The dead of winter, a time when summer is on your mind, perhaps often. You imagine the warming rays of the sun and actually feel nostalgia for sweat. Yes, in the clutches of a cold winter we are apt to pine away for an idealized summer, forgetting about mosquitoes and sunburns. One of the last summer-time things on your mind might be iced coffee … unless you’re a coffee retailer. If you sell prepared coffee beverages to consumers, you’re starting to think now about cold coffee drinks and how they help shore-up what once-upon-a-time was considered the “slow season” for coffee drinking. No more. Would I say there are now a plethora cold coffee beverage options? Yes … yes I would.
From whizzbang concoctions that burn out blender motors crushing ice and drowning out conversations, to cold brew in a cold can, coffee has vanquished its summer slump by providing a cold coffee choice for every taste.
The grandparent of all cold coffee—if no longer the king—is simple iced coffee.
It’s hard to say how long iced coffee has been consumed, probably ever since you could find coffee and ice in the same place at the same time, but iced coffee started showing up in cookbooks and menu suggestions in the early 20th century and collectively the coffee industry in the US appears to have caught on to the fact that iced coffee could be an answer to the summer doldrums not long after the industry started to organize itself.
An article in the July 1914 edition of Simon’s Spice Mill, a magazine serving the coffee, tea, and spice trades, begins with the following verbose but very specific if also hesitant title and subtitle:
“Building Up Midsummer Tea and Coffee Business – Fictitious Conversations Between Enterprising Tea and Coffee Man and His Friend, Which Brings Out Several Possibly Good Ideas for the Brightening Up of Business During the Dog Days.”[i]
The fiction begins by describing how hot everyone in the city is, including our “coffee man” (note that this is emphasized by pointing out that our coffee man is not just hot, but “literally” hot), because it is July and the temperature is rising “ambitiously.”
Unfortunately, not only is our hero, the coffee man, literally hot, but business is slow. He’s not selling a lot of coffee. What to do? Well, there is always iced tea, but one cannot be passive, one must advertise. Several paragraphs are devoted strategies for marketing iced tea and then the friend asks, “What about iced coffee?”
Our coffee man shouts, “By George! Why didn’t I think of that before? Of course, I’ve tried iced coffee, and believe me, it’s fine, if it’s made right.”
In June of that same year, the National Coffee Roasters Association issued a circular to its membership entitled: “A New Thought! Iced Coffee! Strike While the Weather is Hot!”
For several years after that, promoting iced coffee consumption over the summer became an obsession of the National Coffee Roasters Association and its “Joint Coffee Trade Publicity Committee” (Joint Committee).
The Joint Committee created consumer targeted advertising and sent window decals to coffee roasters to distribute to their wholesale accounts. The messaging for the window decals included:
“A Delicious Bracer—Iced Coffee.”
“An Old, Old Drink in New Form—Iced Coffee.”
“When Your Collar Starts to Wilt, Drink Iced Coffee.”
“Cooling, Refreshing, Sustaining—Iced Coffee.”
“Try Iced Coffee and Get a Fresh Start.”
“In the Good Old Summertime Drink Iced Coffee.”
The Joint Committee targeted 100,000 soda fountain retailers, sending window ads directly to 25,000 and asking roaster members to help distribute window advertising the remainder. If you were a roaster you could buy a set of six window ads for 6 cents or 1,000 sets for $20, to distribute to your accounts. They also placed ads in soda fountain industry trade journals, a fun list that included the following magazines: Soda Fountain, Soda Dispenser, Fountain Profits, Druggists Circular, and Western Druggist.
This idea that roasters would help their retail accounts reach consumers was common but faded as the industry consolidated over the years into a handful of ginormous roasters. The few small regional roasters that remained were fighting for survival. With the emergence of the specialty coffee sector, the idea of roaster as consultant to retailer (and importer as consultant to roaster) reemerged. So, while the idea of a coffee roaster helping a retailer with marketing might not seem unusual to us now, it would have sounded like crazy talk in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Occasionally the ad copy tried too hard, maybe. A 1921 ad stated that coffee was good hot or cold, “in fact, all ways, a national drink with no remorse behind it.” While one is challenged to understand what is meant by “all ways” (tepid coffee?) “no remorse behind it” is clearly a reference to the recently enacted prohibition laws.
Another example of the committee over-selling its own work: “There is no field in the Coffee business which is capable of such extensive and profitable development as the promotion of iced coffee.” But they can be forgiven their exertions when we consider how dramatic the drop off in coffee revenue was during the summer in “days of yore,” when iced coffee was a new idea and we didn’t have blenders driven by tank engines.
Over time a key component of the summer iced coffee promotions from the Joint Committee became instructions for preparation. These evolved over time but eventually the focus was on brewing “extra strong” coffee and pouring hot over ice. More often than not, sugar and cream were part of the recipe. “Whipped cream adds a special fancy finish.”
It’s clear that in addition to trying to market iced coffee to consumers, the Joint Committee was trying to educate retailers.
“ICED COFFEE is not only easy to prepare and easy to serve, but it is very profitable. And the best of it is, you’re selling something you can depend on — not a new or unknown beverage, but one that is known and liked by everybody. The recipe it very simple. Brew your coffee extra strong and draw it hot from the urn into a giant glass filled with cracked ice. Serve with sugar and cream. That’s all there is to It! But it certainly does bring a pleasant jingle from the cash register.”
The National Coffee Roasters Association pushed iced coffee promotions for another decade at least but the effort diminished over time. With the dramatic consolidation of the coffee industry that followed WWII and the emergence instant coffee as a profitable industry segment, iced coffee became synonymous with instant coffee and the idea of pouring fresh brewed coffee over ice virtually vanished, to be revived, as so many ideals from the past were, by the specialty coffee industry.
To say that specialty coffee “ran with that” is an understatement. You could say that the specialty coffee industry has fully defined the term “all ways” that was so nebulous 100 years ago. Summer once was for coffee like sunlight for a vampire, but not anymore. We survive and thrive in all weather now, fighting literal heat with literal ice. The ice is all sorts of fancy now, but as you look toward summer 2019, don’t forget that a very simple extra strong brew poured over ice has been solving coffee’s summer for a long time
[i] Dog Days refers to the hottest days of summer, characterized by lethargy and inactivity, but the phrase is not named after dogs. It comes from the star, Sirius, also known as the “dog star,” which rises simultaneously with the sun during the hottest days of summer in the northern hemisphere. Not a bad name for a blend designed for iced coffee: “Dog Days Blend.”
Top photo by Sam Nam via Creative Commons