How War Has Influenced Coffee Drinking

Perry Luckett, CoffeeMan1

If you’re like my son and me, your most commonly ordered drink at coffee shops is the Americano, which consists of hot water added to two or three shots of espresso—with or without cream (half and half). It’s a great way to get brewed-to-order taste with less caffeine than typical drip coffee.

I hadn’t given much thought to the name, having assumed it was just a way for Starbucks and other coffee shops in our country to cater to the U.S. market with a drink named just for “us.” Turns out, the Americano acquired its name in Italy during World War (WW) II, and the catering wasn’t by Starbucks but by Italian baristas faced with a challenge.

American soldiers in Italy found the coffee not to their taste

Italian-style commercial espresso shop in Manhattan, 1942. Outside the city, few people were familiar with Italian espresso coffee during World War II.

Italian-style commercial espresso shop in Manhattan, 1942. Outside the city, few people were familiar with Italian espresso coffee during World War II.

Although rationing and shortages hit most of Europe and the U.S. during WWII, American soldiers stationed in Italy thought they had an advantage if they wanted a good cup of coffee. They were on duty in the most coffee-loving nation in Europe.  Or so they thought. 

Unfortunately, Italian-style coffee wasn’t to their liking because it tasted very different from the coffee they were used to at home. At that time, most Americans used the drip brewing method: pouring hot water over ground beans and leaving it to drip through slowly. The method produced a fairly smooth cup of coffee to which they could add a little milk and make a “white” coffee if they preferred.

 
Espresso in cup with crema_pexels-photo-1233528.jpeg

In Italy, the choice was mostly between espresso and cappuccino. Just as now in the U.S., an espresso consisted of one or two shots of very strong black coffee. Most Italians drank it quickly without adding milk, although many added sugar to take away the bitterness. The milder cappuccino added frothy hot milk to a cup of strong espresso, so it still was a much heavier drink than the “white” coffee American soldiers were used to drinking at home. 

Italian baristas created coffee Americans could cozy up to

Facing the soldiers’ distaste for Italian coffee, the baristas simply offered a cup of hot water on the side to dilute the strong espresso, which also gave soldiers a chance to “brew” to taste. Because this solution became so popular, baristas later simplified the process by putting the espresso in a larger cup and topping it with hot water. (They started with espresso in the cup so it would include the tasty crema.)  Soldiers could then add milk and sugar as desired. This style of coffee was referred to as a café Americano and was later shortened simply to “Americano,” as it is known today all over the world.

Wartime coffee rationing: not a cozy thought

Perhaps the strongest way in which war has influenced coffee drinking is rationing and scarcity during wartime.  Food scarcity is common during times of war as energy and resources are diverted to the military effort and transportation becomes more difficult. Like many important foodstuffs, coffee supplies were severely interrupted during both World Wars.

By the time WWI began, coffee was a popular drink although still thought of as a luxury item in the U.S. and across Europe. Coffee was brought from Asia and South America and taken to the key trading centers in Europe known as the Coffee Exchange.

By 1917 American soldiers were drinking coffee to maintain mental awareness and sustain their motivation on the battlefield. It's estimated that U.S. soldiers consumed thousands of pounds of the beverage per day. Because soldiers had to make coffee easily in the field, companies developed instant coffee brands they could prepare quickly by adding water.

One of the largest stocks of coffee was held in Hamburg, but Britain and France and their Allies could only buy from neutral countries such as Holland and Sweden, which imported coffee from their colonies and former colonies. Despite their large stores of coffee, German civilians also suffered from a coffee shortage because their government bought it all to supply the military.

A similar situation arose during WWII, this time affecting America more than before. Despite having coffee-producing countries nearby, the U.S. couldn’t spare the means to ship coffee from its Latin American neighbors. As a result, the U.S. suffered a coffee shortage and began rationing coffee in 1942 while surplus stock to its south went to waste. As with most rationed goods during the war, one usually could get them for a price, so coffee was available in the black market to those who could afford it.

 
Typical American family table during World War II shows rationing booklet and stamps for many food products, including coffee. From the exhibit Home Front: Santa Clara Valley's World War II Experience History Park at Kelley Park San Jose, CA

Typical American family table during World War II shows rationing booklet and stamps for many food products, including coffee. From the exhibit Home Front: Santa Clara Valley's World War II Experience History Park at Kelley Park San Jose, CA

 

Coffee substitutes filled some cups to cover the need

To satisfy their need for hot beverages, people fell back on various commercially produced and homemade substitutes. Chicory was a popular option, but almost anything they could roast and grind to resemble coffee was worth trying. They tried roasted grains—barley, roots, acorns, beech nuts—with varying success.

Apart from the less-than-ideal taste, none of these substitutes contained caffeine. To some, caffeine’s absence may have been a bonus because decaffeinated coffee was not yet widely available. But most probably lamented its loss in their regular cup of morning “coffee.”

Some of these substitutes have lived beyond their wartime impetus, and others have popped up because young people are searching for coffee alternatives. I’ll talk more about them in our next blog post.

Meanwhile, you can experience a bit of military life without the deprivation by ordering one of our camouflage Kup Kollars from https://www.koffeekompanions.com/kup-kollars-buy-now

 
Camouflage Kup Kollar from koffeekompanions.com

Camouflage Kup Kollar from koffeekompanions.com

 
Perry LuckettComment