color image of top angle view of a group of corporate coworkers having drinks

Anthropology: A Brief History and Exploration of New York City’s Coffee Culture

Coffee is appreciated and enjoyed by most people all around the world. It is the most popular drink worldwide (after water). Each year there are over 400 billion cups consumed. People of different age groups and different demographics brew coffee in different styles and tastes. Many cultures engage in a set of traditions and social behaviors that surround the consumption of coffee.

The rich history of the culture surrounding coffee and coffeehouses dates back to 16th century Turkey. Today, it is a norm to see coffee shops and cafes in urban centers around the globe. In the United States, coffee culture is constantly evolving and the spread of massive, international franchises, such as Starbucks, doesn’t seem to stop. This article will explore the history of coffee, how it became popular in America and how coffee culture is evolving in New York City, reflecting American culture as a whole.

A brief history of coffee

Coffee, the most popular beverage in the world, is a brewed drink prepared from roasted beans, the seeds of berries from certain flowering plants in the Coffea genus. Coffee is believed to have originated in Ethiopia by a lonely goat herder called Kaldi. According to legend, Kaldi discovered the potential of coffee beans when he saw his goats getting excited after eating some berries from a tree. He told the abbot of the local monastery about this, and together they decided to make a drink with the berries (Chrystal, 2019). They’ve discovered that it kept them alert through many hours at night. The idea of coffee as a drink began to spread to the East and reached the Arabian peninsula. From there, the Ottoman Empire and European colonization began the trade of coffee around the world, boosting its popularity.

Coloured map illustration showing the directions and locations of the early spread of coffee in the world
Locations of the Early spread of coffee (drinkingcup.net)

Establishing of coffeehouses – qahveh khaneh

Coffeehouses or cafes were established to sell coffee and serve as an informal club for its regular customers. They were introduced by Arabs and became the center of social intercourse. Public coffeehouses began to appear across the Near East and they were called “qahveh khaneh” (National Coffee Association of U.S.A.). People met with friends in coffeehouses to tell stories and exchange gossip while drinking coffee. Thus, coffee culture was originally a “conversation stimulator” (Ling, 2021).

There are various stories about how coffee was first introduced to Europe. According to most sources, coffee was barely known in Europe before the 17th century. It was introduced by some European explorers, who visited the Middle East and possibly visited coffeehouses. They got their hands on coffee beans and brought the samples back to Europe. The Venetians were then the first people to bring larger quantities of coffee onto the European continent. And in 1615, there was the very first shipment of green coffee beans received by Venice.

Other sources claim that coffee reached Vienna in 1683 after the city had been besieged in war with the Turks. A Polish Army Officer and a spy, Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who previously lived in Turkey, was the only person in Vienna who knew how to use coffee and claimed the coffee that was left by the Turkish army all for himself. Apparently, Kulczycki was also the first person to come up with adding milk to coffee.

black and white illustration of early coffeehouse in the Middle East
Storytelling and performance of folktales and religious accounts were regular activities of the early coffeehouses (sites.courtauld.ac.uk)

Coffee – “a bitter invention of Satan”

When coffee arrived in Europe, Europeans considered coffee to be exotic, and at the time feared this Eastern drink. European clergymen pressed Pope Clement VIII to ban coffee and label it as “sinful” and Satanic. The advisors pressured him to refer to the drink as “a bitter invention of Satan” (National Coffee Association of U.S.A.). Eventually, Pope Clement VIII gave coffee a try himself and he is reported to have remarked “this devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

It is not clear who opened the very first cafe in Vienna. Some say it was Kulczycki, others that it was actually an Armenian by the name Johannes Diodato (Kępa, 2017). However, it is believed that one of the first European coffeehouses was opened in 1720, in the Procuratie Nuove of Piazza San Marco, Venice, called “Caffè Florian” (Berk, 2021). The coffeehouse is the oldest coffee house in continuous operation in Italy.

Colored image of the oldest coffeehouse in Italy
Caffè Florian, located under the historic Procuratie Nuove, in St. Mark’s Square (caffeflorian.com)

A brief history of coffee in the United States

America is a relatively young country compared to the rest of the world. Therefore, it’s interesting how it rose through the ranks to become one of the world’s biggest coffee consumers.

