Fairly compensating coffee farmers is a constant topic of discussion within the coffee community. Coffee is a product with a history rooted in colonialism and even today much of the coffee industry extracts profits from producing countries, leaving farmers scrambling to cover their costs of production. One way farmers, importers, and roasters address this issue is through community supported agriculture (CSA).
CSA is not new in coffee, but it remains a small part of the market. Still, there are a number of companies that are pushing the envelope of CSA.
Anticonquista Café, a family-owned farm and roastery with its United States base in Chicago, started off serving coffee from a bicycle at events and farmer’s markets. After noticing how many repeat customers they had and talking to other vendors they decided to try out a CSA style program.
“We were inspired by our fellow farmers at the markets with their CSA models for Midwest fruits & veggies, and with the reduced amount of waste from packaging materials,” explains Lauren Reese, one of Anticonquista’s co-owners. “As a family-farm owned coffee roaster, we felt a CSA model for our coffee subscription was a way to bring us (the growers) and the marketgoers together through education, mutual support and to share the risks and benefits of coffee production.”
At Anticonquista, customers enroll in advance for either a Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter subscription and then pick up their coffee monthly or bi-weekly. This model means that before the coffee is even harvested the company has customers signed up to buy it, and an almost guaranteed source of steady income throughout the subscription period.
Anticonquista’s system is similar to the style of CSA employed by many produce farms in the US. However, there are other companies that take the same ideas of community support and crop pre-financing and apply them slightly differently.
“Similar to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), a CFC subscription pre-finances a portion of our partnering coffee farmer’s crops in exchange for a portion of their coffee harvest,” explains Carol Tessitore, project manager for Community Funded Coffee. “Each quarter (every three months), we partner with a different coffee farmer, so subscribers have the opportunity to try coffee from several different growing countries and regions.”
Even within specialty coffee the market can be volatile, and natural disasters, political issues, or even something like the COVID-19 pandemic can cause large fluctuations in the price of green coffee. Paying for a harvest in advance has the potential to put coffee farmers and buyers on more equal footing, lessening the often exploitative nature of the relationship. When farmers are paid up front they are insulated from some of these price fluctuations, and the risk of a smaller or lower quality harvest is shared more evenly between coffee producers and buyers.
“Farmers receive advance working capital, gain financial security, earn better crop prices, and benefit from the direct marketing plan,” writes Reese.
The direct marketing aspect of CSA can be a chance to educate coffee drinkers on the process of coffee production. Since customers are invested in the success of a farmer’s crop there is a unique opportunity to educate them on coffee farming, processing, transport, and roasting. This education is often important because customers are used to readily available bags of coffee that they can simply pick off of a shelf.
“At a time when one can receive goods with next day shipping, it was a little tricky to get people to adjust to the timeline of coffee seasonality let alone shipping delays,” notes Tessitore. “We believe an ancillary benefit of the project is learning about global food system dynamics and food systems challenges like adverse weather events and global patterns that affect equity within the food system and global food security.”
Teaching coffee drinkers about where their coffee is coming from and creating relationships can also help create a loyal customer base.
“We’ve seen higher customer retention, but also new customers,” says Reese. “Our membership has increased 50% since we began our CSC program in early 2021. The increase in membership has increased our CSC revenue by 274%.”
Educating customers is an exciting opportunity, but it can take a large amount of time and energy on the part of coffee roasters. This is less of a problem for vertically integrated businesses like Anticonquista where the ownership team, spread between Guatemala and Chicago, can easily share information and have experience with coffee farming that helps them answer customer questions. However, for a business based in the United States like Junior’s, this education and communication can be much more time consuming, leading to higher costs.
The first year of CFC at Junior’s was made possible by an Oatly Big Idea Grant, but going forward with the program would require a much larger number of customers to cover the salary of a project manager whose main role consists of communication and education.
Still, the future of CSA in coffee is hopeful. There are small coffee CSA projects across the United States and the SCA award-winning and worker-owned cooperative Pachamama Coffee, which was founded in 2006, still operates its CSA subscription that started in 2011. There is also the opportunity for increased CSA partnerships between roasters and farmers. Drawing on their experience, Junior’s put together a guide for other roasters looking to venture into Community Funded Coffee.
“Community Funded Coffee is an open-source project. The culmination of the project is a “how-to” guide for other roasters to create their own programs. The name and branding is available for anyone to use,” writes Tessitore. “We’d love to see Coffee CSA’s happen all over the world!”
Elmer Fajardo Pacheco, co-owner of Anticonquista, also sees a future for CSA in coffee, especially for first and second generation immigrants to the US. He is eager to continue Anticonquista’s work and move towards a better future for coffee farmers.
“While we’re a very young company, we have a bigger vision of what we can achieve with our CSC program and the level of direct support our members can have with the farm,” he explains. “We must think in creative ways in how a CSA can promote dignity, improve overall health of both farms and producers and increase investments in agroecological production, infrastructure, and equipment.”
It would be too simple to say that religious people drink coffee because it’s not alcohol. When coffee was first commodified, all three Abrahamic religions had to contend with how this new beverage fit into each faith’s ideal way of life. Each religion had their opponents and proponents but most eventually accepted the beverage. However, acceptance wasn’t achieved without a fight (and some cheekiness).
Early legends of the discovery of coffee are familiar to us: 9th century Kaldi and his goats, who showed him the way by dancing after eating coffee cherries. The legend sometimes goes on that Kaldi took the miraculous berries to a local monastery to show to a monk, who was amazed when the berries helped him stay awake for midnight prayers. Unfortunately, repeated Islamic jihads in Ethiopia destroyed most of the churches and monasteries in the 16th century, so any record of whether monks continued consuming coffee and how have been lost.
However, some of the Oromo people of Ethiopia still practice Waaqeffanna, their indigenous religion that survived Christian and Islamic attempts at conversion. Waaqeffanna is a primarily oral tradition, so it often gets excluded from historical records, but the religion probably predates all the Abrahamic religions, and it includes a story about coffee. In Oromo tradition, their creator god Waaqa approached the corpse of a man who had refused to do his will. Waaga shed tears over the man’s body, and where his tears hit the ground, the first coffee trees sprouted. Today, roasting and drinking coffee is still central to Oromo religious ceremonies.
Our earliest written history of someone consuming coffee as a beverage come from tales of Sufi mystics in 1414. Sufi Muslims are a sect of mystics focused on the purification of the inner self. After working their day jobs, Sufis would join together for evening prayers, and often enjoy coffee poured out of clay pot beforehand, to perk up their energy. According to Tim Schenk, author of Holy Grounds, this developed into a devotional ritual which “involved coffee-drinking accompanied by recitation of aratib, the invocation 116 times of the divine name Ya Qaqi.”
The drink spread beyond the Sufi devout. Briefly there was some resistance—conservative Muslims believed that coffee should be viewed as an intoxicating substance and therefore banned, as alcohol was. The authorities latched onto the intoxication as inspiring sedition in the Ottoman realm. This link inspired leaders like Sultan Murad IV to crack down on coffee consumption with deadly force.
In response, legends that legitimized coffee for Muslims began to crop up, including that the angel Gabriel had given coffee to devout Muslims to cure disease, help them pray, or even to Muhammad himself when the prophet had a stomachache. Eventually, the drink was accepted and, according to Farshid Emami, coffeehouses were “ubiquitous in Ottoman lands” by the early 17th century. From there, they spread through the Arab world and along the Mediterranean.
Much like the Muslims before them, rabbis and Jews discovered the beneficial addition of coffee to late-night rituals. The Tikkun Chatzot is a midnight rite that, according to the Talmud, honors a dark night when God mourned the destruction of a temple. Even devout Jews hated the midnight start time though, and lobbied to have it start earlier until coffee was introduced the Palestine in the late 16th century. Once Palestinian Jews could drink coffee to stay awake through the vigil, it took off in popularity.
