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Know Your Women in Coffee History

An influence still felt (and tasted!) today.

by Ever Meister | March 24, 2022

Throughout the coffee industry’s long history, there are countless women who have played an integral role in shaping the way we buy, brew, and drink coffee. Often these women go unrecognized, lost to the male-dominated eras in which they lived and worked.

Luckily, some of the many intrepid women of coffee left their stories and legacies behind, and today we’ll look at three such women whose influence is still felt (and tasted!) today.

Melitta Bentz, Inventor of the Paper Coffee Filter

Amalie Auguste Melitta Bentz was a German housewife who became an unlikely entrepreneur in the early 20th century, simply by seeking a solution for the mess and often sludgy coffee made by the available technology of the day — namely fussy cloth filters that were difficult to clean, pumping percolators that produced over-extracted coffee, and drip pots with metal filters often left sediment in the cup. In 1908, Melitta took matters into her own hands by punching a series of holes into the bottom of a brass pot, lining it with a piece of her son’s blotter paper, filling it with coffee grounds, and placing it over a mug. She poured hot water through the grounds, and the paper did the trick of letting delicious coffee flow cleanly, without sediment.

She was awarded a patent that same year and set up shop, hiring her husband and two sons to help run the business that bore her name. Within two decades, the company had grown to 80 employees and expanded into ever-larger facilities. Bentz’s son Horst took over operations in 1930, beginning a tradition of family leadership that continues to this day: Melitta’s grandchildren Thomas and Stephen are still at the helm of the company, which continues to make pour over brewers and paper filters that can be purchased seemingly anywhere coffee is sold.

Alice Foote MacDougall, Coffee Shop Icon

In 1907, a coffee roasting business opened by one AF MacDougall was established in what was then the Coffee District of New York City. While the owner sought at first to mask her identity as a woman by using her initials, it wouldn’t be long before the coffee world knew Alice Foote MacDougall’s full name — and the full strength of her personality.

She had taken on work in the trade to support her children after her coffee broker husband’s death, and gained a degree of success selling roasted coffee through direct-mail advertising and word of mouth. In 1919 she opened a coffee bean store called The Little Coffee Shop in Grand Central Terminal and found herself struggling to capture foot traffic until she decided one wet, cold day to start also selling waffles and brewed coffee to attract attention.

That one change set her on a course to become the coffee shop queen of New York City, and within a few years she had opened several lavishly decorated European-inspired cafés selling coffee and food in a distinctly Alice style. Each was designed to look and feel like an open-air scene in a different far-flung location: Florence, Seville, a Mediterranean courtyard. They were designed for rest and relaxation — a contrast from the quick-serve lunch counters dominating the rest of midtown Manhattan. Her 1926 cookbook Coffee and Waffles and 1928’s Autobiography of a Business Woman offer a glimpse into the multitudes she contained (she was an anti-suffragette and, ironically, believed women had no place in the world of business), but MacDougall was a shrewd businesswoman and amassed a fortune for her family business — until the stock market crash took her down with it.

“Coffee is a sensitive being. It has its whims and its fancies,” she wrote in Coffee and Waffles, and she wasn’t wrong. Since MacDougall’s last restaurant closed in the 1930s, we’ve seen countless trends, fads, whims and fancies when it comes to taste, preparation, and presentation. But her dream to make a sip of coffee more like a sanctuary than a chore, more like a moment of respite than of merely getting revved up remains today: The next time you sit back in a coffee shop and enjoy a little peace of mind, you might raise a silent toast to the caffeine queen of Manhattan.

Erna Knutsen, First Lady of Specialty

If you’ve ever heard or used the term “specialty coffee,” you are quoting a woman — specifically Erna Knutsen, a veteran trader and coffee maven who is credited for being the first to utter those words in an interview with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974. Born in Norway in 1921, Knutsen and her family emigrated to New York City in 1926 — where, by then, Alice Foote MacDougall was already coffee-and-waffle famous.

Knutsen married (for the first time) at age 18 and moved to California, where she began what was a 30-year pre-coffee career as a secretary. After many years working for high-power corporate executives, she arrived at the office of the coffee brokerage BC Ireland in 1968, where she worked under head executive Bert Fulmer, quickly becoming more than “just a secretary.” In fact, despite the historic blocking of women from the cupping room, Knutsen managed to identify a niche market for BC Ireland working with small roasters for less-than-containerful sales. She fought her way into the sensory analysis lab, finally gaining entrance in 1973; by the following year she was a master cupper, coining the phrase “specialty coffee” to describe the ways that coffees from certain regions and of certain processes could be differentiated from one another, and acknowledging the growing cadre of roasters that were interested in those higher-quality, more distinct specialty lots.

In 1975, set her sights on acquiring BC Ireland within the next decade, a feat she accomplished right on time, taking ownership of the company and pushing her new traders to work with smaller, more specialized lots of higher quality. Recalling her achievement of usurping her old bosses and colleagues she said, “They were all men and they didn’t think women deserved the break. But I fooled them. I bought the company and fired them all!” She re-incorporated the company as Knutsen Coffee LTD and headed up herself until retiring in 2013 at age 93. When she passed away in 2018, the coffee industry as a whole mourned the loss not only of a giant in the trade, but a great friend and advocate as well.

While in some circles coffee is still thought to be men’s domain, many of its best advancements have been thanks to women like Melitta Bentz, Alice Foote MacDougall, and Erna Knutsen, along with countless others. This Women’s History Month, we are thrilled to honor the caffeinated achievements of women, and celebrate their innovations, trends, changes, and lasting impressions for generations to come.