From the June 2006 Idaho Observer:

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Coffee

by Lynda Latte

With everyone getting into the 4th of July spirit, has anyone ever wondered what transformed this tea-sipping colony into a nation of Mocha Grandes? While a specific event could be traced to that momentous occasion, coffee had already made some in-roads into colonial American culture.

Captain John Smith’s book, "Travels and Adventure" (1603) mentions coffee briefly. As one of the founders of the Jamestown Colony (1607), he was probably the first person to bring knowledge of coffee to North America.

Historians are not certain when coffee actually became available as an importable commodity; however, some believe that the mortar and pestle brought over on the Mayflower may have been used to grind coffee beans.

According to Ukers, the first solid references to coffee appeared in 1668 and 1670. William Penn complained about the cost of buying green coffee beans in New York, $4.68 per pound in 1683 (Considering the cost of inflation, the price for an entire meal at that time may have amounted to twelve cents!).

As time passed, the colonists began to emulate their European cousins and established coffee houses. Like those of the Old World, colonial American proprietors followed the current fashion and transformed their businesses into meeting places, centers of business activity, places where gossip was disseminated and, ultimately, into hotbeds of radical ideas. In reality, the "coffee house" was an inn or tavern that served alcoholic beverages, meals, and offered lodging.

One of the most famous coffee-house-tavern inns was the Green Dragon which was located on Union Street in Boston from 1697 to 1832. Daniel Webster referred to it as "the headquarters of the Revolution."

John Adams and Paul Revere were regular patrons along with several other conspirators of the Boston Tea Party.

According to Peter Quimme in The Signet Book of Coffee & Tea, "the early coffee houses did more to spread commerce and revolution than coffee, but the latter gave coffee a tremendous boost in an indirect manner when tea became an unpatriotic drink as a result of its association with the British and the noxious Stamp Act."

The English Parliament established a series of tariffs on imported goods into the American Colony to payoff debt from the Seven Years War. Due to loud protests, the Stamp Act was actually repealed, and the Townshend Act (1767) replaced it. Not only did the colonists boycott English goods such as tea, oil, lead, glass, and paint; they smuggled in cheaper Dutch tea. The Townshend Act, too, was repealed.

Quimme states, "The English East India Company did not want to lose its former tea revenues to the Dutch; it persuaded Parliament to pass the Tea Act of 1773."

While allowing direct importation and therefore a lowering of the price, the colonists had had their fill of taxation without representation. They were not prepared to pay any tax whatsoever; they began to organize demonstrations and protests.

New England housewives resolved to drink ‘Liberty Tea’ which is made with stalks of loosestrife plant, raspberry leaves, chamomile, or sage.

The Sons of Liberty, a secret patriotic organization, declared that since the law required the tea tax payment be made upon offloading it from the ship, then no tea should be allowed to land. While the ships remained in Boston Harbor, local customs and government representatives argued over what should be done with the unloaded cargo. On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty settled the issue. Dressing up as Indians, they dumped the tea overboard. The event was soon called the Boston Tea Party. Other colonial cities followed suit.

During the Revolution and immediately afterward, no American patriot drank tea. It became fashionable to drink coffee considering its close proximity, the Caribbean Islands, which were owned by French coffee plantation owners.

Eventually, Americans established direct trade routes with China. Tea importation and consumption once again became acceptable. However, coffee had "stained" American palates and, though initially just an acceptable alternative beverage for the patriotic citizenry, coffee has become a national obsession.

"Lynda" is one of our nation’s most passionate and dedicated barristas. Her insights into coffee and familiarity of contemporary coffee politics make for fascinating conversation. So, we thought our readers may appreciate getting some coffee background as a primer for the deeper aspects of coffee as a politically-supercharged commodity.

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