Before coffee arrived in America, tea was the most popular drink. In the middle of the 17th century, the British brought coffee to America during their colonization of the New World. Yet, at the time, people were still choosing tea over coffee as their drink of choice. This was until tea became a symbol of oppression in the colonies, and the Tea Act was established in 1773 to impose a tax on a variety of imported goods shipped to the colonies. This included, and was specifically aimed at the beloved tea. This angered people and, as a form of protest, they began to drink coffee instead. As a result, coffee became the most-consumed beverage in the colonies (Lewis, 2020). It was considered unpatriotic to drink tea. Britain was a country of tea-drinkers, and America, coffee-drinkers (Gonzales, 2019).

Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world” – Thomas Jefferson

By the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most profitable commodities. Popularity in the United States increased, and people started to sell coffee to get rich. In 1864, brothers John and Charles Arbuckle, from Pittsburgh, began selling pre-roasted coffee to cowboys in the West. Other famous brands, such as Maxwell House and Hills Brothers, followed in their footsteps and also saw great success from selling coffee.

It is believed that the first coffeehouse in the New World was called “Kings Arm” and was located in New York City, on what is now Cedar Street. According to historians, the Kings Arms played a significant role in the community and commerce. There were courtroom trials held inside, and important business meetings. People were usually hard at work inside coffeehouses.

In 1972, the first Starbucks cafe opened in Seattle, introducing instant coffee to the market and making coffee geographically available to people across the States. Starbucks – the American multinational chain of coffeehouses and roastery reserves is considered the key contributor to the rise of the second wave of coffee culture in America.

Black and white image of three men holding white coffee cups in front of a coffee shop
Starbucks founders Zev Siegl, Jerry Baldwin, and Gordon Bowker, Seattle, February 1979 (historylink.org)

Coffee culture in America

Many countries today owe their rich coffee customs to people in Africa and the Middle East, as well as sharing the Mediterranean with the Arab and African worlds. Today, coffee shops, cafes, and coffeehouses are a central element of European culture (Mastilovic). However, they are also incredibly popular in the United States and especially in New York City.

Coffee is now the second most traded commodity in the world, after petroleum, and one of the main drinks in the modern diet. On average, Americans consume approximately 400 million cups of coffee per day. There are various American coffee chains that have been extremely successful multinational companies. There are, for example, around 15,300 Starbucks locations in the United States (as of February 2022) (ScrapeHero, 2022). Similarly, there are 12,900 Dunkin’ (formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts) locations in 42 countries.

Coffee has a stimulating effect on humans due to its caffeine content, although this varies depending on the type of coffee and method of preparation. Caffeine is a Central Nervous System (CNS) stimulant that can enhance concentration, increase metabolism, and boost your mood. It does not have to come only from coffee, it can be found in tea, energy drink, or soda.  According to the book “The Coffee House – A Cultural History” by Markman Ellis, “caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world, exceeding all other common drugs, including nicotine and alcohol.”

People can develop a dependence on coffee (as well as other caffeinated beverages). Thus, many people feel like they need caffeine in the morning to motivate them to work and enhance their alertness. For Americans, drinking coffee is a significant part of the culture, as well as a facilitator of productivity (Hilliard, 2021).

Colored infographic explaining coffee effects on body
Effects of coffee on your body, infographic (coffeeaffection.com)

Coffeehouses in New York

Coffeehouses play a vital role in the culture and lives of New Yorkers. However, what is especially unique about New York coffeehouses is that they are often used for work. Yes, people also gather inside to socialize, but the busy lifestyles and frantic pace are definitely reflected in most New York coffee places. Americans tend to drink coffee because they feel like they need it, to stay productive, to keep up with a busy life, and to stay alert.

In America, and also in New York, people visit coffee shops to spend time alone and get work done. There is silence instead of the loud chatter of customers (Ling, 2021). With free Wi-Fi, American coffee culture became a culture of busy people, working remotely, and coffeehouses are now mostly places to conduct business. There are still independent cafes that are slowly becoming increasingly popular. However, coffee-to-go, and getting a cup of coffee only to boost productivity and go back to work is a general norm, not only in New York but all over America.

American coffee usually comes in a larger sized cup. It can be customized to the point in which the actual flavor of the coffee itself is lost (Moreschini, 2018). Furthermore, cold brew and nitro coffees were basically unknown in 2015. However, today, one in five Americans under the age of 40 consumes at least one every week (National Coffee Association U.S.A., 2020).