Questions of acceptability arose within the Jewish community as well, and continue to be negotiated. The initial debate centered around whether preparing coffee counts as cooking, and whether Jews could therefore drink coffee made by a non-Jew. As Schenck relates, this was settled by deeming coffee simply flavored water, which allowed it to become a legal exemption in Halachic law.
However, as milk, syrups, and decaffeination have joined the world of coffee, each has had to be negotiated. Today, syrups have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, with each determined as kosher depending on the process for the individual flavor. Tools like kosherstarbucks.com have cropped up over the years to help Jews keep kosher while enjoying coffee. As for decaffeination, the Swiss Water Process is the only decaffeination method permissible under Halachic law.
It was the Jewish community of Livorno, a port city in Italy, who first imported coffee to Italy and opened the first Italian coffeehouse in 1632. In fact, the Jewish community of Europe played an instrumental role for the first 100 years of the coffee trade. Unfortunately, they were banned from the trade around 1780 by anti-Semitic Europeans who had noticed that coffee could be lucrative and wanted it for themselves. Nevertheless, it was a man remembered only as Jacob the Jew who opened the first coffeehouse in Oxford, England in 1650.
The spread of coffee into Europe was met with ire by Christians. Early Christian opposition to coffee was largely due to its link with Islam. First introduced to Europeans during the religious wars we know as the Crusades, coffee finally started to gain popularity in Europe during the late 16th century. But when it was finally imported into Italy, the 16th-century capital of Christianity, from the “land of the Mohammadens” by Jewish traders, the drink was viewed as suspect. So deeply linked were Islam and coffee that Europeans referred to the drink as the “Devil’s drink” and the “wine of Araby” until it was accepted in Christian culture.
It was allegedly Pope Clement VIII who weighed in around 1605. Priests pressed him to ban it outright, denouncing it as “an invention of Satan,” as William Ukers wrote in All About Coffee. While Christianity has lots of rules about what adherents can and can’t do, there are few food restrictions in the faith, with the notable exception of meat on Fridays during Lent. For the Pope to ban an entire beverage would have been unprecedented. But priests insisted, claiming that allowing Christians to drink coffee “was to risk falling into a trap set by Satan for their souls,” Ukers relates.
Pope Clement, wanting to make an informed decision, asked for coffee to be brought to him first. He found the smell so appetizing that he tried a sip. According to Ukers, his amazed response was, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and making it a truly Christian beverage.” Clement VIII’s famous quote is probably cheekier than his real response, but whatever his official declaration, coffee spread like wildfire throughout Catholic Europe once the Vatican had given its blessing. Today there’s even a joke among Protestant leaders that once Catholics started to drink coffee and sober up, they became Protestants.
Puritans were one of the few religious groups to embrace coffee quickly. In England, Puritans had long protested the widespread consumption of beer, which they saw as leading drinkers into sin. (In cities, beer had long been replied upon as a source of hydration–potable water was hard to come by.) So the rise of coffeehouses as a center of civic engagement and community was seen as a big win for the anti-alcohol lobby. Coffee’s known stimulating properties also fit in well with the espoused Protestant work ethic, leading to a wholehearted acceptance of the beverage.
On the other hand, Mormons today abstain from coffee. According to LDS history, God revealed to Joseph Smith in Doctrines and Covenants 89 that “hot drinks”—loosely understood as coffee and tea—”are not for the body or belly.” Caffeine itself is not banned, so soda is acceptable for Mormons, but the LDS church recently issued a statement saying iced coffee is not. Apparently, Mormon youth were increasingly drinking iced coffee to get around the ban on hot drinks.
Coffee has come a long way from its early reputation as intoxicating, dangerous, and Satanic.
Perhaps because coffee is not seen as a drug, nor as “intoxicating” in ways that concern most people, it’s become the acceptable social beverage of most religious communities. Through the blessings of religious leaders, coffee became an acceptable way for people to connect outside places of worship. Once rejected by the conservatives of almost every religion, today coffee is arguably a religion unto itself, with its own unique rituals, worshippers, and devotion. For the non-religious, coffee’s ability to bring together community can fill the communal role that worship once played.
In June of 1922, William Harrison Ukers was gathering his thoughts.
He was ready to return final proofs of his first book, All About Coffee, to the printer and the time had come to write his preface. As might befit a volume that had taken 17 years to research and write—the first serious American book on coffee to be published in 30 years, its author noted—Ukers used most of the preface to acknowledge more than 100 institutions and individuals for their assistance. This thorough thank-you list foreshadowed what would follow, 800 detailed and at times pedantic pages that amounted to more than just a serious book about coffee. Far from being an exuberant boast, the title was a simple statement of fact. All About Coffee was… all about coffee, an exhaustive if not always wholly accurate encyclopedia on the topic, more comprehensive than anything previously written.
Published in October of 1922, the tome that celebrates its 100th birthday this year was arguably the most important single book about coffee of the 20th century. Long after some of the science, details about countries, and social customs found between its covers had become dated, much of the content remained relevant. All About Coffee was reprinted more than a dozen times after the publication of a second edition in 1935, and then underwent 20 years of revival printings by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) starting in 1993. If you own a copy of All About Coffee, chances are it is one of these SCAA reprints. In 2009, The Gutenberg Project scanned the 1922 edition and made it available online for free. Several copies of the 1935 edition are available online from the Internet Archive at archive.org.
“Even after a century, William H. Ukers’s masterpiece remains a singular and indispensable guide to the world of coffee. Few books on any subject can make the same claim. Its endurance across dramatic changes in the coffee industry itself is a testament to its author’s astonishing mastery of his subject, earned through decades of research and writing on the story of coffee. The amount of work that went into the book is all but impossible to imagine — yet it paid off. Ukers wrote a classic that is unlikely to be matched in the next hundred years, either.”
Publication of All About Coffee was a milestone moment for the editor of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, who everyone in the office, including his wife, called Mr. Ukers. He was marking 20 years as a coffee writer and editor. In recognition of his contributions not only to coffee but the grocery trade in general as a writer and spokesperson, Central High School in Philadelphia, where Ukers had received his Bachelor of Arts degree—to this day, the only high school in America with the authority to issue a BA degree—bestowed upon him an honorary Master of Arts. And yet, in 1922, at age 49, Ukers had not even reached the midpoint of his coffee and tea writing career.
An ambitious young man, Ukers began professional life as a seemingly frenetic journalist in 1893. He wrote for five newspapers over four years in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and finally in New York City, which remained his home until his death in 1954. In 1897 he found his field if not quite his position when he started writing for trade magazines like The Paper Trade Journal and House Furnishing Review, where he won his first job as editor. When he was made editor of The Spice Mill magazine in 1902, he’d found his niche. Coffee and tea.
The Spice Mill was founded in 1878 by coffee equipment inventor Jabez Burns whose company would become the “Burns” in Probat-Burns 100 years later. Ukers would later write that The Spice Mill was “the first publication in America devoted to the coffee and spice trade.” At the same time, the magazine was devoted to promoting the business of Jabez Burns & Sons. These types of publications were known as “house organs” and were distributed primarily to employees and customers. It’s been said that Ukers did not care for the idea that The Spice Mill was not a truly independent trade journal. In All About Coffee Ukers writes plainly about his time at The Spice Mill: “William H. Ukers was made editor in 1902, and he continued until 1904, when he left to assume editorial direction of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.”
This somewhat cryptic phrasing, “assume editorial direction,” has a companion in Ukers’ coffee chronology at the end of the book, where he indicates a bit of magic may have occurred in 1901 when “The first issue of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, devoted to the interests of the tea and coffee trades, appears in New York.” Sources that one would presume authoritative often state that Ukers founded the magazine in 1901. In some instances, it is said he tried to convince the Burns family to make The Spice Mill a true trade journal and when they refused, he went out and started Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. This particular version cannot be reconciled with Ukers own dates; however, it’s possible, maybe even likely given the somewhat vague language he uses to describe these events, that he worked as editor of The Spice Mill at the same time he was working through the start-up years of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.
