Many of the standards we recognize had their roots in the roughly 100 years from the end of the Civil War to the first 20 years following WWII. Prior to Reconstruction, coffee, as much else in American commercial life, was a much cruder business than it became in the late decades of the 19th Century. The second industrial revolution turned inventors and industry toward peacetime innovation; piped gas in the big cities enabled controlled fires for roasting.
By the 1870’s roasting aparatus, moved indoors (prior to this period many had roasted outside to avoid devastating fires in woden structures) and with the help of the front discharging roaster innovation of Jabez Burns standardized regional roast colors as City, Full-City, French, Full French, and Italian (New York circa 1890) began to appear. Steamships with schedules that could be kept (rather than sailing vessels that did not sail until cargo holds were full, and when at sea were at the mercy of wind and weather) guaranteed passage, and ventilated cargo-holds helped assure the arrival of a crop without aging/deterioration creating standardized styles of coffee that could be relied upon shipment after shipment.
The New York Coffee Exchange (1881) established a council of graders, who in turn created the standards for acceptable coffee to be proffered on the exchange. Later standards were created for the graders themselves.
C. E. Bickford (San Francisco) developed the blind cup test enabling buyer to find coffees of choice from among many offerings (c.1885). The blind cup test showed off the qualities we now admire in the high grown smaller bean coffees of Central America, changing the taste standards and buying habits of American roasters, who until that time had bought on site selection alone, and favored big bean (soft) coffees and fabled origin names over other considerations.
The invention of the vacuum can and its introduction (Hills Bros,1900) created relative freshness standards that could be tasted in the cup.
The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act established standards for coffee labeling. The Exchange at about this time created the all arabica standard for coffee acceptable for delivery against contracts.
Introduction of Fire-eye, the Jabez Burns innovation that permitted semi-automatic roasting by placing a heat sensor in the roaster drum made pin-point roast development accuracy possible, and changed the character of the post WWII cup, by going a long way to insure uniformity of roast from those roasters who employed the technology.
Post WWII establishment of the Pan American Coffee Bureau (members were all arabica origin countries of the Americas) and their research and educational arm, The Coffee Brewing Center published scientific research, much of it conducted by Dr. E. E. Lockhart, on the various properties of coffee, leading the way to teaching classes on coffee preparation, and the creation of a carricula for teaching, teaching manuals, and student texts, the “Gold cup standard”, and brewing specifications for various brewing technologies.
Much of the lore knowledge and standards developed in that period was codified for the interested American coffee industry reader in the work of William Ukers (1922), and Sivetz & Desrosier (1979).
The roughly 50 years from the nadir of the small independent roaster, to the apex of their renaissance is not a story whose standards were created over night, either in anyone’s backyard. As for tablets, the only ones I recall were made by Bayer. Headaches aside, it is an accumulation of knowledge, apprenticeship learned, in some cases, and self learned in others, and that only seem as hieroglyphs to the uninitiated, that came together in the early 1970s to form the basis of the standards that we in the trade generally accept, and at the same time continue to wrangle over.
The thing that brought a diverse body of knowledge together was an understanding in one generation (now carried on in a another) that going to work every day, and pouring our hearts into our coffee wasn’t enough. An infrastructure needed to be invented to be the custodian of the seeds of accumulated knowledge, and the nurturer of a future for good coffee people, and good coffee practices. For that reason SCAA was created, and CQI, and The Roasters Guild, and Barista Guild. These institutions together with CofE the trade press, Womens Coffee Alliance, Coffee Kids, Grounds For Health, and the various NGO’s throughout the coffee world each do their part to bring more levels of understanding of coffee to us all, helping to make us better coffee people; making better coffee through the application of universally learned and applied standards of excellence in coffee growing, handling, manufacturing and brewing practices.
There is an old and honorable story of coffee standards that lead to best practices, but it is only the beginning of the story.