new organic year-round farming philosophy emerged.

But Eliot Coleman wouldn’t say that there was anything innovative about the way he approached organic farming. He’d say that it was simply an extension and adaptation of farming techniques that were practiced throughout Europe and the Americas prior to the advent of industrial farming. The old ways of doing things emphasized ecosystem management to be successful: compost, crop rotation, and naturally occurring soil nutrients.

“Using compost and natural systems to grow food was so simple,” he says. “The world’s best fertilizer, compost…is made for free in your backyard from waste products. The soil, the natural world was giving me everything I needed as inputs for this system. This place really is well designed, isn’t it? And it’s only because an awful lot of people haven’t been paying attention to [the fact that the natural world is well designed] is why we have difficulties.”

But what makes Eliot Coleman innovative is that he views with disdain and skepticism many cutting-edge trends in farming, such as relying on chemical fertilizers, monocrops, and industrial-scale tools. Central to his (innovative) philosophy is that there is much more value in diversity and sustainability.

Coleman began his farm by clearing the land by hand and working to make the rocky, acidic soil more balanced and fertile. It was a slow process, one acre giving way to two acres and so on—a process that continues to this day. Along the way there have been countless challenges, giving Coleman many opportunities to be creative in finding solutions.

For example, how do you weed between 30-foot rows of lettuce quickly and without breaking your back? This was a problem Eliot took on headfirst, and he devised the Collinear Hoe:


The Collinear Hoe, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a garden and farm supply company that Eliot Coleman works closely with to develop his ideas into production models. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrating how to use the Collinear Hoe here:

Or, how about a quick way to incorporate the right amount of compost within your soil so your compost isn’t too deep or too clumpy? Well, hook up a cordless drill to a tiller with small tines and you get Coleman’s “tilther.” What used to take 25 minutes now takes five.

Tiller mixing compost into soil.

Eliot Coleman prepares a bed in the garden using his invention, the Tilther, to mix compost into the soil. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Mr. Coleman shares Benjamin Franklin’s belief that “As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own…freely and gladly.” So, he was never interested in obtaining patents for his inventions. He just wanted a tool that would make farm work a little easier. Any ideas he had, he gave to an engineer or manufacturing company so that they could perfect the tool or product. That way, Eliot and his farmer friends could all benefit from it.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to commercial organic small-scale farming is the moveable hoophouse. The latest iteration is the New Cathedral Modular Tunnel, a structure that allows users to grow crops in progression with the seasons. When one area of the garden needs to be covered, the tunnel or greenhouse is lifted by 4 people and moved, or pushed along tracks that run the length of the fields. This invention is what allows Eliot to grow juicy red tomatoes all year long.

Putting up frames for modular greenhouse.

Eliot Coleman poses with his daughter Clara Coleman at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. The two have just completed framing part of the 14’ Gothic Modular Moveable Tunnel, based on Mr. Coleman’s designs. September, 2013 Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds

The latest innovation Mr. Coleman has helped usher is a tool called the Quick Cut Greens Harvester, which, like the tilther, uses a cordless drill as its motor. Most exciting about this invention, which makes harvesting fresh salad greens much easier than the old method of cutting by hand, was that it was invented by a 16-year-old named Jonathan Dysinger, who visited Four Season’s Farm and was encouraged and inspired by Mr. Coleman to pursue the idea.

Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrate the harvester here:

Eliot Coleman’s contributions to small-scale and organic farming are numerous. From his philosophy to the methods and tools used to make it a viable business option, rejecting the conventional and daring to try the impossible are hallmarks of his work and legacy.