Unlike The Spice Mill, which was produced out of the Jabez Burns & Sons building on the Upper West Side, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal had offices on Wall Street, deep in the heart of the American coffee trade, just a block from Lower Wall Street where “coffee importers, coffee roasters, coffee dealers, and coffee brokers conduct their ‘street’ sales.” This detail frames one of the endless golden nuggets scattered throughout All About Coffee, in this instance a historically contextual explanation of the difference between sales of futures and sales of spot coffee, which is bought and sold “on the spot.” Even for those who have little room for the traditions, manners, and customs that have been handed down over the years inside the coffee industry, there is value in understanding what lies beneath the structures, standards, and practices that we’ve inherited, even when we decide to set them aside.
Ukers’ claim that All About Coffee took 17 years to research and write is not inaccurate, it’s just a little incomplete. Those 17 years correspond to his years of writing and editing Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, which he dubbed “The Recognized Organ of the Tea, Coffee, Spice, and Fine Grocery Trade.” A good portion of the content found in his book was recycled from the magazine during what might be considered especially interesting times for the coffee industry.
During the 17 years Ukers worked on his book, over 4,000 coffee related patents were granted in the U.S. alone, including the “Burns tilting sample-roaster,” whose design remains ubiquitous in cupping labs today. Regular and significant advances were made in the science of decaffeination and the manufacture of soluble coffees. Overproduction in Brazil went from an occasional event to a chronic condition, causing Brazil to attempt various strategies for keeping coffee off the market and prices from dropping, and putting the U.S. government on a trade-war footing.
Among the greatest challenges to the American coffee industry during these years was the combination of the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906 and ongoing, relentless attacks on coffee from manufacturers of coffee substitutes, the primary culprit being C.W. Post (yes, as in breakfast cereal).
Post manufactured a coffee substitute called “Postum.” Exploiting some of the consumer fear that helped lead to passage of the Pure Food and Drug act, and somewhat ironically given the truth in labelling aspects of the new law, Post just simply lied about coffee. This is from a Postum advertisement:
“The woman who cares is watchful of every influence that bears upon her husband’s health. And her part lies largely in selecting proper food and drink. For example, when science says that coffee contains a drug whose constant use makes for premature old age, and whose reactionary effects cripple nerves and heart, she shelves the coffee and serves the delicious, pure-food drink POSTUM.”
Science, by the way, didn’t say any such thing. Post also claimed that his Grape Nuts cereal could cure appendicitis, but in 1913 when he was dying of appendicitis, he didn’t request a bowl of Grape Nuts.
It was this type of threat that helped unite roasters in 1911 to form the National Coffee Roasters Traffic and Pure Food Association, which would soon change its name to the National Coffee Roasters Association and, eventually, National Coffee Association. Ukers devoted himself in both his magazine and All About Coffee to answering attacks on coffee as unwholesome. The wounds remained fresh enough in 1922 that he wrote in his forward:
“Trading upon the credulity of the hypochondriac and the caffein-sensitive, in recent years there has appeared in America and abroad a curious collection of so-called coffee substitutes. Most of them have been shown by official government analyses to be sadly deficient in food value—their only alleged virtue.”
Although coffee was going through both challenging and innovative times as Ukers took on the editor’s mantle full-time at Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, it was coffee through the ages that clearly fascinated him as much if not more than any news of the day. The acknowledgements for All About Coffee indicate that much of the copious research that went into the book was devoted to the past. Half of the chapters and 40% of the writing in the 1922 first edition of the book address aspects of coffee history, from ancient times to recent memory. The book devotes many pages to stories about the trials and tribulations that coffee has endured through the ages. Given the context of his first two decades as editor, which included the World War I, Ukers seemed to learn and want to pass along what is perhaps one of the most important lessons for anyone who attaches their prospects to the “festive cup.”
Coffee survives. It could be argued that these histories, combined with the book’s comprehensive bibliography, constitute its most enduring value if not its most significant contribution to coffee.
“William Ukers was the ultimate tea and coffee man of his times, and his comprehensive history of coffee laid the groundwork for all future histories of the unique bean. He may not have gotten everything completely right, but his breadth of knowledge is a vital basis for all that followed.”
Groundwork that is more apparent from a distance than in context is that Ukers helped usher in the recognition of greater variety and specificity when describing the taste of coffee.
Two hundred years before All About Coffee, Humphret Broadbent wrote in Domestick Coffee-Man (1722) that underboiled coffee tastes “flat or sour,” and that spring water makes coffee “hard and distasteful” while river water makes it “smooth and pleasant.” 70 years later in A Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee (1792), Benjamin Moseley described coffee under various conditions as tasting bitterish, tasteless, insipid, coarse, rank, excellent, superior, disagreeable, exhilarating, delicate, and grateful. By 1872 when Robert Hewitt published Coffee: Its History Cultivation and Uses we see a pattern emerging. Negative taste attributes were gaining specificity while positive attributes remained vague: bitter, muddy, harsh, and astringent versus mild, delicate, and delightful.
Hewitt’s book is one of the “serious” coffee books acknowledged in Ukers preface, as is Coffee From Plantation to Cup(1881) by Francis Thurber, which expanded significantly on the coffee tasting vocabulary, using at least 17 words, including several words new to the literature at the time that can be found on the SCA/WCR flavor wheel today, like stale, woody, musty, and acrid.
While positive descriptions remained vague, a tasting vocabulary was emerging around which there was some sort of intrinsic consensus. Forty years after Thurber published his book, almost all of his taste descriptors appeared in All About Coffee, the single exception being the word “acrid.” Ukers doubled Thurber’s lexicon, using twice as many words to talk about coffee’s flavors. With some subtle variations in usage, all of the terms can be found in Ukers’ 1935 edition as well, “rubbery” being the only obvious addition. Oddly, rubbery is not used in a real world context. It can only be found in the Coffee Dictionary, itself new to the 1935 edition and accounting for eight of the 15 new pages of content prior to the index. The other seven new pages can be found, understandably, in the science sections.
The descriptions of taste found in All About Coffee sound incomplete to the specialty coffee ear because the purpose of “cup testing” at the time was to identify faults, not explore a highly differentiated product with flavor characteristics that need to be described on a bag and on a website in a crowded market. Even so, one need not spend long on the coffee aisle in any grocery store to find antique coffee taste descriptors like rich and mild and of course, smooth, which is at least 300 years old as a coffee tasting note.
Ukers followed up All About Coffee with over a dozen books on coffee and tea, including several travel books called the Little Journey Series. He even wrote a novel set around the time of the Boston Tea Party titled Rosemary and Briar Sweet: An Eighteenth Century Romance of John Company and Young America. According to James Quinn, who succeeded Ukers as editor and eventually publisher of Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, all of Ukers’ books were successful except for the novel. In 1935, the same year he updated All About Coffee, Ukers published another monumental work, All About Tea, a two volume set held in the same regard by tea professional over the years as his coffee opus is by coffee professionals.
“Ukers is such a giant in the field of coffee it’s difficult to know where to start. The irony being that Ukers is pretty much where I always start if I am trying to research a new topic. If there is a title of ‘the last person to know everything about coffee’ it surely belongs to him. I can’t imagine anyone having the courage, let alone the knowledge, to write a similar tome today. The great thing about the book is that he gives such a comprehensive portrait of all aspects of the trade, particularly the commercial aspects, where he is strongest on the passage from green coffee purchasing to retail – the elements that are most obscured in other accounts.
