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Overlooked No More: Melitta Bentz, Who Invented the Coffee Filter

Melitta Bentz would start out her mornings in Dresden in a manner as mundane as the person in the apartment next door, and the one next door to that: with a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

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Claire Moses
, New York Times

Melitta Bentz would start out her mornings in Dresden in a manner as mundane as the person in the apartment next door, and the one next door to that: with a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

But rather than feel refreshed and focused, Bentz found herself growing more annoyed with each sip.

“My mother, who had an excellent taste in coffee, was often irritated by the coffee grounds in her cup,” Horst Bentz, one of her sons, recalled decades later in an interview in a 1949 issue of Der Aufstieg, a German publication.

And then there was the chore of cleaning the copper pot and getting rid of the grounds that stuck to the sides.

Every morning, from her kitchen in Dresden, Germany, she fantasized about better ways to brew.

She tried and failed multiple times, until one day she ripped a piece of blotting paper from her son’s school notebook and stuck it into an old tin pot in which she had punched some holes. What she did next will sound familiar to many: She added ground coffee and poured hot water over it. The beverage dripped through the paper, straight into the cup.

Cleaning up was easier and more hygienic; the used paper filter went straight into the trash, with no more handling of messy grounds.

She called this “perfect coffee enjoyment.”

She tested her new invention on her acquaintances, the stories go, hosting “coffee afternoons.”

In June 1908, the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin granted Bentz the patent for the paper filter, and she and her husband were soon in business. Their headquarters was the family’s five-room Dresden apartment.

Today the Melitta Group employs more than 4,000 people across the world. The company reported its revenue in 2017 as 1.5 billion euros (about $1.8 billion).

Amalie Auguste Melitta Liebscher, daughter of Karl and Brigitte (Reinhardt) Liebscher, was born in Dresden on Jan. 31, 1873. Her father was a bookseller and her grandparents owned a brewery. She married Hugo Bentz, and the couple had two sons, Willy and Horst — who both joined the business — and a daughter, Herta.

The first coffee filters were produced at home. The boys made deliveries with a handcart, while Bentz’s husband set up a display in shop windows to show the public how to use the new system. Later he assigned this role to “demonstration ladies,” an idea he got from his time as a department store manager.

“It was a new thing, and people had to see it to be convinced of it,” said Annika von Hollen, a Melitta Group spokeswoman, in a telephone interview.

The concept and the company took off in 1909 when Melitta and Hugo showed their product at the Leipzig Trade Fair, which drew the owners of housewares stores from across Germany.

“The result was resounding,” Horst Bentz recalled. The porcelain pour-over coffee makers and paper filters were now attracting public attention. Bentz sold 1,250 units for 1.25 marks each that year. The company grew to eight people in 1912.

But the road ahead was not entirely smooth. When World War I began, Bentz’s husband and her elder son, Willy, were drafted into the army. Her brother Paul Liebscher helped her run the company during that time, but the company now had to provide the family’s income. Bentz expanded the operation to produce paper cartons.

In 1929 the company outgrew its Dresden factory and moved into a new location in Minden in northwestern Germany. That plant remains in use today.

Before she and her husband stepped down from daily operations at the business in 1932, Melitta Bentz was credited with a number of work-life improvements for employees, including a five-day week, up to three weeks’ vacation and a Christmas bonus.

In 1938, with her sons in charge, she founded Melitta Aid, a social fund for company employees that still exists.

The company temporarily stopped producing filters during World War II — by then Melitta and her husband had retired — and in 1941 cooperated with the Nazi regime to produce military supplies as a “National Socialist model plant.” After the war, the company contributed to a program that aimed to compensate victims of the Nazis’ forced labor policy.

Bentz died on June 29, 1950, four years after her husband. She was 77.

Most Melitta locations still have a photograph of her on the wall, said von Hollen, the spokeswoman.

“Every employee knows Melitta Bentz and her exceptional role as the mother of the corporation,” she said.

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