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A Melitta-brand drip cone. [Photographs: Meister]

Of all the mad geniuses we have to thank for several centuries' worth of coffee-technology advancement, perhaps the person the vast majority of us owe the most gratitude to is a rather unlikely candidate: A housewife from Dresden, Germany. Specifically, the very enterprising (if maybe a little frumpy), apfelstrudel-baking mother of two Melitta Bentz, inventor of the paper filter.

As with most so-simple-it's-brilliant innovations, Bentz's invention was born out of irritation and annoyance. Fed up with the alternatives—such as having to constantly wring out stain-ridden cloth filters, or scrape coffee sludge off the bottom of unfiltered coffee pots—Bentz devised a simple (and, hallelujah, easily disposable!) filtration system by laying a regular old piece of paper over the perforated bottom of a brass pot. The result was a clean cup—and a relatively clean brewer, which of course would please any overextended housewife.

Within two years, she'd filed a patent on the design (formalized in 1908) and set up shop with her husband and sons, cranking out filters for caffeine-craving Germans. By the 1930s, the filter's original design had changed rather drastically, morphing from the flat-bottomed metal unit into a cone-shaped ceramic piece, with the unmistakable triangular-folded paper filter we know today.

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Other styles of cone-shaped coffee filters.

While the company that bears Melitta's name is still a leader in drip-cone manufacturing, coffee-loving geeks, designers, and professionals all over the world have followed our gal's lead by making tweaks to Bentz's initial concept and striving for the perfect filter brew. Japanese companies like Beehouse and Bonmac are ahead of the pack, and fanatical pour-over-loving baristas will argue with blue faces about the best methods for extracting coffee using this or that brewer. ("Pour the water slowly." "No, all at once!" "It has to be added in a slow circle, moving from the middle outward, in a clockwise rotation." "No, counterclockwise!" And so on, ad nauseum.)

So the next time you blearily reach for a paper filter, anxious to get the lifeblood flowing with that first morning cup, don't forget to pour a little of the finished brew out for one solid dame we all owe a debt to: Good ol' Melitta Bentz.

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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