That doesn’t mean that he gets everything right, of course. One searches the book in vain for any discussion of ethical issues or worries about sustainability in his descriptions of production at origin where labour is simply described as another input without any deeper concern for the lives of those involved (interestingly Francis Thurber’s Coffee from Plantation to Cup published back in 1881 displays more sensitivity to such issues).”
Beyond the value of All About Coffee as a history textbook, we should not assume all of the technical information is no longer relevant. Several sections of the book that discuss roasting and brewing would fit nicely into any discourse on specialty coffee today. Indeed, once upon a time, a sentence from Ukers’ forward served as a ready definition of specialty coffee for many specialty coffee professionals. Though we have as an industry segment set aside the simplicity of his words long ago for all the complexity we encounter in trying to truly differentiate our product, his words ring true in that they reflect what most of us find satisfying most of the time: “Good coffee, carefully roasted and properly brewed.”
Notes on the year Ukers died: The Library of Congress lists William Ukers death as 1946 and this is the most common citation. In a 2001 interview James Quinn, the second editor of T&CTJ states that Ukers died in 1956. However, according to an obituary that appeared in the New York Times, he died on January 19, 1954.
Notes on Ukers’ world view: It should be noted for those approaching All About Coffee for the first time that, like much if not all writing that tallies its age by decades, the world view is at times jarring and sad, though hardly surprising. Ukers not only fails to rise above the retrospectively disappointing social mores of his era, he seems to rush too readily into racist colonial hot-takes on indigenous populations for someone otherwise given to thoroughness and considered opinion in the context of business musings. While it’s tempting to intellectualize century old perspectives, they cannot be excused when more enlightened contemporaries where not exactly hiding their lamp under a bushel.
Writer’s note: I would like to thank the authors and prominent coffee historians Mark Pendergrast, Professor Augustine Sedgewick, and Professor Jonathan Morris for generously contributing their thoughts on William H. Ukers and All About Coffee to this article. For we happy few who delight inordinately in coffee history their books, cited above, are both sustenance and feast.
January Coffee sits on the prow of a strip mall in Boulder, Colorado. Next door is a hair salon, a Michael’s, a Petsmart, a Walgreens; the Flatirons reflect off its window glass the same way they do for so many storefronts in the city of 108,000. But inside is something kind of weird. Or someone; really, it’s two someones: Kristi Persinger and John Imig.
For Persinger and Imig, January the month is as important as January the cafe. They met in January (2017), started dating in January (2018), moved to Colorado together in January (2020), and formed what would be the idea for January (the cafe) in January (2021).
In Boulder, small businesses live and die on their ability to cater to students and outdoor recreators. Besides the outsized student population, which swells in the autumn and spring, there are twice as many sporting goods and gyms here per capita than in anyplace else in the country. 18–35-year-olds stalk the medians of parking lots in plush running sneakers, darting between the doors of fitness studios and immaculate 4×4 SUVs, which crawl up every thoroughfare into the mountains.
January’s success here is predicated on neither of these things. Instead, the cafe is built on Persinger and Imig’s decades of experience working for specialty shops up and down the west coast, from Intelligentsia to Stumptown Coffee Roasters and many in-between.
“We wanted to create an environment that’s inclusive and equitable,” Persinger says. “Where everybody’s ideas are heard and there’s an openness to share.” Which, in January’s case, results in a graceful work environment where pressure is diffuse and everyone, regardless of background, is given the support they need and is paid and recognized for their role in making the cafe work, and a cafe where every customer is served the same great coffee without pretense.
“Working as a woman of color in coffee, I haven’t always necessarily felt that my work environments have been that way,” Persinger says. “So we have an internal goal to make this shop the best place that people have ever worked. We can try to make it a little bit better for ourselves, you know?”
Part of the way they do that is by encouraging a culture of openness and honesty.
“I don’t want people to feel embarrassed about sharing that they’re having a particularly bad day,” Persinger says. “I want to be understanding of that, because we’re all human, and the thing that we try to do is just lead with empathy in all that we do, and that makes just such a big difference in how everybody interacts here. And then our staff are all stoked to be here and really proud of where they work.”
Imig adds: “We’re open about our mental health with our staff and, and when they’re open with us about theirs, we can be supportive.”
Another part is by paying January employees a living wage. “Because we’re a new shop,” Persinger says, “we didn’t have a fully fleshed out budget in the beginning, but we knew that we wanted to pay everybody more than the current minimum wage.” In Colorado, that number is $9.54 for tipped employees as of this writing. “And we just kind of landed on a number that we thought we could afford to start, which right now is $13.”
“We started everybody at the same exact wage,” Imig says. Regardless of experience, their philosophy is that everyone at a shop “pulls their weight equally. Every job in the cafe is important and just as hard as another.” Just because one person’s a trained barista doesn’t mean that their colleague on register is doing any less. It also means tips are pooled and distributed evenly across employees.
And thought they haven’t fully figured out what their wage structure will look like in the future, beyond their current team of 11, which is up from just the two of them on opening day back in May of 2022. Eventually, if January continues to grow and expand to new shops, Persinger says they “want to think about how we can provide equity to people who are in it for the long haul.” The reasoning is that if employees of businesses are expected to take ownership over the success of their shop, they ought to have actual ownership over some part of it too.
As a very young, independently-owned and funded cafe, January’s able to offer living wages in large part because of how hard Persinger and Imig both work. After funding the cafe on their own, not taking salaries during January’s first three months, and each holding down a second job, they now work a comfortable, combined 160-hour work week. Today they pay themselves barista wages and walk around with bags under their eyes and dad hats to shield them from the high-elevation sun.
“We were trying to give as much to the shop as we possibly could,” Persinger says of the first few months. “In order to allow it to function and make enough money to be able to pay our staff well enough and, you know, afford to operate.”
In addition to being a great place to work, January is a great cafe. Because for however good Persinger and Imig try to be as owners, they are also absolute dorks when it comes to coffee. Just huge honkin’ coffee nerds.
January’s a multi-roaster that brings in coffee from across the country—they always carry Onyx, and have featured roasters like San Francisco’s Ritual, Dune out of Santa Barbara, and Mother Tongue from Oakland. They operate in the Australian model, offering a full-service menu of homemade food that’s all great—they make almost everything in-house, from breakfast burritos to the vanilla that goes into their drinks.
“We love great coffee, we love amazing food,” Persinger says. “And we wanted to be able to have both of those things in our shop. Because I feel like it’s just a more holistic experience when you can have an awesome breakfast burrito, that’s like the best you’ve maybe ever had, and great coffee.”
Then, she gets a bit conspiratorial, lowering her voice. “The craziest part is that we are a headless ventless kitchen,” she says. “So we can’t cook anything on a stove.”
Imig seems to nod. “We have to do everything in ovens.”
“So that was the thing that makes this so difficult,” Kristi says. “It’s sort of literal insanity.”
And while it’s true that making a full food program work with only an oven and a panini press is a kind of insanity, it can’t really be said that that’s the thing that makes January so difficult. Sure, having to scramble eggs in an oven is inconvenient and hard, but from an outside perspective, what makes the project of January so difficult is everything. What Persinger and Imig are trying to do, and what they do by necessity, is just difficult. All of it. From opening their doors with two weeks of operating expenses in the bank to working a double before taking off to their second jobs—it’s all difficult.
“There are days when we want to give it all up,” Persinger says. “Because I’m so tired, and I can’t do this anymore. And then some days where I’m so incredibly grateful for what we’ve created and seeing our literal dream come to fruition. It doesn’t get any better.”
Shylee Mosali has much to be proud of. As the first female coffee roaster in Iran, and one of the country’s most reputable coffee experts, she has faced considerable discrimination and injustice—and her main weapon to fight back is with knowledge, expertise, and a focus on quality. Today Mosali is proud that she can have conversations about specialty coffee with her grandfather, and that nowadays, her mother drinks high quality brewed coffee instead of the cheap stuff.
