The Coffee that Won the West

and Launched the Dark Ages of Coffee

By Dan Gill, Ethno-Gastronomist


Coffee became the American beverage of choice following the Stamp Act of 1776 as patriotic Americans tried to distance themselves from the tea drinking British and onerous taxation. Prior to Reconstruction, practically all coffee was bought as green beans and roasted in small batches by tavern keepers or housewives. Green coffee beans can be stored indefinitely, but once they are roasted and their flavorful oils released, complex chemical reactions begin to dull their delicate flavors. Within a week changes in taste are noticeable and by two weeks after roasting the fresh flavors are gone and coffee starts to taste stale and rancid. Oxidation is the primary culprit and can be slowed somewhat by excluding air, but many other chemical reactions inevitably destroy the flavor and aroma of freshly roasted coffee and it becomes bitter and harsh. Americans of all classes and stations enjoyed the robust and stimulating flavors of freshly roasted coffee. There was little or no trade in pre-roasted coffee except in some larger cities and even then it was bought in small quantities and used within a week or so. Roasting coffee on a wood-burning stove or over a campfire is a time-consuming and often wasteful art that requires even heat and constant agitation, preferably in a covered pan. Great care must be taken, as a few burned beans will ruin the lot. Impatient Americans were ready for an easier and quicker way to satisfy their coffee cravings.


In 1865 John Arbuckle, who had dropped out of college to join his brother Charles in his Pittsburg grocery business, patented a method to coat roasted coffee beans with a gelatinous mixture of eggs and sugar. This glaze was designed to seal the porous surface of roasted coffee beans, preserving flavor and aroma while retarding oxidation. Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee soon became the first commercially successful pre-roasted coffee to be marketed nationally and "Arbuckle's" became synonymous with both the product and the brew. It was especially popular with cowboys because it was dependable, consistent and convenient. It could be ground and brewed quickly under primitive cooking conditions and tasted almost like coffee. Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee became known as "the coffee that won the West". Some cowboys claimed that "they weren't worth shootin' 'til they had their Arbuckle's".


The Arbuckle brothers were also marketing pioneers. Each bright yellow and red package included a redeemable coupon and a peppermint stick. When the camp cook was ready to brew another pot, he simply called out "Who wants the candy?" and even the toughest cowboys competed for the job of grinding the "Arbuckle's" to earn a sweet reward. The popular coupons could be redeemed for pioneer necessities such as handkerchiefs and razors or even wedding rings. Their successful marketing strategies and consistent quality launched a coffee empire that dominated the "Gilded Age".


The Arbuckles used so much sugar in their glaze that they built their own sugar refinery and packaged sugar for sale. The existing sugar "trust" took great exception to this intrusion and went into the coffee roasting business in retaliation. Millions were spent in the greatest advertising campaign in history, and coffee and sugar were sold at cutthroat prices and below cost, further stimulating consumer acceptance.


Arbuckle's survived the "great coffee war" but was ultimately responsible for the industrialization of pre-roasted and pre-packaged coffee that led to the 20th Century's being known as the "dark ages of coffee". Corporations more concerned with profit than quality shortened roasting times needed for full flavor development (the roasting profile), quenched (cooled) roasted beans with water, further diluting flavor, and substituted cheaper Robusto beans for traditional Arabica beans. Robusto beans, which can be grown at lower altitudes, add body to coffee blends but lack the richness of flavor and contain almost twice the caffeine compared with Arabica beans.


Early in the 20th Century improvements in packaging rendered glazed beans obsolete and Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee disappeared from the market. The company continued to package other quality blends, and vestiges of the Arbuckle legacy still survive. John created a special blend of premium South American beans that he called his "Yuletide Blend". During his lifetime it was made only for holidays and gifts. After his death in 1912, the Company released and marketed this premium blend as Yuban, now owned and marketed by Kraft Foods. Some time later, Arbuckle Bros. Company was sold to C.W. Post, the cereal magnate. His company later became General Foods and marketed Maxwell House. An independent company in Tucson, Arizona, recently revived Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee.


By WWI, packaged coffee had become a staple grocery item – consistent, uniform, mediocre and boring. Coffee is anything but boring. There are more flavor compounds in coffee and more variations in flavor than in any other food, including wine. Every coffee-producing region has distinct characteristics, and within a region or country quality varies by location, season, processing and production methods. Therefore, the ritual evaluation of coffee, called "cupping", is demanding and exacting. To complicate matters even further, roasting profiles and brewing methods affect the way any given coffee smells and tastes. Each coffee has its own "sweet spot" or degree of roasting that best balances the high notes of origin with the dark notes of roasting. The full range of coffee flavors can only be experienced if it has been roasted properly within ten days, stored properly as whole beans, ground immediately prior to brewing and brewed properly.


In recent decades there has been a dramatic resurgence in the appreciation and popularity of specialty coffees from artisanal roasters. Most independent shops feature freshly roasted Arabica coffees from around the world. Some even roast on premises and sell green beans to home roasters, but that is another story.


(c) Dan Gill  -  Published in Pleasant Living Jan. – Feb. '10

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