Coffee is revered the world over. It’s part of our life at the office, in the kitchen, and on the go. How far would you go to enjoy a cup of great java?
If you’re Melitta Bentz living in a small apartment in Dresden Germany in 1908, you’d try just about anything to find a ‘ground-breaking’ solution to enjoying better tasting coffee.
The most unlikely breakthrough came for Melitta, an accidental engineer, housewife and mother of two boys. She started experimenting with filter designs and various types of paper, becoming so frustrated one morning that she ripped a page from her son’s school notebook and used it as a filter for her big copper pot.
This time the grounds of coffee didn’t slip through the paper and fall into her coffee cup. Melitta had found a solution. By boiling water and pouring it over a smaller porcelain coffee maker, Melitta brewed the perfect cup. Coffee history changed in an instant.
A trip to the patent office and a booth at the Leipzig Trade Fair showcasing her invention among the housewares won new customers. She and husband Hugo set up a window shop to display their new coffee making process and “demonstration ladies” were used to show people how to use the new coffee makers and filters.
The company grew quickly until the advent of World War One when the German government took over of their plant.
Melitta, who ran the company with help from Hugo and her brother, continued to innovate processes including those around corporate culture. She introduced new working conditions that changed the labor market.
Before Melitta’s new policies, factory employees worked six days a week in hard conditions. But Melitta wanted employees to be happy and enjoy their work. Again, an innovative approach at a time when the attention to individual happiness was overshadowed by socialist philosophies about the good of the many.
Melitta made the company a good place to be and instituted the first five-day work week, as well as a benefits program that provided a three-week holiday, Sunday’s off and a Christmas bonus.
These progressive changes exemplified the company’s commitment to progress and that the fact that they were instituted by a woman when gender roles and expectations were still very limited continues to be amazing.
Progress continued after Melitta and her husband stepped down from the company in 1932, but the occupation of the German Nazi party swept in and took over the plant in 1941. Melitta’s boys cooperated and the factory was used to produce war supplies until it was released ten years later.
Thankfully, Melitta’s important protections for workers and the establishment of a social fund she set up for the employees were reintroduced.
Today, the Melitta Aid Social Fund is still an integral part of the company’s philosophy, one that is committed to environmental sustainability, minimal waste, and anti-slavery policies to protect employees.
Innovation has also continued to play a part of Melitta’s corporate culture and expansion, with more than 3,000 employees worldwide and dozens of additional brands under their umbrella corporation.
When I think of German designed products, I tend to think of fast cars and efficient engines. But Melitta’s drive to brew the perfect cup of coffee revolutionized an industry. Melitta’s hard work and ingenuity are also significant feats when you consider the foundations she created to keep the company’s growth and culture strong over the years. This is especially true in an industry that is the second most sought-after resource after crude oil.
Melitta, both the woman and the coffee company, are definitely a source of national pride. Melitta continues to be a worldwide success story as we drink over 500 billion cups of coffee every year. Coffee farms exist in over 50 countries, with the biggest in Columbia, Brazil, and Vietnam. And, thanks to Melitta, this new way of drinking coffee will stand the test of time. Her labor protections and desire to bring joy to even the simplest of life’s pleasures is a reminder to enjoy life to the last drop.