The journey to this reality was no easy road.
Shylee Mosali was born in Qazvin, a town near the capital city of Iran. A nerdy kid who overcame her shyness only to protect her younger brother from bullies, she lost her father at age 13. With this tragedy came great change, and she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother who worked and went to school at the same time.
Mosali took on her mother’s independence and determination. She grew up hearing the story of how her mother, armed with her first paycheck, bought her grandmother a piece of jewelry to mark her independence. But with a sense of tradition and obligation, Mosali followed a path towards becoming a doctor.
After two failed attempts at the medical school entrance exam, Mosali settled for a Clinical Laboratory Science major and a dream of an independent life in a large city. Armed with an education, and against the will of her conservative family, Mosali moved to Tehran at the age of 21. “I did it but I had no faith in myself and I was sad and depressed,” Mosali tells me, “but if I had told even a little bit about this to my mother, she would have forced me to cancel my plans and move back to my hometown.”
New to city life, Mosali slowly began to exercise the independent streak she learned as a child. She met a new group of creative friends, started dating, and began hanging out at a local cafe. Her time spent socializing in a cafe would soon prove to be more formative than any of her school classes.
With no previous experience and no expectations, she applied for a job at Sam Coffee Roasters and got it. Historically, her family would have found it shameful for an educated and financially stable woman to work as a restaurant or cafe employee—so Mosali hid this part of her life from her family.
Her first training at work was about coffee—what else?—and Mosali stunned the room by earning the top score among 50 coworkers, including the baristas. “Only two months passed and I already had a great feeling of being seen and appreciated at work,” Mosali remembers, “which definitely helped to be able to ignore the negative thoughts about me working in a cafe.”
Because of her educational background, the chemistry part of coffee science and botany caught her attention mostly and triggered her enthusiasm about the world of coffee. Cafe work was tough and her circumstances felt a bit strange, but Mosali excelled at her new secret cafe life. She did a lot of research, read many books, practiced a lot during training, and continued to rise through the ranks at work. After a few months, she was promoted to a prominent barista position at Sam Coffee Roasters in Tehran.
With this achievement in place, it was time to end the secrets, and to proudly invite her mother to the cafe to share her new home.
The visit was joyful. To celebrate, Shylee Mosali bought a piece of jewelry for her mother, just as her mother did for her grandmother when she went to work almost 30 years earlier.
Years passed, and Shylee continued to excel at Sam Coffee Roasters. After 36 months of prominent barista work, the company chose Mosali to train to become its next coffee roaster. This was a major moment for Mosali, and also represented an historic accomplishment in Iran’s male-dominated coffee community.
The truth is, Shylee Mosali is the first woman in all of Iran to work professionally as a coffee roaster, and for a nationally recognized, prominent company like Sam Coffee Roasters, the impact cannot be overstated. “I felt all that effort and hard work finally paid back,” she says. “It was a dream come true for sure!”
As Iran’s first female-identified roaster, Mosali sees herself as a node for future change in the country’s growing coffee industry. Mosali believes all human beings are equal and capable; this sentiment draws no line or distinction between men and women. She instead prefers to be evaluated for the quality of her work and expertise rather than her position as a woman. She also rejects the novelty that comes with roasting in Iran and instead sees coffee as an international phenomenon with no border.
“I strongly believe having sexist views in my profession or even limiting myself to a specific geographical location does nothing good for anyone. This can’t stop me from pursuing my dreams.”
Her curious and rebellious character is what led her to break social norms and taboos around cafe culture and coffee consumption, but for her, it doesn’t stop at Sam Coffee Roasters. With dreams of working for a big multinational coffee roastery chain and eventually starting her own small boutique roastery—perhaps far from Tehran—she strives to motivate and educate the next generation of Shylees in Iran. Until then, she’ll stay deep in the science of coffee, pushing boundaries, obsessing over flavors, and savoring her own quality time with the fruits of possibility.
Shahriar Azimi is a coffee professional and freelance journalist based in Tehran. This is Shahriar Azimi’s first feature for Spudge.
One of the most cinematic, atmospheric experiences you can have right now in the world of coffee is available 24 hours a day, completely free of charge, right inside your pocket. It’s on Instagram; specifically the Instagram of Gilly Brew Bar, a coffee company very much unlike any other coffee company I’ve come to know in my decade-plus reporting on the specialty coffee industry.
“We are not a coffee shop”, Gilly declares proudly, and frequently, on its official website and across social media. On the internet, Gilly feels as much like a literary or theosophical intellectual project as it does a beverage emporium. In the actual bar, you’ll find a dazzling seasonal rotation of drinks, each one anchored with intent and meaning evoking past and present thought leadership, reconfiguring coffee’s role from a status symbol or desultory consumption habit into something that echoes with deeper meaning: spiritual, health, mind, soul.
At first, it feels like doublespeak to say “We are not a coffee shop”, a Magritte-esque intentional absurdity: Ceci n’est pas une cafe. But interrogate this and you’ll see that Gilly’s founders, Daniel Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas, are building towards the intentional dissolution of long-established hierarchies, boundaries, and barriers presented by the traditional cafe experience. A reimagining of what coffee is, who it’s for, and how we experience it.
It’s an overused trope—”disruption”—the idea that entrepreneurs of any generation (though it’s been especially abused by Millennials and Gen Z) are building an approach to business culture that shatters preconceived norms and notions about, well, everything, from history to economics to culture. I say this by way of explaining that I don’t take using the term lightly; if you’re going to call someone disruptive in this day and age, you had better mean it and be able to back it up.
This is what Gilly is. They’re disrupting multiple threads in the modern coffee space with dazzlingly fluent simultaneity. We saw a spark of this in 2019, when Daniel Brown was nominated to the inaugural class of the Sprudge Twenty project, and have followed along in the years since as Gilly’s work has bloomed and blossomed. Today, perched on the precipice of opening their second full-time location, and going from strength to strength operating wildly popular pop-ups, the original Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain stands in rare air for the American coffee experience. It’s simply one of the best coffee shops in the country, period, end of story—except it’s not a coffee shop. Remember? Look closer.
An in-depth conversation with Daniel Brown is an event and a privilege, something we’re thrilled to give pride of place on this editorial platform, Sprudge Special Projects Desk. Read on for a gently edited and condensed conversation between myself and Daniel Brown.
Jordan Michelman: Daniel — this is really a pleasure, thank you so much for speaking with me today. We have time to stretch out and talk for this interview, and I have a lot of things I want to get to, but first and foremost: how are things going for you and your team right now around Atlanta?
Daniel Brown: Oh man! We’ve been busy, honestly. Things have been crazy. We never really fully shut down here, man, but it’s been crazy. Fortunately, a lot of things for Atlanta and the country are headed in a better direction.
That’s good to hear. I want to know upfront because we’ve been following really closely on social media: where are you at in the process of opening at Peters Street Station in Atlanta?
Peters Street is still in the works. And what I mean by that is, the space is built out, but the inspections have come along slowly, and honestly, the biggest hold up now is with the inspectors. Inspections are never fun, you know, but what makes it even more interesting now is that all of our inspections have been virtual, which has been really dragging out the process. As of today, we have submitted our application to the county, and we’re waiting for our health inspection, and then we’ll be good to go. There’s no set date yet to open, but we’re shooting for this spring.
Tell me more about what you’re going to do there, and how Peters Street will differ from your first cafe at Stone Mountain.
So we’ll definitely stick to our core mission, which is to reimagine coffee culture and to help other people reimagine coffee culture. At Stone Mountain one of the ways we do that is with our elixirs, which are uniquely developed drinks based on seasonal timelines; we typically introduce 5 new beverages every three months. At Peters Street, we’ll have the elixir as well but they won’t necessarily come out with 5 new ones every three months. We want our drinks there to look more like a collaboration with the vibe of that community. Peters Street is located in Castlebury Hill, which is an arts district with a very active artist community, and the building we’ll be in actually has a gallery in the back where artists display and sell artwork, so our goal is to create drinks that are more customized around the pieces you can view in the gallery. This means a drink may not be on the menu for three months; it might be much shorter, and it will create an opportunity for innovation and customization around the ideas presented by the visual artists.
