Coffee Chronicles: Coffee's History In America, A Short Primer

"Advertisements from the 1950s popularized the idea of the 'coffee break.'"


[Photographs: Allison Hemler, unless otherwise noted] L: Donald Schoenolt of Gillie's Coffee; R: A Chemex at the Intelligentsia booth at New Amsterdam Market.

Before Stumptown, Gorilla, Grumpy, and even Dallis, there was a coffee roaster who set up shop in Manhattan, and 160 years later, still proclaims the good news about specialty coffee. Gillie's Coffee, who moved to Brooklyn from Greenwich Village in 1991, survived through the tumultuous economic times in the coffee world, the "coffee crash" of 1881, when unsuccessful attempts were made to corner the market on coffee. They're still surviving even as the third wave of young bucks spread the coffee gospel.

Donald Schoenholt, who has been in the business for forty years and has terms at the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Roasters Guild under his belt, spoke to a group of coffee lovers as part of an event held by the New Amsterdam Market at New York's South Street Seaport Museum. The Seaport was a perfect stage for the lecture, considering coffee's presence in the Wall Street area as it came through the ports on the East River—and since the museum also used to be a coffee roasting facility.

The rash of "tea parties" in 1773 after the Tea Act threatened Colonial rights and created an East India Company monopoly on the tea industry had an impact on coffee sales: Coffee eventually took tea's place as the primary hot beverage in America. In these times, coffee was mainly consumed for medicinal purposes and was still too expensive to drink every day. In 1793, 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. (It tasted downright shitty.) Yet still the coffee industry in Lower Manhattan grew, until the aforementioned "coffee crash" of 1881 wiped out the majority of businesses, and set the ball rolling for coffee trade pricing regulation.

Making coffee taste better and the advent of Starbucks—after the jump..


Wall Street, where coffee entered the marketplace, courtesy of the Nationaal Archief on Flickr.

Schoenholt claims Gillie's survived the coffee crash due to "dumb luck," and thrived as the 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.

However, the events after World War II in the mid-20th century hindered the industry as cheaper, lower-quality Robusta beans made their way into consumer coffee; companies were cutting costs, training coffee drinkers to get used to an inferior product, and positioning the beverage as functional rather than enjoyable. Luckily, the Pan American Coffee Bureau was created to promote coffee consumption and encourage Central American coffee production—where the Robusta bean does not grow. You may have seen some of the advertisements from the 1950s which popularized the idea of the "coffee break."


The Pan American Coffee Bureau-approved "coffee break" courtesy of robotbastard on Flickr.

The 1970s birthed specialty coffee houses, most famously Starbucks in Seattle in 1971, which sold freshly roasted beans and brewing equipment. Eventually the business was bought by Howard Schultz in the late 1980s; Schultz transformed the brand by introducing espresso drinks after an influential trip to Italy. . Starbucks opened their first New York outpost in 1994 at 86th and Broadway—and the rest is history. Since then a multitude of coffee houses have opened in New York, as the roasters moved out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey.

The lecture was enhanced by a discussion of coffee bean cultivation and preparation by David Latourell of Intelligentsia. While we sipped my personal favorite, Ethiopian Sidama, David excitedly detailed the industry's push to directly interact with coffee farmers, to produce a quality product and let farmers receive more money from buyers in the process. Transparency is key in developing sustainable products and just business practices, and Intelligentsia is doing a great job in making the process transparent also to the consumer, providing as much information as possible on labels (as seen below on the Celebration Blend bag) and on their website.


Intelligentsia's holiday offering, the Celebration Blend

In a day full of Intelligentsia Chemexes, Mast Brothers chocolate bars, beef brisket, pizza bianca, and The Bent Spoon sweet potato pecan ice cream, it was a refreshing change to leave the hubbub of the market and sit down and jive talk about something which has become a hot topic in New York as more companies are deciding to set up shop.

We tend to not pay attention to coffee's importing history as an unhappy barista hands us a cup of liquid gold. But just like food, knowing the bean-to-cup journey enhances our purchasing power and may make the brew go down that much easier.