There are few things more mundane than a paper coffee filter. Plain, often white (though they are actually brown) and disposable, its sole purpose is to keep annoying grounds out of your cup of coffee. However, the story of the paper coffee filter's invention is anything but mundane. Around the turn-of-the-century, a Dresden, Germany housewife named Melitta Bentz went to innovative lengths to ensure her cup of coffee was grounds-free. Today, her name is emblazoned across a food industry empire.
Melitta was born Amalie Auguste Melitta Liebscher on January 31, 1873. Her father was a book publisher and her grandfather owned a brewery though in her biography there is no mention of her mother. Around 1898 or 1899, she married Johannes Emil "Hugo" Bentz, a small business owner in Dresden. They had two boys together - Wily and Horst - and their lives were pretty traditional as far as early 20th-century German families go. But that was about to change.
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When coffee first arrived in Europe around the 16th century (introduced by Muslim traders), it was mainly a drink for the wealthy. But by the late 19th century, coffee was available to both the rich and poor alike. Fairly quickly, Europeans started growing their own beans in their African and Caribbean colonies. Because of the Caribbean's proximity, coffee was actually more popular and cheaper in the American colonies. Soon, coffee equaled or even replaced tea as the hot beverage of choice in many parts of the world.
Every morning, so the legend goes, Melitta made her husband a cup of coffee. And every morning, after he departed for work, she slaved over the used brass pot, cleaning out the wet coffee sludge at the bottom. It was long and tedious work exacerbated by the fact that the family could not afford to buy cloth coffee filters (which were the standard filters of the day). One day, Melitta had enough. She did a little kitchen experimentation and devised a rather ingenious solution. Taking her old brass pot, she punched holes in it with a nail in its pliable bottom. Then, she ripped a sheet of cheap blotter paper from her son's school notebook and lined the bottom of the brass pot with it. Next, Melitta laid this contraption on top of a coffee mug, filled it was coffee grounds and slowly poured boiling water over it. Boom, a makeshift coffee filter. But more than that, it was cheap, easy to clean and disposable (which also made them hygienic).
Bentz's paper filter became the go-to for her and her friends when brewing coffee. Soon, Hugo and Melitta went into business together, patenting her invention on July 8, 1908 under the rather innocent title of "Filter Top Device lined with Filter Paper." In winter of that year, the Bentz couple opened a small office in their apartment to sell the disposable paper coffee filter with a starting capital of only 72 Reichsmark cents (about $30 American dollars). The burgeoning company got a big boost in 1911 when it received a gold medal at the International Hygiene Expo (which was a thing for a few years, at least according to the Bulletin of the Pan American Union.) By 1914, the company had over a dozen employees and was churning out paper coffee filters by the hundreds.
Today, Melitta is an international company that still specializes in coffee products. It notched €1,436 million in sales (about $1.6 billion), an increase of 8 percent from the year before. It's also still family-owned and operated (with the American headquarters now in Clearwater, Florida). All this because Melitta Bentz found a DIY solution to her coffee mess.