Yeah man, I think that it will be an amazing experience for people to visit the gallery then try something inspired by the art they’re looking at, especially with people who really value art—we want to captivate those kinds of people who would spend 10 minutes soaking in a beautiful piece of artwork and then be able to appreciate our interpretation of that in drink form. That’s where I’m hoping this concept goes.
Back at your Stone Mountain cafe, “James & James” was the theme for your winter menu, which is based around the biblical Book of James and the works of James Baldwin. We’ll talk about the next season in a moment, but honestly, this past menu deserves some conversation and thought first, because it’s fascinating. Where did the spark of this idea come from?
Our approach to elixir seasons have always stemmed from where we’re currently at as a company. We try to share a story based on what we’re experiencing, and with the climax of all the protests in 2020, we thought it would be amazing to stay on that highlighting someone like James Baldwin.
During his career, a lot of people had a hard time trying to figure out if James Baldwin was actually an activist or just a phenomenal writer? I think people still struggle with that, but ultimately we consider him an activist, because everyone has their own style and way of doing things, and he was able to reach a particular audience that people like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King weren’t able to capture. Baldwin did that with what his strengths were.
The truth is, activism doesn’t have to look like what Malcolm did or what Martin did; they did the job their way but Baldwin did it, too, and participated in activism through his word. We wanted to highlight a lot of his work with these drinks, and then we found some really cool parallels with the Book of James.
Essentially, the Book of James is a rebuke to the church, and James Baldwin, his writing was like a rebuke of America. We thought it was a beautiful way to share those stories, and to highlight our own rebuke to coffee culture. There is a narrative we have been painting since the very beginning, the idea that, simply, “We are not a coffee shop.” People ask us all the time what that means, and the truth is, for a very long time, coffee culture has had many negative associations as an early sign of gentrification, as a culture of products over people, the snobby barista persona. Of course, not everyone is like that, but we knew we didn’t want to be defined in that way. We wanted people to understand that wherever a Gilly Brew Bar is, we want to be about championing people. Looking at it from a hospitality standpoint where we get to serve the community we’re in. That means we get involved, we go to city council meetings, we meet our neighbors, and we embed our coffee and tea program into the needs of the community.
There are some wild flavor notes on the James & James menu — the drink “Chapter One” is compared to “soup on the rocks”, the “Chapter Two” is a “Marlboro Red” — those are really fantastic and unusual descriptions. I want to know more about the process you and your team go through in building these drinks and notes: how many heads are in on that work? How collaborative is it?
Once we kind of evaluate where we are—in our personal lives and as a team—then we start thinking about certain flavors that feel like might help interpret the story. These are seasonal drinks with seasonal ingredients, above all else. Most winters, we tend to go a little more nutty or savory, to match the season. We’re a small team creating these drinks: it’s me and two other people, including Nephthaly Leonidas, who is the co-owner at Gilly. She is a huge part of creating the seasonal menus, as well as one of our bar leads, Yvonne TK, who since the beginning has always shown interest in creating the drinks and has really taken a lot of lead to help us establish these menus.
The James & James collection was pretty much built on our discussions. It’s crazy, you know—I think a lot of people assume we have all these themes lined up, but honestly once the season ends we take a sabbatical. We step away from the elixir for two weeks or two and a half weeks, so we can rest and feel out the season for what comes next. It’s not a big team at all developing these drinks; once we establish the storyline and the key ingredients then we involve the rest of the team to help us dial in and evolve, building out the brew ratios and recipes, but at the end of the day, it’s about figuring out the key things that are standing out to us, and we just build off of that.
As a coffee company, a cafe, a social media presence—”a brand” for lack of a better whatever—Gilly really seems to lead by feel and emotion. You wear influences and inspirations on your sleeve and it’s very connective. How do you manage this approach to emotion with the actual work of social media posting, or menu building? Is the fusion effortless? Is it harder than it looks?
It can be difficult at times man! Our Instagram has become like a billboard for the elixir that season, they kind of work hand in hand. We’re thinking a lot about storytelling through social media, especially with the second location coming: where do we want to go? What do we want to create for that location? How do we intertwine that work, even if we don’t have similar menus?
Something we want to do now is to establish our own YouTube channel, especially after being featured by James Hoffmann’s channel. That’s something we’re going to go heavy on for storytelling, including menu exploration, how-to videos, and more to give viewers an understanding of the story from beginning to end.
Elixirs are this huge focus of what you do at Gilly. Some people would call them like, “signature drinks” in the competition parlance, or maybe “coffee mocktails” — why is that word elixir important to you?
That’s a great question. You know, my introduction to coffee was more from a medicinal standpoint. As a child I grew up with asthma—my mom would use coffee to open up the chest cavity when it’s hard to breathe. It’s amazing how coffee can do that! Caffeine opens up your chest, and this really helped me. So from a young age, I was able to develop a mature palate for coffee, and when it came to opening Gilly, especially since I didn’t come from a traditional coffee work background or previous experience in a coffee shop, parts of how I understood this product was different. And I want to express that from the very beginning.
I decided to call these drinks “elixirs” because that word, to its true definition, means a kind of house remedy, medicine or concoction that’s made to help you recover from an ailment. Your grandmother may have made you chicken soup; for me, in my family, we saw coffee and tea as a kind of medicine, and I wanted to choose a word that would help express and embed that in people’s heads. Coffee is not just something you consume or enjoy for the flavors. We also want to express that it is a medicinal product, that can be healing to your soul. And the storytelling is all a part of that.
You said “mocktails” – to me, that’s an imitation of a cocktail, which is itself a drink that’s meant to put you under the influence. That’s different from an elixir, which is really more of a libation. If you follow that definition, a libation is a beverage that’s been prepared for a higher deity. We try and pay homage to the creator of this product we’re using now, how it’s cultivated by farmers. We like to point back to the idea of there being a higher source that makes it possible for us to be able to share good news through a drink. That has always been a part of this work for us, the community and discussion it facilitates. It’s about creating a beverage that’s healing to someone’s soul. They may consume it in five or ten minutes, but it leaves a lasting impression.
I reread your Sprudge Twenty interview today in advance of our call — that’s always fun, to look back a couple of years ago and see where we were at, and then be able to pick back up some parts of that. This quote stood out:
That’s fascinating; not many Sprudge Twenties are talking about caffeine excess! Is this topic still on your mind?
I stand firm on that man! I think with anything, it’s best to do things in moderation. That’s why I answered your question that way back then—I stand firm on it. Even something like water, as pure as it is and healthy, drinking too much water can actually be an issue, you know? That’s why for people who are professional coffee tasters, like Q Graders, people who are constantly cupping and tasting, they have developed strategies to take care of themselves. Caffeine has effects! Just being able to monitor your intake, I think that’s a principle that should be valued with anything.
Another thing you say in that interview is:
My question a few years later is, do you think this is changing? And as you approach opening a new space in the city of Atlanta, how does this thought process inform that work?
I feel like now, right now, we have a lot more focus on — the phrase is “mom and pop” but I think we mean smaller business in general — now that there are more small business coffee shops, and fewer large chains coming into communities, I feel like that’s starting to change. The cool way to try and create that balance is to be involved in any community you’re doing business in. For the original Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain, my wife and I thought it was really important to move to this community, to live here, even though it wasn’t what we actually *wanted* to do at all. My wife grew up here, and she was ready to move on, but to really help the community grow, we would need to do more than just serving the community by creating a dope coffee shop. We would have to get involved in a bigger way, to help make some of the necessary changes. There’s still a lot of racial tension that occurs here, and being a Black-owned coffee and tea shop, we knew that would disrupt certain things in the community, and so physically being here—meeting the neighbors, going to city meetings, building a relationship with city officials and council members—that really impacted our growth. People didn’t just look at us as this business that was trying to come in and change things for the betterment of profit. They saw us wanting to use what we had to shed light on some of the dark things this city is known for.
