How Was Coffee Consumed In Early America?

The Beginning Of Coffee in America

Coffee In The Early Days In America

Even with the confusing health reports that come out every couple of years stating the health benefits of drinking coffee one year and the devastating effects of drinking the beverage the next, American’s can’t get enough of coffee. But how and why we drink coffee has changed over the years. In fact, if our relationship with Britain hadn’t broken down so many years ago, we might all still be drinking tea.

Blame It All On Captain John Smith

Up until the mid to late 1600s, coffee was pretty much unheard of in the new world. According to William H. Ukers for, even the Dutch immigrants, who were familiar with the beverage while in their homeland, did not bring any coffee with them when they traveled to America. Apparently, there isn’t any record of coffee beans being brought over with the early Mayflower riders either.

According to, the earliest mention of coffee in America came from Captain John Smith, one of earliest and most famous settlers to America. He knew of the beverage from his travels to Turkey and he talked about coffee with his colonist friends, but even so, coffee beans didn’t actually arrive in North America until the 1640’s.

The first coffee beans came from Dutch settlers, but it is said that these were often old and didn’t taste very good by the time it took for them to arrive. Because of this, coffee wasn’t a rousing success until settlers found a quicker way to transport it.

The earliest reference to coffee being brewed in North America came in 1668 when a beverage was prepared in New York. It was made with roasted coffee beans, sugar (or honey) and cinnamon.

Coffee or Tea

Coffee, tea and chocolate were brought to America at the same time during the end of the seventeenth century. Dorothy Jones became the first licensed coffee trader in 1670. She gained permission to sell coffee and chocolate with a license she received in Boston, Massachusetts.

At the time, tea was actually more expensive to purchase than coffee, but many of the colonist did not have the appropriate tools needed to roast their own beans and brew their own coffee. In addition, many of them did not have the time to do it anyway. However, for the wealthy, purchasing coffee that had to be roasted and ground before consuming served as a status symbol when entertaining guests. In the Southern states, slaves were often forced to grind the beans but often were not allowed to drink the coffee that came from them.

For those who had money to purchase coffee beans but had no desire or means to prepare them, coffeehouses became very popular.

Coffee Became Political

The London Coffee House was the very first coffee house set up in Boston. It opened its doors in 1689. Coffeehouse often served as a way for one to get their fill of the news of the day, exchange ideas with others or simply read papers or pamphlets aloud. And coffee houses didn’t distinguish the poor from the rich either. Their money spend the same. However, this pleasantry did not extend to women as they were not allowed inside.

One of the most famous early coffeehouses was the Green Dragon coffeehouse and tavern. It is credited for becoming the “Headquarters of the Revolution” because of the political meetings that were held in the tavern’s basement. Later in 1764, Paul Revere and other members of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons purchased the tavern where the Sons of Liberty would meet.

For the most part, coffee and tea coexisted in peace in early America. Then trouble trouble began to brew when King George enacted the Stamp Act in 1765 in which the colonist cried the chant, “no taxation without representation.” The act was repealed a year later, but taxes reared their ugly heads once again in 1767. Taxes were placed on items like paint, oils, lead, glass and tea. In retaliation, the colonists refused to import any goods from England. Since this distressed the English manufacturers, the Parliament repealed every tax – except for the one placed on tea. Instead of continuing to purchase their tea from England, the early Americans began smuggling their tea elsewhere.

In 1773, the Tea Act was created to help aid the British East India Company during its financial difficulties. The goal of the Tea Act was to undercut the prices of the smuggled tea in hopes that the colonists would go back to buying their tea from England. Instead, it had the opposite effect.

One fateful night, the people of Boston dressed up as Indians, climbed aboard the English ships in the Boston harbor and threw the crates of tea into sea. After this mother-of-all tea parties, coffee became the beverage of choice as a matter of principle. It became unpatriotic for Americans to drink tea.

Cream or Sugar

Though many Americans today drink their coffee with cream and sugar, that sentiment isn’t followed in all countries. Some people just don’t understand why we do it. But just when early Americans began mixing in the sweet and creamy stuff into their java is unclear. However, according to the 1968 “The Presidents’ Cookbook, George Washington’s wife, Martha, had her own coffee serving rules says The Boston Globe. “For drip coffee, for every cup of water she used a heaping tablespoon of “specially selected coffee, pulverized as fine as cornmeal.” Black coffee was to be served with sugar before breakfast and after dinner — with some hot milk included in the breakfast cup.” (The Boston Globe)

Coffee According to Cowboys

Preparing coffee was lot harder in the early days compared to using today’s Keurig machines. Green coffee beans would first need to be roasted over a stove, then ground with a mortar and pestle and then boiled over a stove. Housewives would either have to roast the beans in a shallow pan on top of a cook stove or use a long-handled roaster (similar to an old-fashioned bed warmer) over the flames of a fire in the hearth.

Today, this method is often called “Cowboy Coffee” because it was this group that continued to brew their coffee this way the longest during their cattle drives. It made sense since it only required a few objects: a campfire, a hand powdered grinder, water and a large pot.

