In the nineteenth century, the port of New Orleans grew from a colonial supply depot into the second largest port in the country and the fourth largest in the world during the 1840s. European explorers and traders dispersed the centuries-old practices of coffee cultivation and consumption from the Middle East to Europe, then to the Americas. During the eighteenth century, New Orleans began receiving its first shipments of green coffee from Cuba and other Caribbean Islands. As the city and commerce grew, more coffee arrived from the Caribbean and South America.
The Civil War and Reconstruction’s impact on the port of New Orleans was catastrophic. The city treasury was wiped out, leaving few funds to repair the docks and build covered wharves to store incoming goods. New Orleans also faced threats of yellow fever, which shut down the port for months at a time and forced importers to take their cargoes elsewhere. City lore dictates that during the Civil War, Louisianans looked to adding chicory root to their coffee when Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans. With shipments coming to a halt, desperate New Orleanians began mixing things with coffee to stretch out the supply. While chicory alone cannot provide a caffeine buzz, the grounds taste similar and can be sold at a lower rate. Just as the French had done during the blockades of the Napoleonic wars, it is said that resourceful New Orleanians stretched their precious stock of imported coffee by mixing it with ground, roasted chicory root, which could be grown locally. Though a (possibly fabled) invention of wartime necessity, the chicory blend was embraced for the mellow caramel undertones and smooth texture it added to coffee. Now a tradition deeply rooted in the city’s culture, the locals and tourists alike enjoy the unique blend of coffee now commonly associated with New Orleans.
During the 1920s, “the coffee break” had not yet become a part of the daily ritual of American workers. In New Orleans, “where business was said to have taken a secondary role to pleasure” the mid-morning break was becoming a necessity. In 1928, literary icon, Lyle Saxon, wrote in Fabulous New Orleans:
“It is no unusual thing for a businessman to say casually: ‘Well, let's go and get a cup of coffee,’ as a visitor in his office is making ready to depart. It is a little thing perhaps, this drinking of coffee at odd times, but it is very characteristic of the city itself. Men in New Orleans give more thought to the business of living than men in other American cities… I have heard Northern businessmen complain bitterly about these little interruptions for coffee or what-not.”
Currently, New Orleans is one of the top coffee ports in North America. Beans are shipped to New Orleans in large containers from over thirty coffee-producing countries. Once processed in New Orleans, the coffee is shipped out to large bulk roasters and smaller specialty roasters around the world. A dozen local coffee roasters prepare products for 20 national and local brands, while Folgers now operates the world’s largest coffee roasting plant a few miles downriver from the French Quarter. The aroma of roasting coffee is a familiar scent, known by locals as “the bridge smell”, in the mornings in many of New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods.
The Original Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand was established in 1862 in the New Orleans French Market. The Cafe is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, closing only on Christmas Day or in preparation for an unwelcome hurricane. For many visiting the Crescent City, a stop at Cafe du Monde has served as a delightfully delicious introduction to the coffee traditions of New Orleans. The freshly powdered beignets and café au lait have been popular since its opening, attracting anyone from day laborers on a coffee break to debutantes on their way home from a ball. “The original menu consisted of dark roasted coffee with chicory, beignets, white and chocolate milk, and freshly squeezed orange juice. The coffee is served black or au lait, meaning that it is mixed half and half with hot milk.” Beignets are square French-style doughnuts, generously covered with powdered sugar. In 1988, iced coffee and soft drinks were introduced to the cafe. The establishment remains an important part of local culture, as new locations have spread further from the city into suburban areas to reach new audiences.