How do you measure that?
Honestly, and I can’t make this up man, but to this very day we have people who come into our coffee bar and say, “We scoped out the community and we’re thinking about moving here because of Gilly.” When do you hear about someone wanting to move to a community just because of a coffee shop? And it’s not just one kind of demographic coming in here—it is a huge, diverse representation of ages, ethnicities, young families, everything—people who tell us they love what we’re doing, and they want to try and get a piece of what you’re creating.
And what will that look like in Atlanta next?
With the Castlebury Hill community, it’s the same thing, man. We’re getting involved in the community meetings there, doing numerous pop-ups before we open, and letting people become familiar with our faces and names. We’ve done three pop-ups there already and I’m starting to know people by name. Those kinds of things play a huge role in this work. The only way you are really going to be able to meet the needs for a community is to first know what those needs are. And I think most coffee shops that come in and are profit-driven don’t necessarily think that way.
But to get back to your question—has the gentrification narrative in coffee changed—you know, I believe it will get better moving forward and has been getting better lately. I think a lot of business owners now aren’t necessarily trying to open multiple shops, and that will definitely help create that balance. When you have multiple locations and have to produce, produce, produce to meet demand, that’s where the disconnect happens, in my opinion. It’s hard to maintain a strong relationship with the community when you’re trying to meet demand.
You know, my goal isn’t to have 100 different Gillys around the world. It would be great to be able to share these stories with more and more people, but I have other ways I’m hoping to do that, and it doesn’t require me to open 10 stores in LA and 10 more in Chicago. To me, it’s more like, “slow and steady wins the race.” That’s what my grandmother always says, and I like to stay true to that. We have something here that’s such a gem, this concept, and my team and I, we want to be great stewards of the concept and not forget how we got to where we are. It all comes back to community. It’s a beautiful thing, man!
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism, a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards shortlist in the Emerging Wine Writer category, and a 2021 City and Regional Magazine Association Awards nominee in the Feature Story category. He is a co-founder at Sprudge Media Network. jordanmichelman.com
Once upon a time in Rhode Island, the boss for all New England organized crime lived and Godfathered in the city of Providence. The story goes that he and his cigar ran the third-largest crime family in the United States from a lawn chair outside a vending machine shop in Federal Hill, one of the city’s predominantly Italian-American neighborhoods. But you didn’t hear it from me.
Organized crime no longer dominates Providence. But a more enduring legacy has come from this neighborhood, in the form of a law, still on the books, that would have never been enacted if it were not for the arrival of Italian immigrants at the dawn of the 20th century.
Chapter four of Title 42 in Rhode Island law covers “State Emblems.” Rhode Island has 18 state emblems and most of them are what you might expect: flag, song, tree, bird, flower, fruit. A few are, perhaps, unexpected, like “state symbol of American folk art,” or “state shell.” Located between the state flagship and the state fish is emblem 15, state drink. Title 42, Chapter Four, Section 15 of Rhode Island law states, in its repetitive entirety:
“Coffee milk is hereby designated as the official state drink for the state.”
Title 42, Chapter Four, Section 15 of Rhode Island State Law
When it comes to state drinks, these United States are not very original. First, only around 30 states (counts vary) even have official drinks and in two-thirds of those, the official beverage is… milk, likely a nod to the importance of local dairy industries. The remaining state drinks are a mix of juices and soda pop, rounded out by strong showings from Alabama and California, whose official drinks are whiskey and wine, respectively. The official state drink of Indiana is water, tea in South Carolina, and Kool-Aid in Nebraska. We must forgive them; Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska, and if you want to be precise about it, Kool-Aid is the state “soft drink.” The state beverage is…uh, milk.
Nebraska notwithstanding, and setting aside the thought that we might just be talking about flavored milk here, Rhode Island has the most interesting state drink if only because it includes coffee. But there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of coffee milk. Outside of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts (where someone less diplomatic than me might say they suffer from Rhode Island envy), coffee milk is not really a thing.
It’s a super simple drink to make. If you’ve ever mixed two ounces of chocolate syrup with eight ounces of cold milk and stirred with a spoon to make chocolate milk, you know precisely how to make coffee milk. Pour two ounces of coffee syrup into eight ounces of cold milk, stir, and ta-da! You did it. Coffee milk.
Simple to make but not a simple story. To be both simple and complicated—maybe even contradictory and “hidden” at the same time—is quintessentially Rhode Island. These are fundamental attributes of my beloved adopted state.
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the Union (if every state was the same size as Rhode Island there would be over 3,000 states) but it has the longest name. The smallest state with the longest name has the shortest state motto, just one word: Hope. It’s a commodity here, hope is, and historically a necessity because Rhode Island spent most of its early years hoping Massachusetts wouldn’t invade to clean up what the Plymouth rockers, in their puritanical zeal, considered to be the garbage can of New England. Our state has been called worse.
Like coffee milk, the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, is not very well known outside the state but is considered by some, with good reason, to be the author of the American soul. Upon founding Providence, Williams created what was arguably the first true democracy in the world featuring a clear separation of church and state and aggressive religious tolerance. When he first paddled his canoe into what would become Providence, the Narragansett Native Americans greeted him with the oddest mix of old English and their own language, Algonquin: “What cheer, netop,” they said.
A rough translation of this multi-lingual greeting appears on cans of Narragansett beer today (the beer Captain Quint was drinking in the movie Jaws), brewed locally for 130 years: “Hi Neighbor,” is what the Narragansett were saying to Williams. Probably, you’ve never heard that story. Probably, you’ve never heard of Roger Williams. Probably, if you’ve ever heard of coffee milk, it is only because you live hereabouts or because you’re coffee people and everything coffee eventually catches your attention. Outside of New England, ask 10 people about coffee milk and you’ll get seven or eight blank stares.
Despite over 350 years of commitment to “openness,” Rhode Island seems to exert some type of centripetal force that keeps certain things to itself. Nearly 150 years after Roger Williams set down in writing, repeatedly, principles upon which America would be founded, he was virtually unacknowledged by the founding fathers of America, though they paid homage to John Locke, who studied the writings of Williams and often quoted him verbatim. Indeed, Williams has been called the “forgotten founder” of America. It’s almost as if Rhode Island is just too small to register in the greater consciousness of America, like everyone stops listening as soon as you say, “Rhode Island” because whatever comes after must be inconsequential. And yet, the state that offers no apologies for being called an island when it’s not an island, clearly has no inferiority complex. Rhode Island just doesn’t care what you think. Never has. We put a little sugar-laden coffee concentrate in our milk sometimes. So what? It’s this thing that we do.
The ingredients for the most popular coffee syrup that makes coffee milk reads like Buddy the Elf’s breakfast: High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, coffee extract, caramel color, potassium sorbate. Note coffee’s place in that line-up.
Let’s say you’ve cold-brewed a half-gallon of coffee concentrate. Just add sugar for, I don’t know, the entire time it takes you to read this article, and you basically have the coffee syrup used to make coffee milk. A mere two tablespoons of coffee syrup, all on its own, without the milk, delivers 100 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, and 21 grams of sugar. Add milk and it’s basically ice cream. The absolute defining characteristic of coffee milk is that it’s sweet to a degree that is addictive and wicked good. To me, it tastes like frosted corn flakes. To taste coffee milk is to like coffee milk. You don’t really have a choice. What’s not to like? It’s milk. It’s sugar. It’s coffee. In that order. If we’re being honest about it, this is the combination of ingredients that launched the retail segment of the specialty coffee industry, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise.
