Americans like coffee — when it’s good. Here’s the story of the United State’s relationship with coffee since the California Gold Rush.
The golden San Francisco era established roasters that we are all familiar with to this day
It was 1850. For the finest coffee west of the Mississippi, you’d have to travel to San Francisco and meet a Mr. Jim Folger. Yes, there was a day when Folger’s had some of the best coffee available. That was until 1886, when the Hills brothers opened up a roastery in the Bay, selling “The Finest Coffee in the World,” according to their unbiased leaflets.
From the mid-1800s through the World Wars, the United State’s coffee culture remained largely unchanged. Three powerhouses in the industry, Folger’s, the Hills’ company and M.J. Brandenstein and Co. (MJB), and they were all based in San Francisco. Their coffee was good, and they continued to grow.
Post-World War II demand for coffee remained steady, while the population was booming
After World War II, the country’s demand for coffee remained unchanged. From 30 years following the Second World War, the quantity of coffee imported annually remained steady. In 1946, 2,782 million pounds of coffee were imported; in 1975, 3,098 million pounds were brought in. Americans were still drinking their coffee — or so it seemed.
Americans, actually, weren’t drinking as much coffee. Although imports of coffee were consistent, the population was booming. These were the years of the baby boomer generation, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s population by 1964. The country was growing rapidly, but coffee imports were remaining steady. Per-capita coffee consumption fell by 40 percent.
The problem was that the coffee wasn’t good
American’s weren’t drinking as much coffee for a simple reason: It didn’t taste as good as it used to. Folger’s, the Hills’ brothers company and MJB had grown into large, international corporations driven by profits. In order to improve their bottom line, they started cutting corners.
The large coffee roasters started turning to inferior coffee. Total imports increased slightly from 1946 to 1975, by 316 million pounds. Imports of arabica coffee fell significantly, however. It was replaced with both soluble and robusta coffee:
- imports of soluble coffee increased from 0 pounds in 1945 to 513 million pounds in 1975
- imports of robusta coffee rose from 0 pounds in 1945 to 0.6 million pounds in 1975
- imports of arabica coffee fell by 197 million pounds during this time
Roasters also turned to inferior roasting methods to increase yield. They:
- shortened roasting times to reduce weight loss
- added water to roasted beans
- reintroduced the chaff to the roasted beans
- altered their guidelines from 3 ounces of coffee per pot to 2 ounces
All of these tactics produces a highly inferior beverage, and American’s didn’t want it nearly as much.
A sweet alternative in the form of Coke emerges
American’s weren’t drinking as much coffee, but they still wanted a caffeinated beverage. Enter Coca-Cola.
The country had become familiar with Coke during World War II, when the company sold millions of cans for 5 cents to soldiers overseas. When they came home, bad coffee was a poor substitute for the sweet, delicious soda they’d grown accustomed to. Troops turned to soda instead, as did the rest of the country.
While coffee was on a decline, soda was quickly growing. Coke’s sales increased, and it created new sodas into the 1970s.
Starbucks led the resurgence of coffee from the 1980s and it continues to this day!
The 1980s saw another shift. A coffee movement that began in the 1980s has blossomed in the 21st millenium. Since 2000:
- soda consumption has decreased by 38 percent
- coffee consumption has increased by 24 percent
America is drinking coffee again, and all kinds of coffee. From Folger’s economical option to locally roasted artisan beans, Americans are once again turning to coffee, their long-lost, beloved beverage. To that, we should all raise a mug.