21 December 2012

Coffee and Early America

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

As loyal British subjects, the North American colonists emulated the coffee boom of the mother country, with the first American coffeehouse opening in Boston in 1689. In the colonies there was not such a clear distinction between the tavern and the coffeehouse, ale, beer, coffee, and tea cohabitated, for instance, in Boston’s Green Dragon, a coffeehouse-tavern from 1697 to 1832. Here, over many cups of coffee and other brews, John Adams, James Otis, and Paul revere met to foment rebellion, prompting Daniel Webster to call it “the headquarters of the Revolution.”

Throughout the first half of the 1800s the American taste for coffee swelled. Per-capita consumption grew to three pounds a year in 1830, five and a half pounds by 1850, and eight pounds by 1859. Although there were urban coffeehouses, most Americans drank coffee at home or brewed it over campfires while headed west. Typical North American coffee of the period was boiled until it was a bitter brew badly in need of milk and sugar to make it palatable.

The Civil War gave soldiers a permanent taste for the drink. Each Union soldier’s daily allotment included one-tenth of a pound of green coffee beans. For fifteen years following the Civil War, coffee prices remained high as consumption and production raced to match one another worldwide. As a result, coffee cultivation exploded in Central America, Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Venezuela, and Brazil.

By the 1870s, coffee had become an indispensable beverage to citizens of the Western world especially to Americans, who consumed six times as much as most Europeans. By 1876 the United States was importing 340 million pounds of coffee annually, accounting for nearly a third of all coffee exported from producing countries. The world coffee supply continued to grow, stimulated in large part by the seemingly bottomless American coffee cup. Of all the coffee consumed in the United States nearly three-quarters came from Brazil, where coffee had not even been a meaningful crop two generations earlier. 

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