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The New Grind: Tips for the Best Coffee Then and Now

It's easy to lust after the rich aroma of coffee brewing in the kitchen. For many, the art of making coffee has been lost, and all the best drinks are found at the local coffee shop. But knowing how to brew a perfect cup of coffee for yourself will let you enjoy its flavor from the comfort of your favorite chair and will delight any guest you welcome into your home.

Provided by the George Washington Coffee Refining Company, what we now call "a cup of Joe" was once affectionately referred to as "a cup of George." In the early 1920s, ads ran regularly for the purchase of instant coffee, often sold in greater weight and packaged in a metal can. But coffee was still misunderstood, losing its allure among people who preferred to do their social drinking at night. The ads depicted women dressed up to the nines, sitting beside men in tuxedos at luxuriously decorated tables. That was rarely the reality of coffee drinking. Those who enjoyed a good party wished to drink something else, and those who spent their evenings at home preferred to stay away from caffeine after dinner, for fear of being up all night.

During the '30s and '40s, something changed. Coffee started being depicted as something for the every man. There was a notion that a good wife would never let her husband leave for work without first enjoying a cup of coffee. It became the drink of mothers during quiet moments while their children napped. For every child who sipped hot cocoa by the Christmas fire, there was a set of parents who were enjoying a cup of coffee.

By 1950, coffee had become a staple of nearly every affair. It was an era in which women were primarily housewives, and only the proudest and most adept could earn the reputation of being a wonderful hostess. Hosting luncheons and late afternoon gatherings required the ability not only to brew the perfect cup of coffee, but to serve it as well. It was always an elegant affair, featuring a spread of small sandwiches and sweets to accompany the often dark, unsweetened coffee. But rest assured—milk and sugar were provided so cups could be made to taste. Tasked with being the primary caretakers of the home, women were the primary purchasers and consumers of coffee. But how exactly did they make it?

The Art of Drip Coffee

Considered to be "real" coffee, this was the only way a skilled hostess would dare to prepare coffee for events, and once made it was often transferred into fancier serveware. It was served in delicate small cups with an offering of cream. If you didn't have cream, you were to make the coffee a little stronger than usual and serve beside heated milk. One teaspoon of ground coffee and a cup of water was all you needed for a single serving. You placed a filter or linen cloth in the top half of a pour-over coffeemaker, followed by the grounds and then the boiling water. The flavor quite literally dripped through. "Every hostess knew that delicious coffee was the crowning touch of dinner—the late supper, the evening party" (Better Homes & Gardens, Kaffee Hag Coffee advertisement, October 1928).

If you like having the lingering scent of coffee in the house, this method was wonderful for that purpose as well. Since the top remained uncovered and there was quite a bit of steam, the aroma wafted throughout the home.

Ready In An Instant

For some time, it was thought that there were only two ways to make good coffee. If you were not patient enough to withstand the drip coffee method, you could simply purchase a can of instant coffee. But even this method came with a set of rules. Faust Soluble Coffee recommended putting half a teaspoon of mix into a cup and adding boiling water. It was best to make the coffee in individual cups instead of attempting to multiply the recipe in a pot. While this coffee was not as flavorful, it was perfect for impromptu gatherings and busy mornings.

"There's no easier way to entertain causally and hospitably than to have always on hand a delicious blend of coffee and a candy that keeps well, such as frosted mint balls, chocolate mocha beans, or pastilles, and/or ready-made cookies" (Better Homes & Gardens, "Let's Have a Cup of Coffee," January 1948). Keep coffee on hand and you'll be ready to receive guests at a moment's notice.

Coffeehouse Techniques

With the rise in coffeehouses, coffee-based drinks have become much more complex. If you're a Starbucks regular with a complex order, it might be hard to convert you to coffee at home. But remember that "coffee is correct any time … and it's always welcome" (Better Homes & Gardens, "Let's Have a Cup of Coffee," January 1948). If you find yourself craving a hot (or iced) cup at odd hours, knowing how to make it yourself will save you a lot of trouble. If you love the idea of brewing yourself a cup of coffee, or if you're interested in perfecting your craft, here are some easy tips:

  • Whenever possible, "use freshly drawn cold water and fresh coffee" (Better Homes & Gardens, General Mills advertisement, February 1946).

  • Only brew in a "spotlessly clean coffee-maker and serve as soon as possible" (Better Homes & Gardens, Coffee advertisement, October 1951). We recommend washing the coffeemaker as soon as you're finished with it and giving it a quick rinse before you use it again.

  • Remember that the darker the bean, the darker the coffee. For the most flavorful coffee, buy whole beans and grind a small batch every time you want to make a brew.

  • Top your cup off with milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon for a satisfying café au lait.

  • Swap the cinnamon sprinkle for 2 tablespoons of chocolate syrup and you have a mocha!