World War I Centennial: How the War Moved Coffee Around the Globe

It’s been 100 years since World War I ended; we explore how the war influenced and transformed the way we drink coffee.

BY MATT FOSTER
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

Sunday, November 11, marked 100 years since the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. Also known as The Great War, this seminal catastrophe of the 20th century shattered empires and laid the groundwork for many other world-defining events. Nothing was spared the devastating effects this conflict wrought, and coffee was no exception. The American Revolution is often credited for turning the United States into a coffee-drinking nation, and that’s still partly true. However, if that war started the habit, this war made it an industrial addiction.

Before the war began, more than half of the world’s coffee was going to European nations. This was in part because Europe was willing to pay higher prices for coffee, but also because Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. This left the world’s largest coffee-producing country overextended, but not for long. According to Elin McCoy and John Frederick Walker and their book Coffee and Tea, as early as the next year, “Workers from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere flocked to Brazil, the land of limitless opportunity, to carve their own plots out of the forests and plant coffee.” These events tended to favor European importers and so they, and the rest of Europe, continued to receive the best and largest harvests. This often left the United States with smaller lower-grade coffees.

Not long after war was declared on July 28, 1914, Britain formed a naval blockade around the North Sea and English Channel to restrict maritime supplies (including coffee) from reaching Germany and its allies. At this time in the war Germany could not match Britain’s Royal Navy which, according to the Smithsonian World War I: The Definitive Visual History, had 29 modern battleships compared to Germany’s 17. However, Germany did have 29 “submersibles.” These vessels mainly traveled on the surface, but could dive underwater for a few hours and usually carried about six torpedoes. On February 4, 1915, Germany announced that any Allied ships found in the waters near Britain and Ireland would be attacked.

In terms of coffee, these navel blockades and submersible attacks drastically affected shipping, and Europe was no longer able to import the vast amounts of coffee it had been. This left the United States as the principle buyer, and prices quickly began to fall as a surplus of coffee built up. The following tables, taken and summarized from The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, illustrate how the war impacted the some of the major coffee-buying countries of the world at the time.

Bags of Coffee Exported from Brazil

Countries 1913 1914 1915
To Allies…
United States 4,914,730 5,532,081 7,194,594
France 1,846,944 1,063,845 2,449,223
Great Britain 246,161 316,819 413,786
To Central Powers…
Germany 1,865,632 656,369
Austria-Hungary 1,016,824 363,932
To Neutral…
Sweden 212,034 487,002 2,333,386

 

Pounds of Coffee Imported into United States

1913 1914 1915
Lbs. $ Value Avg/lb. Lbs. $ Value Avg/lb. Lbs. $ Value Avg/lb.
852,529,498 104,671,501 $0.12 1,011,071,873 104,794,319 $0.10 1,228,761,626 113,797866 $0.09

 

In his book Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast cites that before the United States entered the war, it had re-exported less than 4 million pounds of coffee annually. By 1915, it had shot up over 1 billion pounds. Much of this would land in neutral Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, where imports saw a huge increase. At first Germany was importing a great deal of coffee from Brazil via Sweden, but Britain soon responded by placing a ban on exports to the Scandinavian countries and Holland. Later in the war, under pressure from Britain, Holland would even cut off trade with Germany completely despite being adjacent to it.

When the United States did enter the war on April 6, 1917, coffee was tightly in tow. At first coffee was roasted, ground, and packaged in the U.S. before being sent to the troops in Europe. Unfortunately, this also meant that by the time the coffee reached the soldiers, it was completely stale. Then to add insult to the already injured beans, according to Pendergrast, the army only used 5 ounces of coffee for every gallon of water. The used grounds would then be left in the container until the next meal to be brewed again, with only 3 more ounces of coffee added for every gallon of water used. Eventually a small roasting plant was leased in France just south of Paris so that beans could be roasted just behind the lines. Despite being located in a precarious position, a rush order was placed with Jabez Burns & Sons for the roasting and grinding machinery. Both professional roasters and men from the combat forces were assigned to work the plant.

Instant coffee also garnered a lot of attention during this time. With the advent of trench warfare and chemical weapons such as mustard gas, it became almost impossible to brew coffee by traditional means on the front lines. In response to this, in the summer of 1918 the U.S. Army requisitioned the entire supply of G. Washington’s Refined Coffee.

By the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the army was roasting 750,000 pounds of green coffee every day and, with the advent of trench warfare and mustard gas, calling for an additional 37,000 pounds of soluble coffee a day (despite the fact the national production of soluble coffee at the time was 6,000 pounds a day). This was enough to supply each man with 1.12 ounces of roasted coffee each day.

The aftermath of the Great War had the largest impact on coffee. Because the war devastated most of Europe’s economies and infrastructures, the United States remained the top coffee buyer in the world. Other events such as Prohibition, World War II, and a large part of the U.S. population (returning soldiers) not wanting to go without coffee would go on to see this continue to the present day (if you don’t count the EU). Soldiers have taken coffee into battle with them throughout history, but this time it was waiting for them back home, too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Foster is the director of wholesale education and training at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis. Intermediate and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He has also competed on the regional and national levels of the U.S. Brewers Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to put his face in all those things. You can contact Matt here or follow him on Instagram.

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