Vessels Through the Ages – 25 Magazine: Issue 4

Vessels Through the Ages – 25 Magazine: Issue 4

TThe exact origins of coffee drinking are still obscure and likely to remain so. We know that the Oromo people, inhabitants of the regions of Ethiopia in which C. arabica is indigenous, made use of the leaves, flowers, and fruits of the plant. These were incorporated into both beverages and foodstuffs. An infusion made by boiling the desiccated remains of the fruit in water, which appears to have been adopted by Sufi mystics in Yemen during the second half of the fifteenth century, enabled them to remain awake to perform their devotions during the night.

Coffee is a Muslim beverage which originated in the Middle East. So what, in design terms, has the region bequeathed to global coffee culture? JONATHAN MORRIS takes us on a journey through the annals of coffee vessels in Issue 4 of 25 Magazine.

How this got to Yemen is another matter. The Persian physician, philosopher, and polymath Ibn Sin̄a,̄ otherwise known as Avicenna (980–1037), described a medicinal plant he called bunchum that grew in Lebanon, and that some believe to have been coffee. However, his description is very generic, and there is no subsequent reference to coffee until the manuscript of the scholar Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri, written in the 1550s, which took qahwa, the Arabian word for coffee, as its subject. Al-Jaziri claimed coffee was first brought to Arabia by the Sufi mufti Muhammed al-Dhabani (d. 1470), who had recommended its use in the form of qishr, the infusion of dried fruits and spices that he encountered when traveling in Ethiopia.

The take-off of coffee drinking occurred when the use of the beverage moved beyond ritual occasions and into everyday life. In 1511 an Islamic court ruled that consumption of coffee was consistent with the religion. Thereafter, coffee literally traveled up the Arabian peninsula, the Gulf, and the Red Sea, eventually arriving in Istanbul, capital of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in the 1550s. Increasingly emphasis shifted more and more towards brewing solely with the beans, probably because these were easier to transport. This beverage became known as qahwa in Arabia where it was prepared using lightly toasted beans and mixed with spices such as cardamom, and kahve in Turkey where the beans were dark roasted and the liquor sweetened with sugar.

This led to the first iterations of coffee brewing and roasting equipment as we know it today. In terms of brewing, any pot suitable for boiling might be used for the first part of the preparation in which the water and coffee-based powder were heated together, while subsequent stages might involve the transfer of the liquor into another pot for infusion with spices and so on, and eventually into a heat-retaining decorative vessel for pouring.

This was the origin of the distinction between the cezve and the dallah – the two forms of equipment most commonly associated with coffee preparation in the Middle East. The cezve was developed for the initial brewing phase. Its long handle enables it to be placed over, and removed from, the heat source without burning the user. It is open-topped, preventing pressure build up, and the conical shape tapering upwards assists in retaining the grounds on transfer. The spout allows for pouring the liquor into another vessel. If a cezve was to be used for serving, then it would be equipped with a hinged lid, and engraved or decorated with fretwork: many of these were not actually used for coffee preparation itself.

The more usual serving vessel within Arabia was a dallah however. These have a flat-bottomed, bulbous body narrowing inwards towards the middle of the vessel, before curving back outwards in the top section with a flippable lid. Their most characteristic feature, however, is the outsize spout, recalling a large beak, through which the coffee is poured. Dallahs used purely for serving can be highly ornamental but their design is inherently practical. The flat bulbous bottom ensures the weight of the contents can stabilize the vessel if it is placed in the desert sands, or on a bed of embers. The lid sits heavily on the rim to avoid spillage during pouring, while the height, shape, and size of the spout acts to minimize the flow of sediment. Today the same basic shapes can be seen in heavy duty dallahs designed for stove-top use, or plug-in electric models.

The dallah is also, however, an object designed for visual and tactile enjoyment. The handle is usually curved in an attractive manner and is pleasing to hold, while the sensuous shape of the body echoes the feminine form. The spout evokes the crescent moon that is an icon of Islamic imagery.

Rich households displayed large numbers of dallahs lined up by the kitchen fire, despite the fact only a few would ever be needed for coffee preparation. These were objects of ostentation, designed to send a message from the host to the guests.


The same applies to the long, slender-spouted ibriks that are now commonly seen in Arabia, Turkey, and North Africa. These were used purely for coffee service, and were often manufactured as part of a set accompanying finjans, the small cups in which the coffee was served. The elongated narrow necks to these pots were intended to reduce the possibilities of spillage or evaporation in the heat. It is important to note that these are very distinct from the cezve – the use of the term ibrik as a synonym for cezve arose only because Europeans found the word cezve too difficult to pronounce, and lighted on ibrik as a catch-all term to cover two very different pieces of equipment in form and function.

As for roasting, the beans would usually be placed in an open pan and stirred over a fire. Naturally this equipment also required a long handle in order to avoid burning the operator. These handles would often be decorated with patterns incised into the metal. A notable feature of the roasting pans was that these handles were often collapsible, so that they could be transported easily by the Bedouin and travelers across the desert. Cezves were similarly designed with fold-out handles for such uses. In the major cities of the Ottoman Empire, however, it does seem that so-called coffee kilns were constructed and operated as businesses. This might also have contributed to coffee becoming much more darkly roasted.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European coffee makers essentially imitated the equipment and preparation methods that were common in the Middle East. Early images of coffee houses show a range of cezve-type coffee makers with long extended wooden handles stacked on the shelves. The small bowls into which the coffee was poured (misleadingly referred to as “dishes” in the language of the time) clearly imitated finjans.

Domestic coffee services owed much to the dallah with early examples showing the same beak-type spout. The first deviation from this came with the development of infusion coffee makers in which water heated in an ordinary pan or kettle was then poured over the coffee grounds that had been placed in the designated pot. This was, of course, similar to the way in which Arabian coffee was prepared in a series of dallahs. Indeed the Dutch dröppelminna, probably the first distinctive European coffee maker, retained the bulbous form of the dallah, although instead of a spout, it was equipped with a tap at the bottom of the vessel through which the infusion could be dispensed, providing it was not clogged up with grounds.

That problem was addressed by the development of the biggin – a pot or urn in which a muslin bag was attached to the interior, enabling the grounds to be held back when poured. Nonetheless, the habit of using separate vessels for serving was maintained, accounting for the development of the highly decorative porcelain pots characteristic of the eighteenth century. The matching demitasse cups that formed part of the coffee service clearly echoed the finjans of the Middle East, a reference point maintained in the modern-day espresso cup.

The coffee made over the campfires by Union soldiers during the US Civil War and cowboys on the range was brewed using the same basic techniques that originated in the Middle East. It was only in the late nineteenth century that filter, percolator, and pressure brewing apparatus began to be developed, and not until well into the twentieth century that these came to dominate domestic brewing in the West. Household roasting in an open pan remained common up until the early twentieth century when industrial products took over.

The industry may have moved a long way on from its Middle Eastern origins, yet it is right to remember how coffee making evolved, and recall the genius of the peoples behind it. The revival of interest in these techniques in recent years, exemplified in the establishment of the World Cezve/Ibrik Championship, has shown us just how effectively these traditional coffee making methods may be used to prepare outstanding specialty beverages.

JONATHAN MORRIS is Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and the European editor of Coffee: A Complete Guide to the Bean, the Beverage and the Industry, which has recently been republished in paperback. His new book Coffee: A Global History will be published in autumn 2018.

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