History of Coffee in America: From Colonial Days to Your Cup
Nowadays, pre-ground coffee or beans can be found in nearly every kitchen cabinet across the United States.
It seems as if there’s a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts on every street corner. It’s impossible to imagine a world where your morning doesn’t start off with a hot cup of joe or potent cold brew.
But the coffee industry wasn’t always so ubiquitous in America. In fact, this caffeinated beverage has a contentious history that starts at the founding of the thirteen colonies and spans all the way to today.
If you’ve ever wondered how coffee made its way across the Atlantic and into your local Starbucks or mid-day coffee break, then you’re in luck. Here’s a brief history lesson about coffee in America.
The Origin Story of Coffee in America
Captain John Smith, the founder of the Colony of Virginia, introduced coffee in America when he shared it with the other Jamestown settlers in 1607 after learning about it in his travels to Turkey. Surprisingly, coffee’s popularity did not take off right away. These newly arrived Americans were still too accustomed to drinking tea, hard cider and ale.
After that period, the next early reference to coffee was in 1668 when a beverage in New York was made from roasted coffee beans and flavored with honey and cinnamon. By the mid-1700s, taverns often doubled as coffee houses, but coffee was considered “only a drink for the well-to-do” and tea was still the American drink of choice. Nonetheless, during the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses were popping up all around Boston, and that trend soon spread to other colonies.
Then, on December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, a group of merchants and tradesmen founded to protest British taxation, disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded docked ships and threw 342 chests of tea (an amount worth about a million dollars in today’s dollars) into the Boston Harbor in direct opposition to the tea tax.
Famously known as The Boston Tea Party, the eccentric revolt sealed coffee’s fate in America. Drinking tea became an unpatriotic act. Britain was now a country of tea-drinkers and America, coffee-drinkers.
Coffee Becomes a Hot Commodity in the U.S.
The importation and consumption of coffee increased in the country until it experienced a disruption with World War I.
“Whole countries were cut out of the market, shipping was drained away from the sea lane, stocks were piled high in exporting ports, prices were fixed, imports were sharply restricted, and the whole business of coffee trading was thrown out of joint,” William H. Ukers lamented in his 1922 book, “All About Coffee.”
Even after the war ended, European countries continued to deal with the economic consequences of war and its effect on the coffee trade. America filled this void by becoming the leading investor and purchaser of coffee in the world.
By 1922 America had become “the chief coffee consumer of the world,” consuming more than half of the world’s coffee. Ukers noted that at that time “the list of coffee-consuming countries includes practically all those that do not raise coffee,” indicating a global wealth disparity in regards to coffee.
During World War II the U.S. government limited coffee imports when all available ships were diverted to the war effort. In September 1942, coffee roasters were limited to 65% of the previous year’s supply, and in November the Office of Price Administration announced efforts to begin rationing coffee, making equal amounts available to all citizens after priority was given to the military.
Before this regulation, coffee consumption was at an all-time high. An average of 20 pounds of coffee were consumed a year per adult.
This amount was cut in half to 10 pounds a year, as one pound of coffee was allotted to each person over 15 years old every five weeks. Suddenly coffee drinkers all over the country were having to learn to drink half of the coffee they were used to consuming.
Many people chose to continue drinking the same number of cups by “stretching” their coffee — using fewer coffee grounds in their ratios or by adding chicory. The rationing got worse in February 1943, when the coffee ration was reduced further to one pound every six weeks. Although Americans were supportive of the war effort, the coffee shortage was particularly rough, and it became one of the very first items to be scrubbed from the rationing list when President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed it in July 1943.
Social Inequality Stains Coffee Trade
From the 1960s until 1989, the International Coffee Agreement [ICA] regulated the coffee trade through a system of quotas and stocks. The economic clauses of the ICA were suspended in 1989, however, and world coffee prices dropped by half to less than 80 cents a pound.
