Yes, I used the past tense in the title of the post as it is now possible to get a decent cup of coffee. Thanks in large part to the fine folks at Peet’s coffee in San Francisco (from which Starbucks owes a debt of gratitude), there is a large collection of people who know the differences between roasts as well as the differences of beans.
It didn’t used to be this way. Back when I was growing up, I was surrounded by people who thought that Taster’s Choice was the bee’s knees of coffee. Sure, there were people who bought the 8 o’clock beans from the A&P, but instant coffee was the way to get your morning fix. So why did American coffee path get so far off course?
The answer, if Stewart Lee Allen is to be believed, lies within the U.S. Defense department’s love affair with caffeinating their soldiers.
The Government has been feeding coffee to the Armed Forces since 1832, when they replaced the daily rations of rum with daily rations of coffee. Sometime in the middle of the 1800′s the army began to develop a “military practical” coffee, one that had to be lightweight, long lasting and easy to ingest. The result? A coffee extract that came in cake form. A soldier only had to break a small piece off of the cake and mix it in a glass of water, hot or cold, or in a pinch, take a piece and stick it in their mouths. Voila…instant coffee circa 1862.
Further changes were made to the product over the following years, including a “military successful” powder that was in operation at the beginning of the 20th century. By World War II, America had “125 field roasting plants and 22 domestic plants” all under contract to provide an American GI a daily ration of 2 ounces of instant, which equates to roughly 6 brewed cups.
From there, Allen writes:
…Instant Coffee did not disappear at the end of WWII. Instead, millions of soldiers and nurses returned with a Proustian association of linking the taste of instant (coffee) with some of their most vivid life experiences. Domestic consumption skyrocketed, and by 1958, one third of America’s coffee was instant. The trend continued until the Vietnam War, when veterans tasted only the bitterest of dregs in a mug of Taster’s Choice.
The prevalance of Instant was most likely noted by Alfred Peet, who then set upon getting a decent cup of coffee and started the American Coffee revolution.