A Brief History of Coffee

Picture it: Saturday morning, you’ve found the perfect table in your favorite coffee shop, book in one hand, warm latte in another, the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans in the air. Sounds cozy, but have you ever wondered how the modern coffee shop evolved to this point? Coffee has been around for centuries, and so has the communal gathering place, but the coffee world wasn’t always what it is now.

Coffee’s Early Days

Humans have been enjoying coffee for over two thousand years. Experts suspect coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia in the first century CE. It wasn’t until a millennium and a half later that the first coffeehouses appeared. In the 1500s, coffeehouses spread quickly throughout the Arab world as a political gathering place to socialize, gossip, and strategize.

In the early 1600s, the Dutch smuggled a coffee tree out of modern-day Yemen and brought it to Europe. After decades of growth and propagation of the tree, European coffeehouses sprouted up as a place to share the coffee tree’s fruit and to discuss news and politics. One key contrast from today’s local hot spots: Women weren’t allowed.

A Patriotic Cuppa

When Europe colonized the Americas, a true love affair with coffee began. The Boston Tea Party marked the beginning of the American Revolution in 1773, and although patriotism isn’t the only cause for Americans’ current obsession with coffee, many revolutionaries switched from tea to coffee at this time to separate themselves from British habits. The War of 1812 escalated this switch even further—Americans were cut off from the tea trade, and coffee consumption consequently began to soar. In the following few decades, experts estimate that coffee consumption grew from three to eight pounds per capita. Note that, in modern-day standards, one pound of coffee is somewhere between 30–34 eight-ounce cups.

Like their counterparts in Europe, many 18th-century American women couldn’t enjoy visiting coffee shops, so they would brew coffee at home using a process that would make any coffee connoisseur’s heart skip a beat. It involved roasting green coffee beans in a frying pan, grinding them with a mortar and pestle, and combining the grounds with boiling water on the stove. Thankfully, the first large-scale roaster came from Britain to the U.S. in 1833, giving the U.S. coffee industry a significant boost. By 1845, New York City was roasting as much coffee as all of Britain.

Coffee Moves West

1849 was the year of the California Gold Rush, when coffee entrepreneur Jim Folger joined 157,000 others moving west. Along with William Bovee, he manned a small coffee mill to fuel the gold-seekers and slowly built up his brand in the West Coast coffee scene.

Brothers Austin Hills and Reuben Hills had a different take on the California coffee obsession. In 1886, they fine-tuned quality keeping and testing of beans and grounds by adopting and expanding Clarence Bickford’s coffee cupping method, a practice expert tasters still use to this day. These groundbreaking brothers would later adopt the use of vacuum packaging to preserve beans using Edwin Norton’s 1898 patent. However, it would take at least another 13 years for more roasters to adopt this practice.

New Innovations

At the turn of the 20th century, new innovations for blending, brewing, and storing coffee were popping up everywhere. While most roasters used beans from a single origin, in 1892, Joel Cheek became the first to combine coffee from multiple sources—specifically Brazil, Mexico and Colombia—for his blend. Meanwhile in New York City, John Arbuckle was the first to store and sell his beans in the one-pound paper bags we treasure today.

In terms of brewing coffee, the first commercial espresso machine was invented in Italy in 1901, although it wouldn’t make in appearance in the U.S. for a few decades. Household brewing also got an upgrade in Germany in 1908, when Melitta Bentz created the first percolator in her own kitchen. She poked holes in a tin can and lined it with blotter paper as the filter. Surprisingly, this drip method wasn’t popularized in the U.S. until the end of the 20th century.

The Rise of the Coffee Shop

As coffee processing evolved, so did the coffee shop. The 13 years of Prohibition, 1919–1933, were especially significant for growth as people turned to coffee as their drink of choice. In 1921, Alice Foote MacDougall opened a coffee shop in Grand Central Station in New York City and sold waffles to tired commuters. With her immediate success in serving a snack with coffee, she opened a second shop that same year with an expanded food menu.

Coffee shops experienced a slight dip in the 1950s and 1960s, when soda shops popped up and competed for youths’ attention. Teens in the mid-1960s actually associated coffee with adulthood and the business world, which could be related to the fact that the term “coffee break” was first coined in 1952 as company-instituted breaks from work.

A resurgence came in the wake of the Vietnam War, with GI coffeehouses sprouting up as anti-military havens for young pacifists. Part of their popularity could be related to the fact that Italian-inspired espresso finally made its way to both New York City and San Francisco, although the popularity of the espresso bar would come a few decades later.

The Modern Cup

Despite its vast prevalence now, specialty coffee is a relatively new phenomenon. It first came on the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Berkeley, CA and Seattle, WA. Its quick growth led to the birth of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1982. At this time and throughout the 1980s, Italian-inspired espresso bars began appearing not only on the West Coast, but throughout the U.S.

While some of us may take our morning latte or americano for granted, it was a long process before we got to this point—from its humble beginnings of roasting beans in a frying pan to the height of the specialty coffee industry. Coffee innovation is never-ending, as we see with the growing popularity of iced beverages. One thing is for sure: New waves of coffee hysteria will keep this country caffeinated for years to come.