History of Coffee in the U.S. Military

December 03, 2021 8 min read

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You may appreciate that morning boost of java, but did you know that coffee actually plays a valuable part in United States history? Even more interesting is that it is deeply rooted within the past of our nation's military. It kept soldiers energized, determined, and ready to take on anything that came their way. Coffee sufficiently helped to hide exhaustion and cope with extremely limited (and sometimes zero) sleep. Going back in history to the Boston Tea Party and moving forward into the present times, coffee is considered an essential part of military life. 

The U.S. Military Enlists Coffee

Coffee made its way into the American colonies during the mid-17th century. Introduced in the 1640s by John Smith, who had become familiar with coffee during his time spent in Turkey, coffee slowly made its way into the colonies years later. However, a license was required to sell it within the colonies. In 1670, Dorothy Jones became the first to obtain a coffee license, which closely resembled a license for selling alcohol. 

While coffee was still overshadowed by tea for a long time, that all changed during the time of the Boston Tea Party. To protest against taxation without representation, American colonists dumped tea into the Boston Harbor. While tea was once the beverage of choice, coffee had taken the lead. Revolutionists switched to coffee as the consumption of tea became a social blunder in the midst of the powerful movement. 

Throughout the Revolutionary War, drinking coffee was a demonstration of patriotism and American pride. Coffee houses even became a popular meeting place for many colonial leaders (some Founding Fathers included). An early reading of the Declaration of Independence happened within the Merchant Coffee House, the establishment visited by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and many other notable individuals in history. The coffeehouse was also a place where the First Continental Congress held meetings. 

Coffee and the Civil War

The Civil War was a time in which coffee was often the only fresh food soldiers could get on the battlefield to keep their strength. It became so essential that Union officer E.L. Gilpin made the declaration, "Nobody can soldier without coffee." 

Union soldiers were provided with 36 pounds of coffee each year as part of their rations. However, rations ran low in 1865, and coffee became almost completely inaccessible to Confederate soldiers when Southern ports were blocked off by the North. The price of coffee skyrocketed because it was so difficult to procure. This prince increase led to tireless attempts at finding substitutes, including chicory root and roasted peanuts, although none of them provided the same effects as true coffee.

WWI Brought Instant Coffee

During WWI, the first acceptable form of instant coffee was offered on the commercial market in powdered form. Creator George Constant Louis Washington founded the G. Washington Coffee Company, and his product was hence named "Cup of George." Although it was not perfect, this powdered coffee did provide the same amounts of energy and warmth that traditional cups of coffee delivered. The U.S. government bought every bit of supply that was available for purchase for military personnel in 1910. 

The 1930s saw another change in coffee during the transition period between WWI and WWII. Several years of trial and error to formulate a better version of the instant coffee were done through the collaboration of Nestle and the Brazilian Coffee Institute. By 1938, there was a new formula (called Nescafe) that tasted much better than the original instant Cup of George. Seeing its value for the military, the U.S. government swooped in once again and bought the vast majority of the supply for soldiers' rations. 

By the 1950s, America was the largest consumer of coffee in the world, thanks to soldiers having acquired a taste and desire for it. 

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How the Role of Coffee Changed for Soldiers Over Time

Coffee has enjoyed a solid connection to the U.S. military all throughout history. During the Civil War, "Essence of Coffee," also known as canned instant coffee, was rolled out by the U.S. Army as a substitute for the real deal. Contained in a can, it was a concoction of a coffee reduction, sugar, and milk. Soldiers would open the can, add hot water, and drink. However, the drink failed in popularity. This was greatly due in part to crooked milk suppliers selling spoiled milk (or nearly spoiled) products to the government to make the beverage. By the time the drink reached the soldiers, it was plagued by a lot of nasty issues. It had a horrible taste and was known to cause all kinds of bowel problems.

Coffee always seems to have a way of bringing people together in unexpected ways. During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate soldiers were divided when it came to who had the most access to coffee. While the Union soldiers had access to coffee, Confederate soldiers had access to tobacco. Both realizing each side had something that the other desired, soldiers from both sides commonly could be seen trading goods on the battlefield. 

After the Korean War ended in 1953, coffee was found to have become an extremely popular beverage in Korea. Instant forms became a common drink in homes and businesses. By the mid-1990s, Korea had become the largest consumer of instant coffee in the world. 

During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), GIs typically made coffee in the field using an unorthodox yet innovative method. Coffee was produced using C-4 explosives as a heating source, which soldiers used to cook their other rations as well. It was also common for GIs to simply eat instant coffee as a quick energy booster.

Once the Vietnam War ended and GIs came home, coffeehouses began to spring all across the country near military bases as a safe place for GIs to gather, share stories, and express their thoughts. They were also a place for GIs to meet with legal counselors for advice regarding their rights such as going AWOL and protesting the war. Coffeehouses were known to release publications containing content that addressed the poor conditions of military prisons, editorials with interviews from disillusioned soldiers, as well as information for demonstrations and rallies. 

