By Liz Williams, Founder & President
Southern Food andBeverage Museum
Louisiana has a long history with coffee. Regardless of the recent claims of other cities, the port of New Orleans has been the historic entryway of coffee into America. In the early 18th century, coffee was first shipped to New Orleans from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Once in Louisiana, it was roasted and distributed to the rest of the state and the country. Coffee spread from Martinique to other parts of the Caribbean, plantations in Brazil and Central America. Strong family and social relationships have developed between these countries and New Orleans based on the bonds of coffee.
Naturally, New Orleans became and remains a city with a strong coffee tradition. This tradition flows with the path of the Mississippi River to Acadiana and beyond, encompassing the entire state of Louisiana, which has led to many coffee companies developing in the state. The state’s first coffee houses, historically a mix between French cafés and taverns began to spring up. In those coffee houses, where the brew was often served with a shot of some kind of alcohol, people did business over a cup of coffee—a tradition that continues to this day.
New Orleans and its surrounding areas remains one of the largest coffee roasting sites in the United States. Somehow, we in Louisiana have taken coffee so much for granted that we have let Seattle identify itself as the coffee capital of the country. However, New Orleans and Louisiana holds that title, based on per capita consumption and coffee roasting and grinding. According to the New Orleans Port Record of September 1942, 4,030,276 bags of coffee were imported into New Orleans in 1941. The bags held 132 pounds of beans. In 1995 241,000 tons of coffee was imported through New Orleans.
Louisiana has two distinct coffee habits—the consumption of dark roast coffee and coffee with chicory added. Chicory, a woody root plant, was traditionally ground up and added to stretch expensive coffee. People of Louisiana have continued to drink this blend even as chicory has become more expensive than coffee. Coffee and chicory is not adulterated coffee, it is its own product that is dark and rich and slightly sweet. It makes a wonderful café au lait (coffee and hot milk); a large cup of café au lait is a traditional breakfast in New Orleans.
In Cajun country, coffee is an afternoon tradition. It is often enjoyed with a sweet, such as coconut cake or a piece of pie, all accompanied by conversation (maybe some gossip) among friends. This custom was practiced at homes where friends would visit with the day’s news. This afternoon treat is continued today, in coffee shops and cafés across the state. Another way to traditionally enjoy coffee in Louisiana? Served black in a demitasse after dinner. The coffee in the demitasse was often a stronger than usual brew, and was sometimes served with a bit of lemon rind and sugar.
Other traditions include the flaming drink popularized in fine-dining restaurants in New Orleans: Café Brûlot Diabolique. And what Louisiana child hasn’t been served coffee milk at least once?
Louisiana coffee drinkers have traditionally made a ritual of the preparation of coffee. It was made in an enameled pot with almost boiling water ladled over the grounds. After it was dripped it was served in cups that had been warmed with boiling water. While the coffee was dripping, milk was scalded, to be added to the coffee of those who drank their coffee with milk. One cup of coffee was made for each person. If someone wanted another cup, the ritual was repeated. Today, this preparation is seldom seen.
Nowadays, we drink our coffee made in an electric drip pot. In coffee shops, there are very special machines made to extract the very best from coffee. These machines have developed from beautiful espresso machines to modern electronic ones which are designed to make the perfect cup of coffee. Drinking coffee and the coffee culture continue to evolve, but those beans are still coming through New Orleans and spreading throughout Louisiana. We still drink more coffee than anywhere else.