History of Coffee: Part IV – Commercialisation of Coffee

For many connoisseurs, the period from the mid-19th Century to the late 20th Century is the ‘Dark Age’ of coffee. During this era, coffee lost its Middle-Eastern mystical charm and became commercialised and, quite frankly, ordinary.

When coffee was first introduced into Britain during the 17th Century, it was a drink enjoyed by every social class. While the rich would enjoy coffee almost ceremonially in their social clubs, the poor saw coffee as an essential nutrient, a hot drink to replace a hot meal, or hunger suppressant. It was only a matter of time, with the advancement of technology, that large companies would form to take advantage of the coffee commodity.

Traditionally coffee was roasted in the home or in the coffeehouse. A practice imported from the Middle-East was to simply stir-fry green beans in an iron pan over a fire till brown. Some coffeehouses used a more sophisticated method of a cylindrical unit hung above a fire with a handle to rotate the beans inside. Both these methods were only capable of roasting small batches of coffee, a couple of kilos or several pounds at most, which ensured that the coffee was always fresh.

However, with the onset of the industrial revolution and mechanisation, coffee roasting technology soon improved. Commercial coffee roasters were being invented which were capable of roasting much larger batches of coffee. It was now possible for the few to meet the coffee needs of the masses.

It was in the United States where coffee initially started to be commercialised. In 1865, John Arbuckle marketed the first commercially available packages of ground, roasted coffee. His brand, ‘Ariosa’, was sold over a far larger area then any other coffee roaster. Instead of being confined to a small area close to his roasting factory, Arbuckle was able to establish his coffee as a regional brand. Others soon followed suit and, by World War I, there were a number of regional roasters including companies such as Folgers, Hill Brothers, and Maxwell House. These companies offered customers consistent quality and convenient packaging for use in the home, but at a price: freshness. It could be several weeks, or even months, before the end product would reach the customer.

One approach to prolonging the freshness of roasted coffee was to glaze it with a glutinous or gelatinous matter. After the coffee beans had been roasted, a glaze would be poured over them, which would form a hard, protective barrier around the bean. Once such glaze patented by John Arbuckle in 1868, consisted of using: a quart of water, one ounce of Irish moss, half an ounce of isinglass, half an ounce of gelatine, one ounce of white sugar, and twenty-four eggs, per hundred pounds of coffee. Arbuckle experimented with many different glazes over the years, eventually settling on a sugar based glaze. In fact, Arbuckle became such a prolific user of sugar that he entered into the sugar business rather then give a profit to others for the huge quantities he required.

So why were customers willing to buy this coffee? Once ground, coffee quickly loses its flavour and therefore should be consumed as soon as possible (at the very latest within 48 hours). But this was the age of the brand, where consistency ruled king over quality. Local roasters would often produce excellent coffee, but they could also produce foul coffee, occasionally containing a number of adulterations. Customers wanted to trust what they were buying. They wanted their coffee to taste exactly the same, time and time again.

The first coffee brand to come to Britain was Kenco. In 1923, a co-operative of Kenyan Coffee farmers set up a coffee shop in Sloan Square (London), called the Kenyan Coffee Company, to distribute high quality coffee beans around Britain. Their shop proved very popular and their brand of coffee (renamed Kenco in 1962) soon spread throughout the UK.

Worse was to come to the brew known as coffee. As regional roasters grew into national roasters and then into international roasters, their pursuit of profit intensified. Traditionally coffee came from the ‘arabica’ variety of coffee bush. But in the 1850s, the French and Portuguese began to cultivate a different variety of coffee bush, known as ‘robusta’, on the west coast of Africa between Gabon and Angola. Robusta beans were (and still are) cheaper then arabica beans as they are easier to grow and have an inferior flavour. Coffee roasters looking to minimise their production costs started blending robusta beans with arabica beans in increasing quantities. They also used shorter roast times, to reduce weight loss stopping the coffee from fully developing its complex flavour.

However the lowest point for coffee comes with the introduction of instant coffee – a drink bearing little resemblance in taste to actual coffee. Although the first commercially produced instant coffee, called ‘Red E Coffee’, invented by George Constant Washington, an English chemist living in Guatemala, was marketed in 1909, it is Nestlé who are generally attributed with the invention of instant coffee. In 1930, Nestlé were approached by the Instituto do Café (Brazilian Coffee Institute) to help find a solution to their coffee surpluses. They believed that a new coffee product that was soluble in hot water, yet retained its flavour, would help stimulate World coffee sales. After seven years of research and frequent tasting, scientist Max Mortgenthaler finally achieved the desired results and, on 1st April 1938, Nescafé was launched, first in Switzerland and then later in Britain.

Some claim that it was the introduction of commercial television in 1956 that acted as a catalyst to the success of instant coffee in Britain. The commercial breaks were too short a time in which to brew a cup of tea, but time enough for an instant coffee. There is probably some truth to this claim as, by the 1960s, the majority of the tea industry started producing tea bags, an invention by Thomas Sullivan over half a century earlier (1904). Tea bags were seen as more convenient, simpler and quicker to use then traditional loose leaf tea and so could compete against instant coffee.

The coffee industry soon realised the association between commercial breaks and coffee drinking and started investing heavily in television advertising. Probably the most famous series of coffee advertisements were made for Nescafé Gold Blend. First aired in 1987, these advertisements focused on the sexual chemistry between a couple, played by Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan, acted out in a mini soap opera. The advertisements gripped the whole nation, featuring as frequently as Eastenders or Coronation Street as topics of conversation. This original series of advertisements ran for ten years, increasing sales of Gold Blend by 40% in the first five years (there were two further, less successful, sets of advertisements with different actors). Such was the profile of these advertisements, that they even featured as a news article on the ‘News at Ten’.

With the coffee industry focused on price rather then quality, it was little wonder that coffee sales became stagnant. Coffee drinking was now more about a caffeine fix rather then about savouring the taste, to be drunk in a break from work, rather then to be enjoyed over conversation or while reading the newspaper. Unsurprisingly the younger generations born in the 70s and 80s turned their back on bitter coffee, preferring sugary soft drinks such as Coca Cola and Pepsi for their caffeine kicks.

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