History of the Cafetiere / French Press
The cafetiere is known by many different names. In this country it’s usually called a cafetiere, which is shortened from the French ‘cafetiere a piston’. In the US it’s commonly referred to as a french press. Other names include: coffee press, press pot and coffee plunger.
Being called both a cafetiere and a french press you would assume that this coffee maker’s origins are in France. However, both the French and the Italians lay claim to its invention.
A popular story of how the cafetiere was invented involves an old man from Provence. The story goes that the old man used to go for a walk up a hill everyday to get some peace and quiet from his nagging wife. No matter how bad the weather was, blistering heat or driving rain, the old man would make the journey.
As he sought to prolong the escape his wife for as long as possible he would take with him a small amount of food, some firewood and his favourite old coffee pot. Everyday he would reach the hilltop, take a nice rest, build a fire, eat his lunch and then brew some coffee.
Now coffee back then was typically strong, bitter and tasted dreadful. It would be made by adding water and coffee grounds to a pot and then placing the pot on an open fire or stove until the water boiled. Little did they know back then that boiling water destroys the flavours in coffee.
One day the old man was making his coffee as he always did. But this time he forgot to add his coffee grounds to his coffee pot. It wasn’t until the water started boiling away that the old man realised his mistake. He quickly removed the pot from the flames and added his grounds. Of course the old man didn’t know that making coffee this way would result in the grounds floating to the top. Made the usual way, the grounds would’ve sunk to the bottom of the pot by the time the water had boiled. The old man took one look at his coffee and thought, “I can’t drink this. I’ll end up with a mouthful of ground coffee.”
As if by chance, as the old man contemplated going without his coffee (he had only brought enough water and coffee grounds for one pot), an Italian travelling merchant appeared on the horizon. Among the many goods the merchant was carrying was a metal screen.
The old man saw this screen and quickly hit upon an idea. He swiftly brought a section of it from the merchant and carefully fitted it over his coffee pot. Using a stick which lay nearby, he plunged the screen down to the bottom of the pot, thus trapping the coffee grounds. He then took a sip from his pot and immediately a big smile broke out across his face. The merchant, keen to find out why the old man was smiling, asked if he could try some of his coffee. After taking a big gulp from the pot, the merchant gave the old man a knowing look. This was the best coffee either of them had ever tasted!
The story goes on to say that after trying this fantastic coffee, the two men decided to open a small factory manufacturing their new invention: a coffee pot with a fitted plunger. Their cafetiere made them both a small fortune.
Cafetiere / French Press Patents
Stories aside, what is believe to be first patent for a cafetiere was filed by two Frenchmen, Mayer and Delforge, in 1852. Their design was very simple, a metal coffee pot fitted with a moveable metal filter attached to a rod. However, the problem with these first cafetieres was that they couldn’t be manufactured with enough precision for the filter to fit snugly into the pot. There was a gap between the filter and the side of the pot and the so some coffee grounds could escape around the sides of the filter.Mayer and Delforge's patent drawings, 1852
The next significant patent for a cafetiere was lodged by an Italian named Attilio Calimani, in 1929. Calimani sought to improve filtration by adding flexible packing around the edge of the filter to form a seal with the side. Calimani proposed that this packing could be made from various materials including a helical spring or rubber. Both of these materials are used today.Calimani's patent drawings, 1929
Calimani’s idea of using a helical spring was improved further by another Italian, Bruno Cassol, in 1935. He stated that the helical spring be covered by the gauze part of the filter, giving birth to the most common design of filter used today.Cassol's patent drawings, 1935
The next significant step in the history of the cafetiere came in 1958, when fellow countryman, Faliero Bondanini, was granted a patent for his version of the cafetiere. Instead of a helical spring, Bondanini’s version employed flexible metal fins to push against the sides of the pot. While Bondanini’s cafetiere posed no advantage over Cassol’s, sold under the name ‘Chambord’, it became very popular in France and by the early 1960s it was seen as a must have item for every French home.Bondanini's patent drawings, 1958
So diplomatically, the invention of the cafetiere is both French and Italian. The French may have been the first to put pen to paper in 1852, but Mayer and Delforge’s design needed the refinements of the Italians: Calimani, Cassol and arguably Bondanini; to work as intended.
La Cafetiere Vs Bodum
La Cafetiere and Bodum are two of the biggest manufacturers in the cafetiere market. The two companies actually used to work together but the relationship has soured more recently and various court cases have ensued.
Bondanini’s Chambord cafetiere was manufactured in what was originally a French clarinet factory call Martin S.A. This factory was owned by Mr. Louis-James de Viel Castel, who also owned La Cafetiere (then called Household Articles). Spurred on by the success of the Chambord model in France, Viel Castel decided to market the coffee maker in the UK, but under the brand La Cafetiere and renamed the ‘Classic’.
In the early 1970s, Bodum began working with Martin S.A. to distribute the Chambord model in Denmark. During this time the relationship between Viel Castel, La Cafetiere and Bodum was very amicable. However this all began to change when Martin S.A. was brought out by Bodum in 1991.
When Viel Castel sold Martin S.A. to Bodum he also sold the rights to the Chambord coffee maker. But as a condition of sale, Viel Castel wanted to retain the right to continue to sell the Classic cafetiere under the La Cafetiere brand. However, there is a disagreement as to the exact terms of the sale. Bodum claims that Viel Castel is limited to only selling the Classic cafetiere here in the UK. However, Viel Castel claims that he can sell the coffee maker everywhere but France.
The argument came to a head in 2008 when La Cafetiere started selling the Classic cafetiere in USA. Bodum tried to sue La Cafetiere for trade dress infringement. However, the judge ruled that as the Classic and Chambord were not exactly alike and as the wording on the condition of sale document was ambiguous, that La Cafetiere could continue to sell the Classic in America. Similar cases have been tried in other countries and so far all have ruled in favour of La Cafetiere.On left: La Cafetiere Classic; on right: Bodum Chambord - similar but not identical