Perhaps the most ubiquitous descriptor of quality used on the specialty side of the industry is “fresh roasted coffee.” We can be forgiven for thinking we invented the stuff. For decades the coffee industry moved so far away from selling anything that could by any stretch of even the most fertile imagination be considered “fresh roasted,” that when the emergent specialty coffee industry started offering (reintroducing) freshly roasted coffee to consumers, it seemed like a revelation. It sure tasted like a revelation. Freshly roasted, freshly ground, and freshly brewed, that was our triumvirate calling card. Properly roasted, properly ground, and properly brewed would come later in many cases.
In the same year that Erna Knutsen coined the phrase, “specialty coffee,” per capita consumption of instant coffee and per capita consumption of regular coffee in America were nearly the same because regular coffee tasted so bad in 1973. It hardly mattered which one you drank. Setting all other aspects of quality aside, just by selling coffee that had seen the inside of a roaster days or even weeks before brewing represented a profound departure from what most people expected coffee to taste like. With all due respect to our specialty coffee forebears, there was a lot of on-the-job learning going on in the early days and the lone fact that the coffee was fresh roasted carried much of the burden.
We didn’t invent the stuff, of course, not fresh roasting, grinding, or brewing. The industry lost its way for 40 or 50 years when it came to fresh roasted coffee (though “fresh brewed” was always a common, if not always accurate, declaration), but it seems we as a collective coffee mind have long understood that fresh at every stage of preparation is better, and specialty coffee was only harkening back. Many ideas some might consider the providence of specialty coffee turn out to be very old ideas. Below is a brief historical survey of “fresh coffee” as an idea, up to and including the publication of All About Coffee in 1922. Although relatively brief, it may yet belabor the point.
“Fresh Coffee, gentlemen, fresh coffee?”
-Coffee vendors in Act II, Scene I of A Bold Stroke for a Wife, a play by Susanna Centlivre, 1719.
“Here is the coffee, ladies, coffee native of Arabia … when used, it should be freshly ground.”
-Curcuma, a character in the play, The Persian Wife, by Carlo Goldoni, 1753.
“By mixing different sorts of coffee together, that require different degrees of heat and roasting, coffee has seldom all the advantages it is capable of receiving to make it delicate, grateful, and pleasant. This indeed can be effected no way so well as by people who have it roasted in their own houses, to their own taste, and fresh as they want it for use.”
-A Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee, by Benjamin Moseley, 1792.
“Coffee roasted for immediate use has a greater sense of smell.”
-New York Daily Advertiser, January 15, 1794
“Our own British plantation coffee, if thoroughly ripe, and obtained pure, wholesome, fresh-roasted, and ground immediately before using, will yield a most delicious beverage.”
-An Historical and Entertaining Treatise on Coffee, by G.F. Gerard, 1833.
“To have coffee in perfection, it should be roasted and ground just before it is to be used, and more should not be ground at a time than is wanted for immediate use.”
– Webster and Parkes in Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, London, 1844.
“The Arabs are such connoisseurs in coffee that they must have it fresh roasted and pounded each time it is served.”
-Five Years in Damascus, by J.L. Porter, 1870.
“The goodness of the coffee depends much on its being fresh-ground.”
-Coffee: Its History, Cultivation, and Uses, by Robert Hewitt, 1872.
“Endeavor to have fresh roasted coffee, and where practicable, grind it yourself”
-Coffee from Plantation to Cup, by Francis Thurber, 1881
“Just after roasting, coffee is at its best, and there are few odors so deliciously aromatic as that of fresh roasted coffee immediately after powdering. Those who wish to enjoy really good coffee must have it fresh roasted. On the Continent, in every well-regulated household, the daily supply of coffee is roasted every morning. In England this is rarely done.”
-Coffee & Tea by G.W. Poore, M.D., London, 1883
“As the coffee seemed particularly delicious in the native cafes I, after some trouble, ascertained the real recipe … a teaspoonful of coffee fresh roasted and ground at once while hot to a fine powder.”
-In the Land of the Lion and Sun, or Modern Persia 1866-1881, by C.J. Wills, 1891.
“How highly coffee is esteemed … everyone knows. The greatest care being bestowed upon its preparation, it is specially roasted, ground, and boiled whenever wanted, and therefore is always taken perfectly fresh. Roasted beans are never kept, nor boiled coffee either, when it is the least bit stale.
-Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, by Salamah bint Said, 1907
“It all hangs upon the word fresh—freshly roasted—freshly ground—water freshly boiled … the secret is, fresh, fresh, fresh, and don’t stint your coffee.”
-A character in Rosary, a novel by Florence L. Barclay, first published in 1909
“Thousands of dollars could have been spent in advertising and would not have been nearly as productive as the aroma of fresh roasted coffee at so prominent a locality.”
-History and Remembrance of Lower Wall Street and Vicinity, by Abram Wakeman, 1914.
“No less important is the fresh grinding, for coffee, even in the tightest container, depreciates in flavor very fast.”
–Pure Food Cookbook, by Mildred Maddocks, 1914
“Arbuckle coffee fresh roasted, ground or grain at a pound 19 cts.”
-Ad in the Semi-Weekly News, Chester, South Carolina, October 5, 1915
“Don’t hoard coffee. It is most satisfying when fresh. Fresh coffee is more important than fresh bread.”
-W.H. Uker, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, July 1919
“He would give them a special discount of 3 cents a pound and also the privilege of taking the coffee out as they needed it, a pound or two at a time, getting it fresh from the roaster. The plan has met with wonderful success.”