Throughout the 20th century, it was not uncommon for women working with the Red Cross to supply coffee to troops at the front to help provide them with warmth and stamina. Coffee is still an important part of military rations. Today, coffee is one of the most popular items to send to U.S. troops deployed to war zones. Civilians everywhere show their appreciation and support through coffee, and military personnel continue to experience its benefits. 

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Coffee has always provided soldiers with a way to slow down, even for a moment. When soldiers get the chance to have a drink of coffee, they get a taste of something nice and warm. It gives them a reminder of being back home. It gives them a minute to take a break from reality and enjoy something simple. Many veterans came home and eventually opened their own coffeeshops to pay tribute to the time they spent serving and to dedicate their coffee experiences to those who continue to serve. 

Do You Know How the Americano Was Named? 

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American soldiers stationed in Italy during WWII are to thank for the drink we know as the Americano today. While coffee was a major staple for soldiers, members of the U.S. military got a bit of a shock to the taste buds when they first experienced the way Italy drank coffee. Espresso, which is very strong and concentrated coffee, was too strong for most American soldiers, as they were used to large pots of coffee that were much more diluted. 

The solution when ordering coffee that better suited their preferences was to ask the baristas to add water to their coffee. This became such a regular trend from American soldiers that this coffee beverage was rightfully named the "Americano." Today, this drink can be found on coffeeshop menus everywhere. 

While it may seem that an Americano and regular black coffee are the same, they are very different. Espresso is made from coffee grounds that have been steamed and pressurized, which is how the coffee comes to be so strong and concentrated. Black coffee is generally brewed by filtering hot water through coffee grounds, resulting in a much thinner and milder coffee beverage. 

The Origins of "Cup of Joe" 

Chances are you have heard the phrase "cup of Joe" when someone refers to enjoying a cup of coffee. However, it is unlikely many people can explain exactly where the phrase came from. While the actual origin of this phrase is unknown, there are three solid and interesting theories that give some idea into how it came to be. Although none of the theories have been proven to be 100% true, it can be fun to decide for yourself. 

Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels

Perhaps the most entertaining theory of how the phrase came to be is a story that began with the U.S. Navy and prohibition. The phrase "cup o' joe" is said to have been coined when U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels banned alcohol from members of the Navy in 1914. Amidst the prohibition on Navy ships, Navy service members filled their drinking voids with coffee. Many began to express having a cup of coffee as having a "cup of Joseph," which eventually became shortened to a "cup o' Joe" to express their complaints.

Combined Slang Terms

People have the uncanny knack for taking two different words and combining them to make them into a whole new term. According to linguists, the earliest signs of "cup of Joe" coming into the English language was around 1930. One theory states that "Joe" is a shortened and combined term stemming from "jamoke" (another slang word for coffee). The phrase was since transformed from a "cup of jamoke" to a "cup of Joe." 

The Drink of a Common Man

You have probably heard another common phrase—"your average Joe." Making its major appearance in the English language around 1846, "Joe" was often used as a slang name referring to "the common man." Hence, why a "cup of Joe" also translates into the phrase "common man's drink." However, we all know that those who served, and those who continue to serve, in the U.S. military are certainly anything but common. 

More Interesting Facts

As we continuously raise our coffee mugs to honor those who formerly served in the military and those who continue to serve, let's explore some more interesting facts about coffee in today's world. 

  • About 64% of Americans drink at least one cup of coffee every day, leading to Americans consuming approximately 400 million cups of coffee on a daily basis. 
  • Approximately 13% of American coffee drinkers use an espresso machine, while an estimated 45% of drinkers use a drip coffee maker. 
  • It is estimated that about 35% of coffee drinkers drink it black (without any cream, sugar, or other fancy flavor enhancers).
  • According to the National Coffee Association, there have been five attempts to ban coffee throughout the world by Mecca, Constantinople, Italy, Sweden, and Prussia. The reason? It was once thought that the beverage was too intoxicating for human consumption. 
  • As already demonstrated by members of the military, it is statistically proven that workers who drink coffee are more productive than workers who forgo the beverage. 

Check Out Our Selection of Warrior Fuel! 

Alpha Coffee began in 2010 and has been providing exceptional varieties of coffee with a cause ever since. A veteran and military-spouse owned company, we dedicate ourselves to providing our customers with the best coffee, and excellent service. When we started, we were co-founded by a combat veteran with 21 years of experience as a soldier and officer and his wife. 

Because we recognize and understand the dedication and sacrifices of those who serve in the U.S. military, a portion of every batch of coffee we roast is sent to deployed troops. Since 2010, Alpha Coffee has sent 20,007 bags of coffee to deployed troops. (And we are still counting!) We also honor military personnel by donating portions of profits to trusted and honorable charities that give back to the military community by helping veterans and their families with a variety of resources and opportunities. 

We offer a 10% discount on all of our coffee and cocoa products as a thank-you to veterans. 

For superior, top-quality coffee, check out our selection. Whether you are seeking a breakfast blend, something organic, or something that is extra dark and robust, we are sure to have something you will love. We also offer a Deployed Troop Coffee Package that can be bought and sent as a gift for those who are actively serving. 

As always, we would like to thank those who are serving and those who have served in the U.S. military. 

 

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