Coffee in America

When you think of coffee, the everyday comes to mind. The ordinary, the routine. Coffee is the magic, some would say mystical, brown elixir that starts everyday the world over. Be it the drink that puts the fight into a bustling commute, or something drunk with friends and colleagues to lighten the crush of a workday. Coffee moves all of us (in the case of the writer, reanimates is more accurate). Yet how did this small tropical seed become so ubiquitous? So woven into American work culture and routine?


For all intents and purposes it shouldn’t have. The seed of a relatively obscure african shrub, coffee originated in a small region of Ethiopia. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, it was only through a complicated history of empires, power struggles, and pre-industrial trade that coffee reached anywhere beyond the mediterranean. While that is the history (upon which many books have been written) of how coffee got to America, it isn’t the sole reason it’s part of our morning. Every time you take a sip, you’re taking part of a global trade that helped shape and is shaped by almost every aspect of American history, from the Civil War, to corporate conglomeration and Cold War trade policy.


Following the American Revolution, not much is written about coffee until the Civil War. It was at this time that coffee became truly ubiquitous in American culture. Coffee replaced whiskey in the rations of Union soldiers, and was lauded as a contributor to the success of the North. With Southern trade lines cut, the Union army had almost exclusive access to coffee. They relied heavily on its energizing effects, both to make it through extended fighting and to recover from it. In fact some soldiers went so far as to modify their rifles with hand mill grinders built into the butt. Following the war, soldiers returned home with a love of coffee bordering on religious fervor. It has been included in, and an essential part of soldiers rations in both world wars and every war hence.


Coffee, as a national drink, made an almost seamless transition from the wartime comfort of the Civil and World Wars, into the comfort of the American workplace. Post WWII, with the rise of heavy American industry and business, and a cultural focus on hard work and nose-down perseverance, coffee was embraced by employers and laborers alike. Equally re-energizing in a busy office or on a factory floor, the introduction of the American coffee break increased productivity, morale, and importantly, did not take much time out of the workday. Flourishing American business gave birth to a post-war middle class, the suburbs, and rampant consumerism. Cheap coffee was in the home of every American family. every restaurant, and every workplace. It is at this point we begin to see the emergence of large coffee roasting conglomerates, intent on profiting from this burgeoning consumption. Operating under the umbrella of large food corporations, i.e. General Foods inc. coffee sales during this period could account for up to 50% of many company’s profit.


These influential corporations, long used to the politics of international commodities, exploited free market trade with South America. Brazil and Colombia, the largest South American exporters. They invested heavily in coffee production in order to capitalize on the American mass market. (At this time America consumed 58% of the world’s coffee crop.) American corporations were invested in keeping green coffee prices low in order to maintain their sales. As low prices drove up consumption, South America ramped up production. Ultimately this cycle, as it had in the past, led to an over abundance of raw crop, which drove the price of coffee so low as to threaten the export infrastructure of these countries. In order to maintain their economies, South American Producers fought back. Brazil and Columbia were early leaders in coffee market manipulation, hoarding vast stores of raw product through the government controlled Instituto do Cafe and FNC ( Federaciòn Nacional de Cafeteros)  respectively, thus limiting the amount available for export.  Although this effort began in earnest in the 1930’s, it wasn’t until other coffee exporting countries began partnering with Brazil and Colombia in the 40’s and 50’s that these organizations gained any political traction. By the late 50’s almost all Latin American had joined the cause, forming a cartel that set export limits for all Latin American producers. By artificially controlling the supply, and therefore the price, of coffee the South American nations both insulated themselves to market fluctuation and opened themselves up to undercutters and market (United States) backlash.


The reaction of the American market was formidable, domestic price controls on roasted coffee were instituted, and the commercial roasters and traders were subsidized by the government in order to keep them off of black market coffee. Staying true to its anti-communist, capitalist policies “the United States was the biggest opponent of the cartelization of the world coffee market.”  The large food conglomerates began to source and invest in countries without a centralized export authority in order to undercut South American producers. The FNC’s propositions to negotiate trade deals were heavily lobbied against, and were seen as threatening to free market capitalism and the American consumer, who saw the institution of 5 cent coffee as a symbol of American prosperity and the new middle class.


Fortunately for South America, as the Cold War progressed into the 1960’s and intensified, “U.S. policy priorities continued to shift away from the five-cent cup of coffee toward the stabilization of noncommunist regimes in Latin America.” America’s refusal to participate in the Latin American coffee cartel, as well as an influx of cheap African grown Robusta into the global market put many western coffee producer’s economies on the verge of collapse. The idea of a communist revolution in the Western hemisphere, was far more frightening than the erosion of a consumerist symbol, and in 1962 the United States passed the International Coffee Agreement. This agreement established quotas for producing nations in order to maintain a set price and evenly distribute trade, ensuring the viability of the participating economies.

One of the many side effects of this trade agreement was to further concentrate the business of coffee roasting in consuming countries. Smaller regional roasters faced daunting entry costs imposed by the inflated price of green coffee. Only the large corporate roasters were able to afford green coffee in enough bulk to homogenize and meet consumer standards, while still maintaining a profit. Slowly American coffee became a branded, bland, supermarket-special affair, run by only a few influential players. This race to the bottom set the stage for the emergence of the specialty coffee and cafe culture that we know today.


  Luttinger, Nina, and Gregory Dicum. The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop. Rev. and Updated. ed. New York: New :, 2006. 131. Print.

Luttinger, Nina, and Gregory Dicum, 82.