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Behind the Cup |June 5, 2020

Coffee Joins The Military

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Our farm tours at Greenwell Farms are a sprightly mix of farming practices, coffee processing, plant identification, history, and local color. Our tour guides are fascinated with coffee history and all of the amazing and amusing stories that circulate through coffee lore. So, on June 6th, 2020, the 76th anniversary of D-Day, let us take a pleasant stroll through time and look at the relationship between coffee and the military. 

If you are of the generation who doesn’t immediately know about D-Day, let’s take a moment to catch you up. Several years into World War II, the allies agreed that a major offensive in Europe was needed, but lack of resources and other priorities kept pushing it off. Finally, after years of planning, it was scheduled for June 5th, 1944 but bad weather leads General Dwight D. Eisenhower to postpone for 24 hours. Although thousands would sacrifice their lives, by the end of the week, over three-hundred thousand troops, fifty-thousand vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of tons of military equipment successfully landed on the beaches at Normandy. By August, Northern France was liberated. By the following Spring, Germany Surrendered.  D-Day in a nutshell.

“What Jet fuel is to the Air Force, coffee is to the soldier,” says one caffeinated airman. How did this relationship come about?

Coffee was around in the American colonies in the mid-1700s but wasn’t very popular until the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when colonists renounced tea as unpatriotic and made the switch to coffee. During the Revolutionary War, drinking coffee was not only a symbol of patriotism and American pride but coffee houses became an important gathering place for colonial leaders including many of our founding fathers. After the war; however, many colonists happily returned to drinking tea.

During the Civil War, coffee became the staple beverage of choice. “Nobody can soldier without coffee,” declares Union officer E.L Gilpin in 1865 when rations were scarce.
Union Soldiers were given 36 pounds of coffee a year by the government and they would make it with any available liquid including canteen water, brackish water, puddles, and muddy Mississippi river water. As Southern ports were immediately blockaded by the North, Confederate army access to coffee was almost non-existent, causing prices to rise to $1,000 a pound in today’s currency. Coffee substitutes like chicory root, roasted peanuts, corn, or acorns tried to fill the gap but as you can imagine it wasn’t the same.

About this time, we saw the first attempt at instant coffee, an extract with condensed milk and sugar pressed into a cake. It was short-lived due to its mediocre taste and the potential to cause stomach problems. The concept of instant coffee however was a good one and many brilliant minds began working on the problem.

From 1890 to 1903, several patents were granted on different methods to make a soluble, powdered coffee. One of these methods became commercially available in 1910 and during the first World War, the US government bought the entire available supply. Referred to as a “Cup of George” named after George Constant Louis Washington, founder of the G. Washington Coffee Company, based on his patented method of making instant coffee. While this coffee may not have been the best cup they ever had, it brought incredible comfort to our servicemen both in terms of warmth and fighting off drowsiness. The importance of consuming coffee for these soldiers cannot be overstated.

Between WWI and WWII instant coffee had transformed again. A Brazilian coffee surplus in the 1930s had the Brazilian Coffee Institute looking for a viable preservation solution prompting conversations with Nestle. This began many years of research and experimentation that would culminate in a product called Nescafe which began selling in 1938 and tasted much better than previous versions of instant coffee. Again, the US government was the largest purchaser and bought most of the available supply to put in the ration packs for the soldiers. Consumption of instant coffee skyrocketed. The coffee-drinking tradition of the American Military has continued forward to this day.

A few more interesting notes:

Nobody is 100% sure of the origin of the term, ” a cup of Joe.” Three prominent theories have been promulgated. a) A cup of George slowly morphs to its shorter version (Geo). b) US Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, bans alcoholic drinks on US Naval vessels in favor of coffee and tea. Soldiers thus refer to their coffee as a cup of Joesph Daniels. According to Snopes.com however, the historic timeline makes this origin questionable. c) Coffee expert, Mark Pendergrast, believes that servicemen and coffee became so synonymous that “GI Joe” is the seed of “Cup of Joe.” Regardless of which you believe, the Military origin is evident. 

When American soldiers got to Europe in WWII and started drinking Italian Espresso, they found it too strong to their taste and started to water it down. That’s the drink we call the Americano today.

After the Korean War (1950-53) Coffee drinking took off in Korea, especially in its instant form which spread into homes and offices so that by the mid-1990’s Korea was the largest consumer of instant coffee in the world.

Although coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the 1870s, the 10 years after the Vietnam War saw unique economic reforms resulting in Vietnam becoming the second largest coffee-producing nation on Earth.

Iraq has a long tradition of drinking coffee and many formal customs associated with it. American soldiers in both the first Gulf War and the Iraq War were introduced to many new ways of enjoying coffee.

Soldiers of all ranks have developed a taste for higher quality coffee over the years and specialty coffee roaster Green Beans Coffee Company serves specialty coffee to military personnel stationed around the globe at 70+ cafes in the US (including the Pentagon) and at military bases in six countries throughout Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.

Coffee and the Military, a perfect match. Next time you need to thank a member of our armed forces, say it with some classic Kona coffee!

About the Author

Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farms Tour and Retail Store Operations.

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