Inside the Brown Bag

The Coffee Break

By Peg Brown

“Get the Back Yard Ready: Coffee by Drone Is Coming.” This recent headline in the Wall Street Journal certainly caught my attention—but so did a headline two weeks previously in the same publication— “Raise a Cup to the Coffee Nerds.” And then there was the article published by Purdue University–“7 Reasons to Kick Starbucks to the Curb and Let Dunkin’ Donuts into Your Life.”

Who knew that coffee had slowly become a symbol of the new culture, a basis for a new science, and endless debate over type, processing, roasting, brewing apparatus, and the science of tasting?

My parents and grandparents (despite their English heritage), were serious coffee drinkers. As children, we were given the equivalent of what a Rhode Islander would call coffee milk into which we dunked large pieces of slightly toasted white bread, slathered with butter. If my parents had been asked, “How do you take your coffee?”, Dad would have responded “regular” and Mother would have answered “black.” The confusion was that to my parents regular meant with milk and sugar—a definition that did not translate when they visited Rhode Island.

The early history of coffee in the United States demonstrated a slow acceptance by the early colonists who brought their drink of choice, tea, to New England. As trite as it sounds, historians trace the American commitment to coffee to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when it became, because of British taxes, a bit unpatriotic to drink tea. Coffee, imported from Central and South America, soon dominated the New England breakfast table as the hot drink of choice. Although expensive, and considered a luxury as well as a medicinal beverage for many decades, by the early 1900s “America consumed one-half of all the coffee produced in the world.”

World War I continued the American obsession with coffee. Returning veterans who had consumed large quantities of coffee at their mess halls or in the trenches (dehydrated coffee heated on the spot with matches), brought back the phrase “Cuppa of Joe” based on the moniker GI Joe who always had a cup of coffee in his hand.

The invention of the work place pause, “coffee break,” came much later. As American factory workers worked to support the demands of World War II, the idea to give labor a brief rest from the assembly line and a jolt of caffeine gave birth to coffee break concept. By the 1950s almost 80 percent of American workers were taking a coffee break as the result of a nation-wide marketing campaign by the Pan American Coffee Bureau. As General Eisenhower campaigned for president in the 1950s, he capitalized on the idea of “coffee breaks”, a technique now known as “Operation Coffee Cup” as a way to meet and chat with potential voters.

The journey that has led us to “a Keurig in every kitchen” is no less interesting. While early methods of brewing coffee did not change much from early methods of roasting, hand grinding, and boiling grounds in a pot of water, Americans did add several inventions that began to change this primitive method. The first American percolator appeared in 1865, but coffee was still made with boiled water poured over the grounds, and often subject to spewing hot coffee if unwatched. The advent of the electric percolator in 1910 made brewing easier, as the coffee pot could now essentially watch itself—avoiding the ever-reoccurring boil-over of the previous method. The morning percolator provided the music of my mornings in my youth. While watching the “blip, blip, blip” of the water turning to coffee as it hit the clear colored knob on the cover was mesmerizing, that smell of the fresh brew has yet to be matched. In my early married life, I will admit to using those shiny, course and unpalatable instant coffee granules as a way to save time. Mother would have considered that close to family heresy had she known. She herself did abandon the trusty percolator however, when the drip coffee makers of the Mr. Coffee era were introduced in the 1960s.

I did go the percolator route for a while when I was gifted a white ceramic Corning Ware pot with the blue cornflower stencil. However, I remember it came with a caution to always hold the bottom of the pot, as those handles were known to detach at inopportune moments—such as when you were serving your in-laws at holiday dinners. I kept that coffee pot for over 50 years, and recently sold it at consignment where, it appears, they are iconic symbols of 1970s, now kitschy, housewares.

The history of coffee is not without drama. A December 2017 article published by the National Coffee Association (NCA) shares some of the following coffee related crimes. For example, coffee was banned in Mecca in 1511 as it was thought to “stimulate radical thinking and hanging out” where conspiracies could lead to revolution. (Hmmmm—I wonder—could we make the case today?)

However, in the 16th century coffee was saved by a Pope. Although the clergy in Italy wanted to label coffee as “Satanic,” Pope Clement VIII loved the taste and gave it his papal blessing. The origin of coffee houses all over Western Europe! In the 1600s the Ottoman Empire was not so magnanimous. Beatings were the punishment for the first offense of drinking coffee, but if caught a second time, the perpetrator was “sewn into a leather bag and thrown into the waters of the Bosporus.”

In the 1700s Sweden confiscated cups and saucers and forced convicted murders to drink coffee until they died—a not so successful punishment strategy! And, God bless him, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued an order that beer was a superior drink to coffee and should be consumed at breakfast.

However, all of this is a long way from our current obsession with baristas and specialty coffees. If you have recently stood behind a customer ordering a caramel cappuccino, with steamed soy milk, accompanied by an Americano and a double expresso, you know this is not your father’s diner anymore. According to the NCA’s study in 2017, “American coffee consumption shows that we are one very caffeinated nation.”

However, the strongest growth in coffee consumption over the past two decades has been made in the specialty coffee area. This shouldn’t surprise any of us as there are coffee shops on almost every corner of every American city—something that would have never been seen on the streets of my small town until recently. Admittedly Ogdensburg, NY, is out of the mainstream, but the first Dunkin’s Donuts just opened three years ago. Most coffee was dispensed by the two old-time diners and to groups of men who gathered each morning at McDonald’s to settle the world’s problems and decide what time they would meet for golf. (In Florida, we call these coffee klatches ROMEOS—retired old men eating out.)

The sea-change in our coffee culture dates to the 1970s when “proto-yuppies” began patronizing places in the community, such as Starbucks and Pete’s Coffee, for conversation and espresso. Today, young people and millennials are continuing to drive this trend to coffee consumption outside the home. Statistics such as “59 percent of coffee consumed daily is classified as ‘gourmet’” –or, in other words, “41 percent of daily drinkers order specialty coffees” drive home the point that we are now entering what coffee entrepreneurs call “the third wave of American coffee culture.”

And the third wave? It’s not just about specialty coffee, but it’s about country of bean origin, grinding and brewing methods, coffee research programs at major colleges and universities, and what the next wave might bring. Be assured that America is already looking to what comes after Starbucks and Keurig. Clear the way on your kitchen counter for high tech pour-over devices, with precise digital temperature control, sediment free brews, and ceramic burr grinders. Or prepare a space in your back yard for that delivery of specialty coffee by drone. It’s already happening in remote areas of Iceland and Australia.

Author’s note: My bow to the evolving coffee culture can be traced to recent visits to Europe. My counter now sports an electric kettle and a French press, next to a single-serve red Keurig.