The disagreement was prompted by consumers who had taken a liking toward higher-quality coffee. Meanwhile, Brazil, which was the world’s most powerful coffee producer, refused to reduce its quotas because the country thought it would lower its market share.
This dispute between Brazil and the U.S. led to an inevitable crash in the coffee market that eventually prompted the launch of the first fair trade label.
Fair trade was set up to ensure that coffee farmers receive a fair and stable price for their coffee that covers the cost of sustainable production. These standards focus on the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental.
It’s difficult to talk about coffee without discussing its history with social injustice. Mark Pendergrast, author of “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World,” further commented on this disparity when he wrote:
“One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffee houses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffee houses. On the other hand, the same coffee that was fueling the French Revolution was also being produced by African slaves [in] Haiti.”
The coffee crisis of 1989 was yet another example of how coffee production was creating injustice, this time for family farmers in developing countries. But forward-thinking and progressive-minded coffee drinkers began doing the right thing: voting with their dollars by buying fair trade coffee. However, the change didn’t happen overnight.
The Modern State of the Coffee Industry
In 2009, 50% of American households were aware of fair trade coffee, a massive increase from only 9% in 2005. Fair trade coffee, while growing in popularity, still only constituted about 4% of the $14 billion specialty coffee market in the U.S. at that time.
But global sales of fair trade products rose to nearly $9.2 billion in 2017, generating Fairtrade Premiums of more than $193 million for farmers and workers organizations. The U.S. now ranks as the third-largest market for Fairtrade goods (behind the United Kingdom and Germany), and retail sales in the U.S. have topped $1 billion.
Today, coffee is a $36 billion industry in America and steadily growing, having increased 3.8% since 2010. That same report, published in 2016, also found that 64% of Americans say they drink at least one cup of coffee a day, with women drinking slightly more than men do.
Americans drink 280.5 million cups a day, with the average person drinking 2.7 cups a day. In 2015 there were reportedly 31,490 coffee shops (or as they used to call them, coffee houses) opened across the country (over 12,000 of which were Starbucks locations).
How to Select the Right Brew for You
With great coffee comes great responsibility. When choosing a coffee brand, it’s important to select one that is good for your body and good for the earth. Buy from companies that use sustainable and ethical practices, have quality coffee beans and avoid the use of pesticides and preservatives.
To make this choice, there are a few pieces of information to look for.
1. USDA Certified Organic Seal
Organic certification from the United States Department of Agriculture indicates that the farm met the requirements of using no pesticides or fertilizers made from materials that are not organic.
Non-organic coffee beans often contain the residue from these chemical and synthetic materials that are not food-safe and have been linked to hormone imbalances or nervous system abnormalities. Additionally, non-organic farms that do not manage their pesticides properly, creating toxic runoff that finds its way into local water sources. This pollution, in turn, affects local wildlife, plant life and drinking water for local residents.
Many family farmers in the developing world don’t receive a fair price for their crops. Due to their isolation in rural areas, they lack direct market access and often sell their crops below the cost of production to local middlemen who misrepresent global prices.
Fair trade certified coffee supports a better life for farming families in the developing world through fair prices, fair labor conditions and environmental sustainability. The fair price supports farmers and their families directly so they can invest in health care and education.
Additionally, workers on fair trade farms are ensured safe working conditions and fair wages. Forced child labor is strictly prohibited. Fair trade certification rewards environmentally sustainable farming practices that preserve valuable ecosystems through water conservation, proper waste disposal and prohibitions on planting in protected areas.
Lastly, if you want to make “The Perfect Cup of Coffee,” Ukers’ process from 1922 certainly stands the test of time.
- Buy a good grade of pre-roasted coffee beans from a responsible dealer.
- Grind it very fine, and at home, just before using.
- Allow a rounded tablespoon for each beverage cup.
- Make it in a French drip pot or in some filtration device where freshly boiling water is poured through but once. A piece of muslin and any china receptacle make an economical filter
- Avoid pumping percolators.
- Keep the beverage hot and serve it “black” with sugar and hot milk, cream or both.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.