Color image of a view from an inside of a busy coffee shop in New York
Black Cat Coffee, New York (thrillist.com)

New York’s coffee addiction – a reflection of a busy lifestyle

Today, coffee has become more personal and more accessible. For Americans, caffeine addiction begins in college, where students often begin to pull all-nighters. It allows people to multitask, schedule meetings in cafes, drink coffee on the go, and in reality, coffee becomes our fuel (Sulima, 2022).

Coffee became popular in New York thanks to Italian and Greek immigrants, who had coffee as part of their daily lives earlier than the majority of New Yorkers, in the early 1900s. The espressos that originated in the Italian industrial revolution, combined with the Greek diners, allowed the popularization of coffee all across New York City.

Thus, the coffee-drinking ritual in New York is rooted in the eight-hour workday, rather than social tradition, like outside of the United States. In the early 20th century, employers began to notice how coffee breaks improved their workers’ performance. Coffee breaks were short morning and afternoon breaks that were supposed to help workers to deal better psychologically and boost productivity at war production plants. Advertisements, such as the one by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, from 1952, called for Americans to “Give yourself a coffee-break – and get what coffee gives to you.” This shows that coffee has become a significant part of the American workforce after the War.

Black and white image of the Pan American Coffee Bureau coffee-break advertisement
The Pan American Coffee Bureau promoted the idea of the Coffee Break with an ad campaign (1952) (maggiejs.ca)

Cultural significance in anthropology

Coffee is continuously getting a boost in the United States. It differs significantly from other coffee-drinking cultures across the world. This is because American coffee culture is clearly “more associated with speed and quantity, rather than relaxation and enjoyment.” (Ling, 2021). American coffee has evolved into something resembling human gasoline. Filling a 16 oz. tumbler to the brim with coffee is a norm in the States. Rushing out the door with a cup of coffee in hand to attend business meetings is also a norm. American coffee culture seems to be the proof of the manifestation of a larger issue in American society – the constant need to be productive because there is something terribly wrong if there is no work left to do.

However, coffees are a naturally diverse product. They offer us a way to look at our relationship with the larger world. In America, the coffee industry is ever-shifting and evolving. It mirrors the generation of millennials, for whom convenience is the key. The coffee industry has adapted to keep up with the normalcy of instant gratification and the value of convenience. This is reflected in “click and collect” orders, and coffee delivery to the door available at the touch of a smartphone (Wooden, 2021).

Finally, American coffee culture highlights that in today’s always-on work culture, coffee is essential. According to Laura Stack, an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and authority on workplace productivity: “There is nothing quite like coffee to keep employees engaged, alert and happy at work.” (Business Wire, 2015). Thus, for a significant percentage of Americans, one cup of coffee a day is not enough.

References:

Berk, M. (2021) “5 Oldest Coffee Houses in the World”. Available: Bean Box®

Business Wire (2015) “American Workers Need Their Cup (or Three) of Joe”. Available: Business Wire

Chrystal, P. (2019) “A Drink for the Devil: 8 Facts About the History of Coffee”. Available: HistoryExtra

Ellis, M. (2004) “The Coffee-House: A Cultural History”. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gonzales, L. (2019) “History of Coffee in America: From Colonial Days to Your Cup”. Available: Public Goods

Hilliard, J. (2019) “What is Caffeine Addiction?” Available: Addiction Center

Lewis, J. (2020) “A Brief History of Coffee in the United States”. Available: coffeeordie.com

Ling, S. (2021) “American Coffee Culture Reflects and Overworked Society”. Available: The Emory Wheel

Mastilovic, J. “Coffee: How ‘Satan’s Drink’ Spread to Europe Through the Ottomans”. Available: Sacred Footsteps

Moreschini, A. (2018) “The Influence of Millennials on the USA Coffee Culture”. Available: coffeebi.com

National Coffee Association of U.S.A. “The History of Coffee”. Available: National Coffee Association 

National Coffee Association of U.S.A. “NCA Releases Atlas of American Coffee”. Available: NCA 2020 National Coffee Data Trends

ScrapeHero (2022) “Number of Starbucks Locations in the United States in 2022”. Available: ScrapeHero

Wooden, B. (2021) “What’s Driving Millennial Coffee Culture? And What Can We Expect to See From Gen Z?” Available: climpsonandsons.com

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