“Cowboys were undoubtedly the most devoted group of coffee drinkers in the West,” says Anne Cooper Funderburg for True West Magazine. “As a rule, they liked it strong, scalding hot, and barefooted (black). They derided weak coffee as dehorned bellywash or brown gargle. In many ranch kitchens, the cook did not remove the grounds from the pot after the coffee was brewed but added new grounds to the old until the pot was too full to hold more. (True West Magazine)

“When they worked four-hour shifts all night, they needed coffee before they left the campfire and coffee when they returned,” says Funderburg.

Civil War Coffee

“By 1840, the port of New Orleans was the second largest importer of coffee in the United States,” says K. Annabelle Smith from Smithsonian Magazine. Unfortunately, many of the early American settlers didn’t have a lot of choices when it came to drinking coffee. Before the 1860’s good coffee was hard to come by and if it could be found, it was expensive. Many people had to swallow down “mock coffee” that was made with rye, parched corn, bran or okra seed. Yummy.

Then, even those living in New Orleans felt the pinch. It was during the Civil War when Union naval blockades would cut off supply of coffee to the city that Louisianans began to add chicory root to their coffee as a way to stretch their coffee supply. Acorns and even beets were used as well. However, it was found that chicory all by itself made grounds that had a taste similar to coffee and could be sold for much cheaper, but chicory didn’t give the caffeine buzz so many looked for.

Some companies would roast their chicory with lard “to give the chicory a better face” says Smith. “Parsnips were also added occasionally. Even burnt sugar was sold to coffee dealers and coffee-house keepers under the name of Black Jack.”

Technology Changed Coffee

In the 1862, Jabez Burns created an efficient commercial coffee roaster which would turn coffee beans constantly which helped to roast them evenly. Then, brothers John and Charles Arbuckle began using Burn’s roaster for their coffee roasting business and began packaging the in paper bags often including a peppermint stick. It is said that some groups of cowboys out on cattle drive would offer to grind the beans if they would be allowed to keep the peppermint stick. (Could that be the start of the Peppermint Mocha?)

By 1868, the Arbuckle’s were granted a patent for their glazing process of which helped prolong the shelf-life of their roasted beans.

Percolating Success

In 1865, James Mason patented the first coffee percolator in America. This process boils water that passes through a basket of coffee grounds over and over again until the desired strength is made. The earliest electric versions of the percolator came out as early as 1910. It is said that housewives preferred this way of making coffee as it would “watch itself” and not boil over on the stove. By now, America was drinking have of all of the coffee produced in the world.

It is said that the some of the earliest business meetings in New Orleans were held in coffee houses which served brûleau (also known as brûlot), a beverage made with coffee, orange juice, orange peel, sugar and cognac. It is suspected that this practice eventually led to the saloon.

In 1880, Antoine’s Restaurant created Café Brulot Diabolique, or “Devilishly Burned Coffee.” It was inspired by French bon vivants who place a sugar cube in Cognac and put it over an open flame and then extinguish it out by drowning it in coffee. The more modern beverage is made with cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel, sugar, brandy and coffee. The drink is still offered at the hotel today. (New

Coffee on the Battlefield

Soldiers fighting in World War I would drink coffee several times a day while in the barracks and those on the battlefield would enjoy coffee from dehydrated packets of coffee found in their military rations. They would heat up the cups of coffee with matches also found in the rations. According to, it was also on the battlefield where the term “cuppa Joe” was coined. It came from “G.I. Joe” who apparently always had his coffee. (

Modern Coffee Houses

Soldiers returning from war did not leave their love of coffee behind. Coffee houses became new places to socialize. In time, many of the coffee houses became coffee shops and lunch counters offering food items to go along with one’s coffee.

The Coffee Break

While those in England partake in “tea time,” Americans created the tern “coffee break” during World War II. It was then that factories serving the war effort would allow their workers to take a break to rest and recoup with more caffeine. An advertising campaign by the Pan American Coffee Bureau is credited for making the coffee break a regular thing for all workers. By the mid 1950’s 70-80% of all American workers were now taking regular coffee breaks. Even General Eisenhower got into the act by creating the “Operation Coffee Cup” campaign using this break time to meet with potential voters for his presidential run.

From 1960 to Today

Americans began to become fascinated with specialty coffee and when Starbucks opened their first shop in Seattle in 1971, everything in the world of coffee changed again. Today, like the beer micro brewers, there are more independent coffee roasters and espresso shops than ever before. “Coffee has become an artistic trade that is valued for its complexity of flavors and terroir, much like wine,” says PBS. (


The Culture Trip –

PBS – – – –

Smithsonian –

True West Magazine –

Image Credits:

Coffee and American flag [ID 149027343 © Ilonashorokhova |]

Coffee and Dollar bill [ID 152925760 © Grazvydas |]

Coffee beans [ID 146655232 © SURACHAI JAMEET |]