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The Secret’s In The Holes

It’s wonderful to discover that it takes a Yorkshireman to invent a new way of making a great tasting cup of coffee. George Sowden was born in Leeds in 1942 and studied engineering before architecture. He was more likely to drink a strong brew of tea or a pint of bitter than a cappuccino but after living in Italy for more than forty years, he turned his attention to making a perfect full flavoured cup of coffee.

He had admired the English teapot which has been pretty much unchanged since the days of Josiah Wedgwood in the mid eighteenth century. The teapot is a wonderfully flexible piece of equipment that doesn’t need instructions on how to use it and makes a cup of tea just as you want it. As much as you like, as strong or as weak as you want and at the temperature that suits you. To George, it was bewildering that there wasn’t a comparable easy coffee maker.

There are espresso machines that come with an operator’s manual half an inch thick, or filter coffee machines that again require an instruction booklet, take ages to drip through and are wholly dependant on a good quality filter paper that doesn’t take out the taste of the coffee itself. Coffee presses, such as don’t separate the essential oils in coffee (which give the flavour and body) from the acids and cellulose in the ground bean so they put the good and the bad parts of the coffee into your cup.

Traditionally, Italian grandmothers would make coffee in an old cotton sock but it wasn’t fine enough to stop the grains from sneaking through and the sock needed washing after each use. Instant coffee may be quick and easy but it doesn’t have the delicious depth of flavour that we should be seeking.

A visit to a Chinese micro-engineering factory that was producing components for computer ink jet printers gave George the opportunity of seeing laser etching machinery making tiny holes in sheet metal. He asked how small a hole could be made and was told as small as the thickness of the sheet…maybe smaller. Today, the stainless steel filter in what looks like an ordinary coffee pot holds the secret of making an excellent cup of coffee. The holes are so fine that only the best part of the coffee infuses with boiling water and the filter can even be left in the pot as the coffee will go cold long before any unwanted “brewing” can occur.

The technology to produce this fine and accurate perforation didn’t exist a few years ago but not being satisfied with merely inventing a new way of making “Softbrew” coffee, George also designed additional features for his porcelain coffee pot Oskar. The handle is hollow so it doesn’t get hot and has a built-in thumb rest for steady pouring. The spout is finely shaped so it doesn’t drip.  But the real secret is in the filter. This allows the drinker simply to make coffee to an individual taste and experiment with the thousands of varieties of coffee and their different roastings.

George should be proud of his new invention and we should be grateful that he has applied his invention to a simple, straightforward design that doesn’t need a technical guide to use it. He reminds us that “tea has been ruined by tea bags” but he may just have come up with a way of saving coffee from falling down a similar slope.