The emergence of coffee as America’s favorite beverage is purported to have been instigated by the unfair taxes imposed by the English government on American colonists in the late 18th Century. The Boston Tea Party is one of many iconic events that set the stage for revolution and brought an end to the dominance of Indian black tea as ritual morning, midday and evening beverage of recent arrivals to the North American continent.
So how did this replacement activity actually happen? How did it occur that now, over 1400 million cups of coffee are drunk around the world each day?
In 1793, coffee was still mainly consumed for medicinal purposes and was too expensive for everyday use.
“New York's first coffee roaster opened on Pearl Street, selling wholesale beans to taverns and hotels, which led to an abundance of coffee businesses along the East River ports. Since coffee importers lacked appropriate communication tools and were at the mercy of the bean-toting ships' arrivals, most of this early consumer-grade green coffee (which would eventually be roasted) was months old, gaining unattractive qualities from the musty and damp wooden ships….
“[T]he Coffee Exchange of New York began regulating traffic in 1882, creating coffee standards and influencing the quality available to consumers. Through the progression of wooden to steam-powered ships, to paper packaging, advancements in roasting technology and selling coffee based on its taste instead of by sight, coffee morphed into a beverage which could be accessible to those outside the wealthy class and still taste good.”
“Coffee Chronicles: Coffee’s History in America, A Short Primer,” Allison Hemler
By the 1900s, coffee was a preferred drink for the wealthy urban dwellers, because it was still too expensive for the majority of Americans. The development of the Coffee Exchange and improvements in shipping, advancements in roasting technology and a preference for taste also boosted the availability to a wider public.
World War II slowed that process and cheaper Robusta beans made in roads, but the advertising campaigns for “coffee breaks” in the 1950s created the atmosphere that led to the appearance of “coffee shops” and “coffee houses” that spread the word into the counter-cultures of the Beatnik and Hippie eras. These in turn led to the comfortable atmosphere of overstuffed sofas and the perception of coffee as the drink most convivial to friendly discussion.
Another instrument for the promotion of coffee to the national drink was the appearance of the beverage on the increasingly influential medium of television. In my family, coffee was the only hot drink and, more often than not for adults, served during meals. Wine and beer were only served at celebration meals.
During the 1970s, the widely popular crime series, Twin Peaks, raised coffee to the level of a connoisseur’s drink with the line “Now, that’s a cup of coffee.” By this time, Americans were well-versed in the appreciation of this all-occasions drink, therefore my first visit to the British Isles was an eye-opener. In habitants of the country of the Magna Carta had no idea what coffee should taste like. For the remainder of the weeks I spent there, I drank tea, even when, according to my fellow B&Bers, it was “too weak to come out of the pot.”
Coffee reached celebrity status in the 1980s, when the series, Friends hit the airways and made a huge difference to coffee consumption when the series was picked up by the independent telly networks in English-speaking countries around the world. The system of franchising and chain stores also extended the spread of “coffeemania” when enterprises such as Peet’s, Tully’s, La Boulangerie, among others moved into neighborhoods.
As citizens of an open society, Americans have embraced coffee and coffee rituals from around the world. We have also opened our taste buds to the joys of exotic teas but it is coffee that holds our hearts in thrall, as an emblem of our long-held and hard-won independence.