Ode to the Percolator: Remembering the office coffee machine of yesteryear

Who remembers the late 80’s and early 90s? Who out there was actually already placed at work during those hazy times where white was brilliant? I vividly remember doing lots of jobs I hated and being surrounded by lots of office kitchenettes with microwaves, toasters and not much more. And then…the boss arrived with a surprise for everyone! A new coffee machine! A coffee machine, you say? So the days of instant coffee for us are numbered? Well, not quite a coffee machine, he replies. Not exactly an office coffee machine but an office coffee maker!

Therein lies the difference. The 90s were certainly the days of the coffee makers. The coffee drippers, coffee percolators, coffee filters, filter coffee…not coffee machines. Coffee machines were things found in cafes and even there they were hardly discussed. And what were cafes? Places where you could order yummy food as the breakfast time slot took off as a trendy time to meet. But coffee – well coffee just was. Flat, white and in a cup. Porcelain.

So chatter around the office coffee machine was non-existent. Enter the office percolator and everything changed! Suddenly there was real coffee at work! People were discussing coffee filters and coffee grind sizes. Coffee beans were discussed but it seemed there was really only one type of bean out there- coffee beans! Shade-grown, organic, full-bodied, slow-roasted, Guatemalan…not in the 90s! In the 90s people were proud to work in offices that offered their staff an alternative to instant granules…but they weren’t even sure why yet.

Remember having to throw away the used filters…and the pain when you realised they had run out and no-one had placed a re-order? Remember the smell of coffee wafting through the office as each drip of brewed coffee dripped into the coffee flask? Remember not really getting what the big deal about milk was? You just poured the milk into the coffee. Some snobs had to have their milk warmed so that they could still drink boiling hot coffee. But milk froth- what the hell was that? Who knew how important the milk froth would become to the coffee beverage in years to come.

So who can we really blame on the death, albeit slow, of the coffee percolator? Looking back and thinking about all the different factors, I blame the latte! The Café latte entered the scene somewhere between 1996 and 1997. And since then nothing has been the same in terms of coffee drinking, coffee beans, café culture and office coffee machines in Melbourne or Australia.

Once the latte arrived on the set, together with glass vessel and milk froth, the poor percolator could hardly compete. Even the plunger, a confident competitor, was relegated to milk frother for emergencies –or tea plunger! And for quite sometime, the percolator pushed on…dripping away in the office kitchenette. Until someone came to work and said ‘this isn’t really coffee!’

Real coffee. What a concept to live up to! How many times a day do you overhear conversations about coffee? Haven’t you walked past a group of people, latte glasses in hand, as they say in unison –or almost –‘isn’t this coffee excellent!’ ‘Doesn’t this place have the best coffee?’ or ‘the coffee here is amazing!’ How did coffee creep its way into our lives to such a degree that people talk about it regularly? While our friend the percolator was serving us things were not this way! People talked about football, or the weather. Not about the froth on their latte.

What does the passing of the percolator tell us about our lifestyle today? Does it mean we have higher standards? Does it mean we appreciate the finer things in life which, thanks to globalisation have become a lot more readily available? Does it mean we prefer things more complicated these days? Does it mean we are simply more fussy and westernised, gentrified? What does our latte habit tell us, about real coffee, coffee at home, coffee at work, coffee out, coffee with friends, coffee on the train…?

The percolator, a simple flask with simple drip-method system, used to do the trick. Now, you wouldn’t be caught dead buying one for anyone’s wedding or birthday. Once an appliance to hand-down to the grand kids, the percolator has been packed up, given away or sold for pittance at the garage sale, along with the way things used to be. Coffee in the 21st century is serious business. So serious that work places are judged according to the coffee machines found in their kitchens.

Just like the futility of crying over spilt milk, there is no sense in missing the percolator – or pretending to! While the percolator had many perks – it was much easier to use and much easier to keep clean and under control, there is little else that can really be missed besides the fact that we used to appreciate the simpler things in life far more willingly in he 90s. So while its passing can be seen as sad, we should really be rejoicing that the coffee bean in all its glory has come such a long way since then. I have no doubt that it will continue to flourish and become even more important and meaningful in years to come, as we focus on being conscious of where it came from and how its grounds got into our cups.

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