While there is stunningly little information about the precise origins and development of coffee milk, most people who think about such things seem to agree that it came out of the Italian-American community in New England following waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. At that time, opportunities for immigrants in New England, and Rhode Island, in particular, were connected primarily to the textile industry, which helped the smallest state become a powerhouse during the industrial revolution of the 19th century, but it was always a quiet power. A hundred years later, if you asked anyone to name the top three most powerful cities in terms of organized crime, it’s likely everyone would name New York and Chicago, but few would name Providence, which occupied the number three spot. So why doesn’t the whole world know about coffee milk? Maybe we just don’t feel like we need to talk about it.
The first generation of any given wave of immigrants are usually working class, and one theory speculates that coffee milk emerged as a way to make use of spent coffee grounds among Italian immigrants. If you decrease the water to coffee ratio and increase the steeping time you can achieve a syrupy extraction from used coffee grounds, but you’ve moved into the bitter solubles. The most ancient cure for bitterness is, of course, sugar. Let’s just toss a bunch of sugar into our recycled coffee grounds while it’s steeping to soften the edges.
After a few decades as a home recipe, coffee milk moved into the mainstream, becoming a staple at New England soda fountains where each “soda jerk” no doubt developed their own methods for creating a syrup, moving to fresh rather than spent grounds, probably boiling the concentrate afterward and, at that point, not being shy with the sugar. The beverage became so popular that the Silmo Packing Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began to bottle coffee syrup. Silmo is usually credited with being the first to manufacture coffee syrup, but if you snoop around, you’ll find that D. Abelsen & Sons, located in Providence, beat them to it by a few years with their “Abelsen’s Arabian Coffee Syrup.” Rhode Island’s Eclipse Coffee Syrups began distribution in the late ’30s and in the 1940s, the Rhode Island company that would become synonymous with coffee milk, Autocrat, began producing a coffee syrup that would dominate the market for nearly 50 years.
Autocrat acquired Eclipse around 30 years ago, just before coffee milk was named the “official state drink for the state” after a modest political tussle (the official state sport) but has continued to manufacture and market the Eclipse brand in addition to Coffee Time syrup. Regardless of what brand you pull off the shelf, the ingredients of the syrup remain sugar, sugar, and coffee; or, if you are a born and bred Rhode Islander, sugah, sugah, and covee.
The packaging for all three brands is a little anachronistic, throwback design styles that are unintentionally hip now. It’s impossible to buy a bottle of traditional coffee syrup in Rhode Island without feeling like you are engaging in a nostalgic act, maybe even an act of loyalty to a time and a place that has started to fade away. There are new and, by almost any objective standard, improved players in the market, like Morning Glory and Dave’s, with ingredients that are a lot less Buddy the Elf sugar-centric and more focused on the quality of the coffee. To each their own.
All I’m saying is, we’ve got your coffee milk right here, and we don’t need to talk about it, this thing that we do.
As a first-generation Mexican-American working in specialty coffee, I welcome the overlap of the two cultures. Mexico is located directly on the Coffee Belt, the portion of our planet located between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South—the only part of the world where coffee can grow and thrive natively. Even then, Mexico’s influence on coffee is far greater than most realize.
Have you ever stopped by a cafe and ordered a mocha or a mochaccino? Thanks to the Olmec civilization of Southern Mexico, cocoa was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Columbus made his debut. By the time Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, cocoa (and by extension chocolate) was in such high demand, it was seen as a gift from the Gods by the Olmec, and a spoil of war by the conquistadors.
With chocolate and other decadences finding their way into second-wave coffee, it makes sense that horchata would also find a foothold in modern cafes. One look at the bottled coffee aisle of any upscale supermarket shows that the sky’s the limit when it comes to horchata-inspired beverages. From horchata lattes to horchata cold brew, and even horchata chai, each interpretation is more intriguing than the last.
That being said, just because a coffee company labels a drink as horchata doesn’t necessarily make it so. As Mayra Aceves of Leche Co. so eloquently states, “You can’t just add cinnamon to [coffee] and say it’s ‘Mexican Style.’”
Mayra Aceves and Steven Mecedo are the driving force of the Anaheim, CA-based Leche Co., a Latinx-owned and operated cold brew company specializing in dairy-free milk alternatives. Together, they make all of their leches (Spanish for “milks”) and cold brews fresh daily, with a special emphasis on Latin American ingredients. “What’s happening now with coffee happened first with beer,” says Aceves. “A lot of these breweries were based in San Diego, with a big Latin culture there, [and] asked, ‘What is the consumer going to look like; let’s make it for them.’ None of these beer companies were owned by people of color.”
“It was mostly these chocolate-flavored stouts,” Aceves continues, “and none of them tasted like Mexican beers. Again, it was just chocolate and cinnamon. Horchata flavoring was just like a milky stout with cinnamon and vanilla, and you wonder—is that racism? You know. we eat other things, and we drink other things; we had to immigrate to this country and adapt to what America had to offer.”
“Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.”
Gilberto Cetina, Chichen Itza Restaurant
So what is horchata? Gilberto Cetina, founder, and chef of Chichen Itza Restaurant in Los Angeles describes horchata as being like mole sauce. “Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.” To paint a broader picture, horchata is a part of the drink family known as aguas frescas, literally translating to “fresh water.”
“Aguas frescas come in a wide range of flavors in Mexico since we traditionally used whatever we had available,” writes Gonzalo Guzmán, owner and chef of Nopalito in San Francisco. “Sometimes orange juice with a little sugar and water, sometimes tropical fruits like bananas blended and diluted, and oftentimes dried rice steep overnight in water to soften and blend into a milky version we call horchata.”
Aguas frescas, as we know them today, are the brainchild of one Doña Casilda, founder of one of the mainstay booths of the Oaxacan 20th November Marketin 1890. She is best known for a horchata variation that has since become synonymous with Oaxacan cuisine, utilizing a splash of red cactus fruit syrup, toasted walnuts, and sliced ripe cantaloupe.
Flor Heras, owner and chocolatier for Reina Negra, a chocolate bar in Oaxaca, Mexico, describes Doña Casilda’s recipe as el agua de lujo de horchata, or the horchata of luxury.
“The thing with horchata is that everyone can develop their own recipe,” Heras tells me. “But the basics of horchata are sugar, cinnamon, and ground rice. You must pre-infuse a night before to create a texture that looks like milk. But in reality, it’s not milk. People add milk to give it a thicker texture, but if you do your process well—of hydrating the rice, straining it well, and grounding it up well—you don’t need to add the milk.”
“Horchata is very traditional,” Heras continues, “and if you come to Oaxaca you must drink horchata as an agua fresca, not as a mix for another drink. I would never put it with coffee, as it does not sound appealing to me. Horchata has cinnamon, and cinnamon tends to kill all the flavors of many drinks.”
Most commercially available horchata coffee drinks in the United States use a coconut and cinnamon base to emulate the texture and flavor of the traditional recipe. It’s much less labor-intensive to substitute coconut milk with a dash of cinnamon than it is to undergo the traditional process that Heras describes.
Although coconut and cinnamon are both ingredients used liberally in modern Mexican cuisine, neither are actually native to Mexico. Coconuts can be traced back to the islands of the Polynesian Triangle and cinnamon to Sri Lanka. While all three cultures are known for decadent food and liberal use of spices, all three cultures also have their own pre-established traditions and values.
Horchata in coffee deserves more respect and recognition than what it’s experiencing currently—a dash of cinnamon or coconut milk does not a horchata make—as does any ingredient we choose to mix into our beloved cafecitos (Spanish for “little coffees,” specifically implying an endearing manner).
Not everything is horchata. But everything horchata is a gift from Mexico.