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The Incredible Influence of Coffee in the Military

For many in the military, nothing starts the day better than a cup of joe.

Eight years ago, a Marine walked over and handed me a paper cup of coffee. I can still recall its hot, strong, bitterly beautiful taste and aroma in that cold California desert morning before a unit of soldiers and Marines commenced training.


The Roots of Coffee

The coffee plant grew naturally in Ethiopia; its bean was chewed during long raiding expeditions.  Noting its quality of stimulating the mind and body, Arabians began cultivating the plant and selling the beans.

In the early 15th century, the Ottoman Turk were the first to grind coffee beans from which to make a drink.

“It’s all in the grind, Sizemore. Can’t be too fine, can’t be too coarse.  This, my friend, is a science,” explained Grimes as he made coffee in a classic scene in the 2001 movie, Black Hawk Down.

The results of the science of creating the taste and smell of coffee could not be denied; by the 17th century the beverage had made its way to Europe.

Coffee soon replaced beer and wine as the breakfast beverage of choice, and those who drank coffee noted they began the day energized.  

London – not unlike Seattle today – was home to hundreds of coffee houses, many of which served as meeting places for business people and friends.

The business of growing, grinding and brewing coffee beans grew, and in time it made its way to the Thirteen Colonies.


Coffee Joins the Military

The colonists drank tea and coffee; however, after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 that changed.

“Tea must be universally renounced,” wrote future president John Adams. Coffee intake dramatically increased.   

After the fight for independence, America grew in size and numbers, and the consumption of coffee kept pace.

In 1832 President Andrew Jackson added coffee to the military’s food ration.

During the Civil War, the government was purchasing close to 40 million pounds of coffee beans per year.

“The little campfires … would shoot up along the hills and plains,” wrote historian John Billings, “and soon they would be surrounded by soldiers, who made it an inevitable rule to cook their coffee first.”

In 1876 the first attempt at producing instant coffee was made, resulting in a concoction called Camp Coffee. Originally brewed for the British Army, it contains no caffeine and, not surprisingly, proved unpopular with soldiers.

However, coffee in the military was officially a staple.


Instant or Regular?

During World War I, a hot cup of coffee – instant or regular – provided a sense of home, comfort and energy to the 2,000,000 American soldiers who served overseas.

While regular coffee was a reality, an inventor named George Washington successfully mass-produced instant coffee. It soon became as popular as regular coffee.

“Soldiers learned to have a keener appreciation of coffee’s benefits,” wrote William Ukers in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in 1920.

Coffee sales skyrocketed and by the start of World War II, soldiers – referred to a GI Joe – and coffee were so well-known that a cup of the bean became known as a “cup of Joe.”

During the war, coffee was rationed; it was needed by the service members serving in the Pacific and Europe theaters.

Not surprisingly, American troops innovated with their coffee; one of which led to the creation of the Americano.

During the later conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, coffee remained the most desired drink of soldiers, sailors, Marines, Coast Guard personnel and airmen.


Dark, Strong and Hot

Since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service member’s desire for coffee has only grown.

“The darker the better, the stronger the better.  I gotta feel like it’s punching me in the face. Straight up black, they don’t call it ‘lifer juice’ for nothing!” one veteran told me.

His remark reminded me of that cup of coffee I shared with a unit of Marines and soldiers in the California desert.


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