When you think of coffee in America, you’d probably think of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. Look beyond this and you’ll see that there’s a rich backstory of how coffee came to America and how it became the drink of choice for many Americans. If you love history as much as I do, buckle up and let’s dig through the history of American coffee together!
First, Where Did Coffee Come From?
If we’re going to talk about the history of coffee in America, we must first look at where coffee comes from and how it spread across the globe. While the exact details are lost to time, we know that coffee originated in Ethiopia.
Popular folklore tells the tale of Kaldi, a goatherder. While tending to his flock, he noticed some of his goats munching on curious red berries which made them dance around. Intrigued, Kaldi took some of these berries for himself and offered them to a monk. Here the account diverges, with some sources saying the monk happily accepted the berries as it would help him stay up all night to pray while other sources claim the monk disapproved of their effects and threw them into a fire, releasing the heady aroma of coffee as we know it.
Initially, coffee wasn’t served as a drink but rather as food. It was commonly mixed with fats to create something almost like an energy bar. There’s also evidence of coffee berries being used to make a wine-like drink and a brew made with whole berries. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the beans were removed from the fruit and roasted, making a drink similar to coffee in modern times. By the 15th century, coffee had reached the port of Mocha in Yemen and from there spread across the Middle East.
Coffee didn’t leave Africa and Arabia till at least the 1600s when a Sufi named Baba Budan smuggled 7 beans to India. The first European-owned coffee estate was founded in 1616 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by the Dutch. Eventually, they established more coffee farms in the region, extending out to Java (now Indonesia). The French began cultivating coffee in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America, and the Portuguese in Brazil. Meanwhile, coffeehouses were springing up across Europe, most notably in France and Italy where they spurred on new revolutionary and intellectual movements that defined politics, art, and philosophy for the times.
When Did Coffee Become Popular?
Coffee wasn’t always the global favorite it is now- throughout history coffee has been ignored, demonized, or flat-out outlawed.
Going back to the origins of coffee in Africa and Arabia, coffee was banned in Mecca in the 1500s followed by similar bans in Cairo and Ethiopia. The concern was over the stimulating effects of coffee but eventually, these bans were overturned due to public demand.
Moving on to Europe, coffee first reached Venice in 1570 and quickly became popular. However, in 1615 Pope Clement VIII declared it satanic and called for it to be banned. He eventually relented, thankfully. As coffee spread across Europe, bans were seen in various regions which were all subsequently ignored.
The rise in the popularity of coffee was spurred largely by the industrial revolution. Strangely, beer used to be the drink of choice, even for children or for breakfast. This was because drinking water was very unsafe and fermented drinks like beer were safer. Clearly though, having beer soup for breakfast was not conducive to a new model of working brought in by industrialization. Enter coffee.
As work hours became standardized but longer and with the introduction of work shifts including night shifts, coffee became the drink of choice for a large audience. Before this coffee was reserved for intellectuals and rebels, artists and poets, and those who could afford it. Now it was easier to find and with advancements in coffee processing and storage, it became cheaper. A new drink for the masses took root.
When Was Coffee Introduced to America?
America was the final frontier for many, and definitely for coffee. While it was immensely popular in most of Europe, it took a while for coffee to go mainstream in the United States. Let’s dive into the history of coffee in America.
Coffee was first introduced to America by the British captain John Smith who founded the colony of Virginia. It didn’t gain much popularity at first since the settlers preferred other beverages, mostly cider, ale, and tea. By the 17th and 18th centuries, coffeehouses started popping up in major cities like New York.
The pivotal moment for coffee culture in America was the Boston Tea Party. On 16th December 1773, a group of merchants and tradesmen protesting against British taxation disguised themselves as Native Americans and boarded British ships docked in the Boston harbor. They then proceeded to dump 342 chests of tea into the water to protest the tea tax. Tea was now deemed unpatriotic and coffee replaced it as the favored beverage.
Coffee consumption boomed during the American Civil War and other conflicts as a popular way to keep soldiers on their feet. In 1864, brothers John and Charles Arbuckle began selling pre-roasted coffee in Pittsburg, supplying this coffee to cowboys and travelers heading west. This entrepreneurial zeal was seen in others too, with James Folgers, of now-famous Folgers Coffee, selling pre-packaged coffee to gold miners during the California Gold Rush. This in turn paved the way for the inception of other major coffee brands like Maxwell House.
The first major disruption to coffee in America came with World War I. With trade in a deadlock, prices were high and importing coffee was almost impossible. When the war ended, Europe was reeling from the fallout and economic consequences so it wasn’t importing as much coffee. America filled in this void and by 1922, the United States was the largest consumer of coffee in the world.
World War II saw another shift in American coffee consumption. Once again imports were lessened as most ships were diverted towards the war effort. Then coffee was rationed, as were many foods and drinks. Under the rationing rules, one pound of coffee was provided every 5 weeks to anyone over the age of 15. This was half of what people were used to drinking and so many Americans turned to creative ways to make the coffee last longer- using smaller quantities to brew and mixing in additives like chicory.
The post-war boom was good for coffee, with a rise in specialty coffee in the 1960s which kicked off the second wave of coffee. Not everything was rosy however. Between the 60s and 80s, there were trade disagreements between Brazil, which was the largest producer, and the United States which caused a market crash in the coffee world. In response, the first fair trade label was launched in an effort to improve the livelihoods of coffee farmers while improving the quality of coffee available to consumers.
A major landmark in the second wave of coffee was the launch of Starbucks in 1971 in Seattle. This created a whole new market for coffee by diversifying the menu to appeal to a wide audience. Since then, Starbucks has been a mainstay of American coffee culture and shows no signs of slowing down.
An often-overlooked aspect of coffee in America is that the United States does grow some of its own coffee- Kona coffee in Hawaii.
From The History Of Coffee In America To Modern Times
As we navigate the third wave of coffee, we see more awareness in consumers towards ethical coffee and sustainability. More Americans are looking for specialty coffee and more consumers are aware of the issues surrounding the coffee trade.
Smaller cafés and coffee businesses are booming, specialty coffee is on the rise, and coffee is now seen as an artistic trade with space for creativity. Coffee consumption in America remains strong with the average consumption at 400 million cups per day. 64% of Americans drink coffee and many brew at home. Coffee culture in America is alive and well, and growing year by year!
As one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world, shifts in American coffee trends can ripple across the coffee world. So by pivoting towards sustainable and ethical coffee, American coffee lovers can inspire change in the industry that benefits farmers and small businesses.