-William Engard, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, July 1919.
“This feature of the business has come into particular notice lately in connection with the company’s inauguration of branch plants at Knoxville and at Cleveland, for supplementing the work of the Baltimore factory in the production of fresh roasted coffee.”
-Trade Notes regarding the C. D. Kenny Company in Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, August 1919.
“Coffee being the official stimulant of the army, so to speak, it became necessary that it be as freshly roasted and ground as possible. One of the first problems was the fact that by the time the coffee roasted on this side, as it all was early in the war, reached the American soldiers in France it had lost approximately 50 per cent of its original strength and freshness. To overcome this, it was proposed to roast the coffee ‘over there.’ Cables were sent to Gen. Pershing asking permission to erect coffee roasting and grinding plants in France, and it can be safely stated that his cable authorizing this change may be called one of the victories of the war, as it made possible the issuing of fresh coffee for our fighting forces. I have sometimes rather jocularly remarked that after our boys got their coffee freshly roasted and ground that the Germans could not hold them back! The camps that did not have roasters were obliged to carry at least a thirty days’ supply, while in the more fortunate ones the men got their coffee fresh almost daily. The fresh roasted coffee was shuttled from roasting plant to company kitchens in heavy steel 50-pound containers.”
-From an Article, How the Army Got its Coffee, by E. F. Holbrook, formerly in charge of the Coffee Section, Subsistence Division, War Department. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, September 1919.
“Buy it fresh as you need it. Stale coffee is expensive coffee, no matter how much or how little you pay.”
-From an article on “Catch Phrases and Arguments Used by Some Advertisers of Tea and Coffee,” from Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, September 1919.
“Chain stores and wagon route dealers feature fresh roasted coffee and consumers are realizing more and more, just what fresh roasting means.”
-Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, October 1919.
“Instead of following the usual chain store plan of roasting at a central point and distributing to the various units of the chain, Mr. Sellers has installed a Burns half-bag rocking-cooler type roaster in each booth or store. The roaster is thrown to the fore, being placed in the window wherever possible so as to get the greatest advertising value and to emphasize the ‘fresh from the roaster’ talking point. In other words, Mr. Sellers has revived the old-time tea and coffee specialty store idea with innovations that apparently insure success. Perhaps the chief distinction between the two plans is that in the newer one fresh roasting is the keynote and the number of blends is reduced to the minimum.”
-From an article about the Pacific Stores Company in Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, November 1919.
“The secret of success, according to our experience, lies in having the coffee freshly ground.”
-Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, circa 1921
All the following quotes are attributed to William Ukers and are from the 1922 edition of All About Coffee. As we can see from some of the above, while Ukers worked on the book following WWI, he had been gathering the information—himself and from contributors—for at least 20 years, first as the editor of Spice Mill from 1902 to 1904, then as the editor of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal:
“The larger wholesale houses generally confine their operations to the section of the country in which they are located, but some of the biggest coffee-packing firms seek national distribution. In both cases, branch houses are usually established at strategic points to facilitate the serving of retail customers with freshly roasted coffee at all times.”
“If he is a good salesman, he does not permit the merchant to buy more coffee than he can dispose of while it is still fresh.”
“The British consumer, however, will need much instruction before the national character of the beverage shows a uniform improvement. While the coffee may be more carefully roasted, better “cooked” than it was formerly, it is still remaining too long unsold after roasting, or else it is being ground too long a time before making. These abuses are, however, being corrected; and the consumer is everywhere being urged to buy his coffee freshly roasted and to have it freshly ground.”
“Let us reason together, Mr. Grocer. Let us consider these facts about coffee: As soon as it is roasted, it begins to lose in flavor and aroma? Certainly. Grinding hastens the deterioration? Of course. Therefore, it is better to buy a small quantity of freshly roasted coffee in the bean and grind it at the time of purchase or at home just before using? Absolutely!”
“Roasting enterprises on a comparatively small scale would probably be much more numerous on account of the ‘fresh-roast argument, except for the fact that coffee-roasting machines cannot be installed so easily … The steam, smoke, and chaff given off by the coffee as it is roasted must be disposed of by an outdoor connection, without annoying the neighbors or creating a fire hazard.”
“At the 1915 convention of the National Coffee Roasters Association, Mr. Aborn reported that 4,000 copies of the committee’s findings on grinding and brewing had been given away … He told of tests which showed that while there might be reasons of commercial expediency for packing ground coffee, it could not be defended as a quality principle.”
Freshness remained a marketing “talking point” throughout the 20’s and 30’s, with an emphasis on marketing rather than the quality aspects found in many of the quotes above. Many roasters defined freshness by the quality of their packaging, and several even started stamping dates on their cans of ground coffee. But this was rarely, if ever, the roast date or even a “use by” date. In the case of large regional or national roasters, close inspection of advertising copy reveals that the date refers to the day the coffee was delivered to a retailer.
Following the second world war and rapid, wide-spread consolidation within coffee, the idea of freshness through superior packaging, and fresh brewing, remained; but any thought of fresh roasted and fresh ground vanished for most coffee consumers in America. Although there are many examples of smaller roasters that survived consolidation, or were established in its wake, the concept of fresh roasted and ground coffee was so foreign to most Baby Boomers that it appeared to them as an innovation and was easily adopted by various fresh food movements as a discovery.
As a movement itself, specialty coffee would introduce numerous innovations to coffee over the years, but “fresh roasted” was just the rekindling of a simple fact. Nevertheless, it provided an introductory niche for our industry segment.
Top photo: Sheldon Ferguson