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Over the course of American food history, coffee has been both a commodity beverage and a luxury beverage; today it performs both functions. The American Revolution was sparked in part when Great Britain levied a small tax on imported tea in 1773; colonists dumped a shipment of tea into Boston Harbor (the “Boston Tea Party”) and started drinking coffee in patriotic protest, mostly as an after dinner drink. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) soldiers on both sides were given substantial coffee rations; the habit stuck, and coffee became the preferred pick-me-up at any point of the day. Coffee roasting companies made regular house-to-house rounds in horse-drawn wagons; most homes had hand-cranked coffee grinders. Tea was relegated to ladies’ social gatherings, and people nursing colds.

Until recently, the American coffee saga has been one of wider availability and decreasing quality. Hills Brothers began to sell the first vacuum packed coffee in 1900. Japanese American chemist Satori Kato invented the first instant coffee in 1901; the process was commercialized within five years. Freeze-dried coffee followed in 1938. During the Second World War, the American government issued 260 million pounds of instant coffee to its soldiers and sailors. By the 1950s coffee was a staple beverage: available everywhere, but providing little more than heat and a caffeine lift.

While some gourmets enjoyed specialty coffees and Italian espresso varieties, coffee had a distinct association with the tough life of the Great Depression, manual labor, blue-collar hopes and frustrations. Edward Hopper’s oft-reproduced 1942 painting “Nighthawks at the Diner” communicates the brief respite from a hard, lonely, urban life represented by a basic “cuppa Joe” (a derivative of the nickname “java”). More often than not at standard American restaurants and lunch counters, the coffee cup was “bottomless” meaning refills were free. Coffee made the ideal accompaniment to the poor man’s treat, the doughnut. The coffee house and its leisurely ways was associated with ethnic communities or 1950s bohemian outposts like New York’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach. A few major brands like Maxwell House and Folger’s served the home coffee market, though coffee was often sold at a loss by supermarkets, many of which maintained their own brands, as an incentive to bring shoppers into the store. By the last two decades of the twentieth century, all these brands would have difficulties maintaining their market.

Coffee in America was destined to change, just as the hamburgers served at Hopper’s diner would one day transform into turkey and veggie burgers. The coffee drinking public was ready to plunk down real money for good coffee in the 1970s when gourmet coffee shops began springing up in America’s rainiest city, Seattle Washington. These coffee shops took advantage of a key scientific fact: green coffee beans keep for years, but roasted beans begin to loose their essential oils and hence their flavor and aromatic qualities almost immediately. Home coffee buffs could grind their own beans, but they could not blend or roast the beans themselves, nor could they afford the specialized machinery needed to prepare Italian espresso. Along with quality came the expansion in the American desire for new taste experiences, particularly the rich taste of quality Arabica-roasted beans. The coffee shop became a place to meet others, socialize, and browse through newspapers (a function European and Middle-eastern coffee shops have performed for centuries). American college students, too young to legally enter bars, flocked to the receptive atmosphere of the coffee house. A key drawing card now, of course, is wireless Internet access, free or for a fee, depending on the shop.

The Italian coffee specialties, espresso, cappuccino, and latte, are the signature coffee house choices of the moment. The drink Americans call latte (stress on the first syllable) uses a greater proportion of milk than the Italian caffe latte (literally “coffee with milk”). In American slang, “ghetto latte” is the process of ordering an espresso, typically less costly than a latte, then topping it off with free milk at the condiments bar. Many people deplore the practice; many others excoriate the coffee shops for charging so much for a few squirts of milk. Yet others criticize chains like Starbucks for their popularization of hybrid drinks like the “Frappuccino,” a form of coffee-flavored sweetened milk shake popular in summer months.

The final word in specialty coffee is choice: mild, medium or dark roasts; custom blends (breakfast, mocha, Italian), flavored coffees (cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate), decaffeinated alternatives. To truly compete, a full service coffee house will offer coffee from the entire range of tropical production: Brazil (the world’s largest producer), Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Indonesia, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Jamaica, Vietnam, India, Venezuela, and many more. Coffee houses will usually make some concession to the needs of tea drinkers. Many sell pastries, sandwiches, and other light meals, as well as home coffee brewing equipment.

Originally a Seattle retailer of coffee beans and home coffee equipment, the Starbucks chain enjoyed meteoric growth in the late 1980s and through the 1990s and 2000s to become the largest chain of coffee shops in both the United States and the world. Coffee servers at Starbucks, as in many coffee houses, are referred to using the Italian term barista; the company, known for its paternalistic corporate culture, calls its employees “partners.” Much of Starbucks early growth was fueled by acquisition of smaller chains; Starbucks currently opens an average of six new outlets every day. With the goal of 40,000 stores worldwide, Starbucks calls its strategy “infill,” in essence building a store wherever it can, even if another is already located a scant block down the street. In certain American supermarkets, shoppers can stop by a Starbucks stand, order a coffee, and enjoy it at one of a handful of nearby tables. In car-oriented cities, Starbucks operates drive-through outlets. Atlanta has 43 retail Starbucks outlets, Chicago more than 100, New York City more than 200. In the United States alone, Starbucks operates more than 8,000 outlets.

Often criticized for its competitive practices, Starbucks sets the standard now; large fast food chains including industry leader McDonalds and the Dunkin’ Donuts chain have recently improved the quality and variety of their coffees. Most of these large operations, including Starbucks, roast their coffee in large centralized plants. The current coffee shop culture is robust enough to sustain many small chains and independent operators who roast smaller batches of coffee right on their premises, even if they happen to be across the street from Starbucks.

Despite the inroads of chains like Starbucks, independent operators with fewer than three units account for more than half of the coffee houses in the United States. Major chains (not including donut chains) include Gloria Jeans, which favors mall locations, Caribou Coffee, Tim Horton’s, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Coffee Beanery, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Coffee People, Tully’s Coffee Corp., Dunn Bros. Coffee, Diedrich Coffee, and Port City Java.

Clearly, the American public is addicted to coffee. Cups are poured at home and of course there’s plenty of office coffee. More than half of all Americans are regular coffee drinkers, accounting for an average, per drinker, of 3.4 cups a day. The American state of Hawaii produces coffee in relatively small quantities but has a reputation for some of the world’s best. The coffee grown in the American territory of Puerto Rico is also highly esteemed. The other 49 states are unsuitable for coffee planting, leaving the United States as the world’s biggest importer of coffee.

After oil, coffee is the most widely traded commodity on earth. International demand for coffee affects economies and ecosystems all over the world. Proponents of fair trade commerce strive to ensure that Third World farmers are given equitable prices for their crops (especially during periodic market slumps) and are encouraged to practice sustainable agriculture. Fair Trade Certified coffee is available at natural food stores and many coffee houses. Starbucks claims to be North America’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee; critics counter that the chain, which is accountable for a full two percent of worldwide coffee consumption, could do much more to promote the concept. (Starbucks, which generates criticism of everything from its monopolistic trade practices to its use of milk from hormone treated cows, may be running neck and neck with mega-retailer Wal-Mart as America’s most criticized company.)

Some specialty coffee importers advertise that their coffees are organic, “shade-grown” (produced in a way that does not interfere with the ecosystem in tropical forests) or “bird-friendly” (as specified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center), in which case they are also by definition both shade grown and organic.