I am addicted to coffee. It seems like everyone I know is addicted, too. The dependency takes on a special level of urgency when you live in a place like New York City, where the simple act of leaving one’s apartment — straight into hoards of pedestrian traffic — requires a kick-you-in-the-ass jolt of caffeine. Coffee is as vital to my ability to function as a properly running subway system. It’s the fuel that keeps the engine of this absurd city running.
Nobody knows this better than Erin Meister, coffee raconteur, former barista and current managing editor of Cafe Imports in Minneapolis. In her new book, New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History, she tells the story of why this city (literally) never sleeps. From the amateur coffee roasters of colonial New Amsterdam to the current third-wave coffee craze, Meister reveals through history, commentary and interviews with New York’s colorful coffee community how the addictive drink became the city’s most democratic and emblematic beverage.
Below are seven things you may not know about New York’s coffee obsession.
Coffee Was First Roasted At Home
You know your friend in Brooklyn who makes her own everything? Kimchi, ricotta, suspenders, macramé coasters? You may want to tell her she’s not so much “on trend” as she is part of a long DIY tradition. In the late 17th century, in a newly minted New York City, women were roasting their own coffee long before the process became industrialized.
“Green coffee was scooped from barrels and bagged into greased sacks, ready to be pan-roasted by housewives whose ceilings blackened with the smoke of the scorched coffee beans,” writes Meister of the process that was not only stinky, but also highly flammable, and yes, dangerous. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did the inventor Jabez Burns, a New Yorker, create the equipment that made it possible to successfully roast big batches of coffee, playing a vital role in bringing a once-exclusive drink to the masses.
Lower Manhattan Was The Coffee District
It only makes sense that New York would give rise to a neighborhood named for coffee (priorities!). After all, there’s a Diamond District and a Garment District, and coffee matters way more than either of those things if you ask me. The city’s first coffee importers set up shop in lower Manhattan, paving the way for roasters and trading firms. By the late 18th century, the Coffee District was born. It was the gateway through which most of America’s coffee filtered into the country (see what I did there?).
By 1876, the U.S. was importing about a third of the world’s coffee, the bulk of which came through the Port of New York. Gillies Coffee, the country’s oldest coffee merchant, got its start in 1840 in the caffeinated quarter, on Washington Street (now they’re located in Brooklyn). But, like most great things in Manhattan, the Coffee District wasn’t long for this world. Meister writes of a twentieth century mass exodus, “Before the downtown rents spiked and moved the coffee men to the outer boroughs, Lower Manhattan was constantly enveloped in the aroma of roasting coffee.”
Coffee’s Biggest Trends Started Here
Whether it’s the height of our buildings, our legendary pizza or the quality of our drinking water, New Yorkers are all about bragging rights, and our coffee cred is up there. Some evidence:
–William Black, the founder of famous coffee brand Chock full o’Nuts, was born in Bushwick and planted the seed of his coffee empire in a Times Square hole-in-the-wall in 1926.
-America’s first espresso machine, built in 1902 and imported from Italy, can be seen at Cafe Reggio in Greenwich Village, which plied New Yorkers with their first espressos and foamy cappuccinos in 1927.
-The Porto Rico Importing Company, in the Village since 1902 and also still in business, pioneered the flavored coffee fad of the ‘80s (think hazelnut and crème de menthe).
-Ever heard of a little café Starbucks? Howard Schultz, the former CEO who catapulted the brand to global domination, grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, before turning Americans into latté snobs.
Coffee Fueled the Workforce
Coffee wasn’t always the magic substance that fueled people through their workdays. It took on that status between World War I and World War II, when the combination of affordable coffee and cheap labor powered the industrial revolution in New York City and made the magic elixir indispensable to workers.
“That particular era of the industrial revolution in the States involved mechanization and the invention of convenience foods, as well as the idea of people toiling in factories and needing coffee as a way of staying awake,” Meister says. Add to that the diners and automats that inexpensively sustained the workforce. “Coffee was something that you could drink all day, every day for almost a nickel,” says Meister, of a less-than-quality swill that might have given New York coffee a bad name. Doctor that with free milk and sugar, and it was a meal.
Women Were Banned from Coffee Shops
It’s hard to imagine a café in New York City that is not packed with women working on their laptops and tolerating insanely dry vegan scones while charging their phones. But coffee houses were once boys clubs. “Women just weren’t entitled to go out alone,” says Meister of the coffee house’s early days in New York. Only in the 1920s and 1930s did that change. “Women started to gain more political clout and stand up for their rights and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” says Meister. “That’s when business people really saw the opportunity, saying, ‘We’re missing out on half of the population that we could be getting a profit from.’” But creating a place that appealed to both genders apparently proved challenging. “You had this really interesting thing where there were lunch counters where most of the working men went, and tea houses or coffee houses where women went.”
One of New York’s Great Coffee Entrepreneurs Was a Woman
It only makes sense that it would take a woman to figure out how to market coffee to other women. Alice Foote MacDougall, a socialite born to a wealthy New York family, became the city’s first female coffee broker, and ultimately, the creator of those coffee houses for women. “She married a wholesale green coffee seller, had three kids, and then he died. She decided, ‘Well, I listened to my husband prattle on enough about coffee. I guess I could probably sell it,’” says Meister. So she did, roasting and delivering coffee door to door, and eventually opening The Little Coffee Shop in Grand Central Terminal in 1919.
“One day, she was really struggling,” says Meister. “It was one of those miserable spring days we all know in New York where it’s raining and windy and the wet is coming at you from all directions. She sent her maid to go get the waffle iron from her house. They made waffles and sold them for five cents with a free cup of coffee. Somehow, it just hit.”
MacDougall went from having no customers to 2,000 a day. She followed her success by opening a coffee and waffle restaurant in midtown, which became the inspiration for the film The Imitation of Life. Later on, she went to Italy on a cruise, “discovered” espresso, and opened up an ersatz Italian cafe. “She’s the ultimate appropriator,” says Meister. She ended up losing her fortune, which grew to the millions, in the financial crash, but nonetheless, MacDougall’s success was a phenomenon.
Italians and Greeks Helped Create New York City’s Coffee Culture
What would New York coffee culture be without baristas pumping out steaming espresso shots, or Greek diners and their bottomless cups of coffee and Anthora to-go cups? “Italians had coffee as part of their daily life earlier than a lot of New Yorkers did because in Italy, their industrial revolution, which is what espresso was born out of, happened in the early 1900s,” says Meister. “Also the incredible efficiency of Greek immigrants and the ways the Greek entrepreneurial spirit really took over dining. The combination of those two Mediterranean cultures really made coffee part of the daily experience of everyone in New York City.”
In today’s New York, coffee is once again a luxury item. Third-wave shops sell $19 pouches of single-origin ground beans, charge $5 for a pour-over and espouse a small-batch, self-roasting way of life. In a way, coffee in New York has come full circle: it started as a precious commodity enjoyed by few, and, given the current movement, carries a whiff of elitism. Thankfully, there’s still that coffee cart on the corner to bring balance to our coffee-scape, not to mention the trusty moka pot currently percolating in my kitchen. I can smell it already.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.