The American Revolution (1775 – 1783), or the American War of Independence depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on, was the birth of a nation and a soon to be super power. The names George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams all realized their immortalities’ during this time, and the people named as such steered the direction of history with their actions. It was a period of giants and grand events. Indeed, one of the most memorable events that led to the outbreak of war is often cited as the main reason why coffee became the drink of the colonies. This is not untrue, but neither is it the entire picture. The move from the leaves to the beans happened in stages, on many fronts, and required a more practical reason than a war to remain permanent.
We Came to Party
In the years leading up to the war a number of Acts were passed by Parliament, all of which were designed to do two primary things. The first was to build revenue. Britain was horribly in debt from the Seven Years War, their conquests in India, and their trade deficit with China over tea. The second was to assert British rule over the colonies. One specific set of acts, the Townshend Acts of 1767, forced colonists to pay taxes on British goods such as tea, oil, lead, glass, and paint. 1 In response, the colonies protested and boycotted British goods and the expression “no taxation without representation!” was born. Eventually the taxes were repealed in 1770.
All of them except for the tax on tea.
Britain believed tea was the one product the colonies couldn’t do without, and that it would allow them to continue their assertion they had the right to tax the colonies, representation or not. In response to this, during the years 1770 – 1773 coffee was drunk as a protest to the tax. However, many of the colonists were still very much tea drinking people at this time. They just weren’t willing to drink British tea and pay a British tax for it. Luckily, the Dutch were all too eager to meet their needs and large amounts of tea were smuggled in for those who still preferred the leaf to the bean. 2
Back in Britain, who’s treasury was still at record lows, the British East India Company was facing similar issues. They were Britain’s connection to India and China and all of the tea, silk, and spices that came from that side of the world. These goods combined with the taxes and tariffs the government collected from their importation played a major role in Britain’s economy. However, because of the colonists’ boycott and the Dutch smugglers, the company soon found themselves with literal tons of leaves rotting in their warehouses. In an effort to help save the company Parliament passed the Tea Act in May 1773. 3 This gave the British East India Company the right to sail directly to the colonies without stopping in Britain first and paying taxes there. The company was also given the ability to commission a limited number of merchants who would have the sole right to sell to the colonists. This lowered the selling price of the tea and both Parliament and the company hoped it would please the colonies and help line their pockets. 4
It did neither. Colonial merchants not selected were angry to be left out of the sales and many other people still felt that any British tax, overall cost be damned, was an affront to their rights. This seemingly underhanded tactic of luring people to pay the tax with cheaper tea made the boycott stronger than ever. Then, in the fall of 1773 ships loaded with British tea started to arrive in Boston harbor. At first the cargo just sat on the ships because the captains were not willing to unload, pay the tax, and then risk everything being destroyed by protestors. However, customs officers would soon begin to order the seizure of the cargo so they could collect on the taxes and then sell the tea. 5 Not willing to let the cheap tea hit the market and tempt colonists, on December 16th 1773, members of the Sons of Liberty and other patriots dressed up as Native Americans and dumped all 342 chests of British tea into the harbor. 6
It’s at this point that drinking coffee instead of tea became known as a sign of patriotism and support of independence. It should be noted though that the Boston Tea Party was not the only major protest to British tea in the colonies. In the same month, December, in Charleston, South Carolina a ship carrying 257 chests of tea had its cargo impounded for months. It stayed locked away until it was eventually sold and went on to fund a patriot rebellion. Another ship with British tea entered the Delaware River below Philadelphia on Christmas day. Upon entering the city, the captain was informed he would be better off going back to Britain, so he chose to do just that. In April of 1774 two ships with tea entered the harbor in New York. The Sons of Liberty seized the tea in one ship and dumped the leaves into the harbor. They then burned the chests to make bonfires in the streets. The other ship promptly decided to return to Britain. 7 The last tea party to be had took place on October 19th 1774 in Annapolis Maryland. This protest resulted in the burning of 7.5 chests, or 2,000 pounds, of tea while still aboard the ship it was smuggled in on, the brig Peggy Stewart. 8
The actions of resisting taxes and the wanton destruction of private property demanded a response from the British. Exactly 6 months after the last tea party, the first battles of the revolution took place at Lexington and Concord on April 19th 1775.
The destruction of the tea shipments had drawn a line in the sand, and coffee and tea soon embodied opposing beliefs, loyalties, and nations. Nowhere was this more on display than at the coffee houses. Even before the war started, coffee houses in the colonies were places where soldiers, merchants, politicians, philosophers, and other citizens of high regard gathered and discussed current events and matters of interest. These houses also functioned as taverns and inns, so coffee and tea were served alongside ale, wine, cider, and liquors. Like in other parts of the world throughout history though, the nonintoxicating beverages were always preferred for clear headed discussions and debates. So, with topics such as spy rings, Fabian tactics, a central congress with no authority, and war being the current events, coffee and tea became the preferred drink of cognitive patriots and loyalists. A two-storied brick coffee house in Boston would go on to become the most famous of the time.
“The Green Dragon, the last of the inns that were popular at the close of the seventeenth century, was the most celebrated of Boston’s coffee-house taverns. It stood on Union Street, in the heart of the town’s business center, for 135 years, from 1697 to 1832, and figured in practically all the important local and national events during its long career. Red-coated British soldiers, colonial governors, bewigged crown officers, earls and dukes, citizens of high estate, plotting revolutionists of lesser degree, conspirators in the Boston Tea Party, patriots and generals of the Revolution—all these were wont to gather at the Green Dragon to discuss their various interests over their cups of coffee, and stronger drinks. In the words of Daniel Webster, this famous coffee-house tavern was the ‘headquarters of the Revolution.’ It was here that Warren, John Adams, James Otis, and Paul Revere met as a ‘ways and means committee’ to secure freedom for the American colonies.” 9
Once the war was over both coffee and tea remained fixtures in colonial mugs and cups. In fact, as soon as drinking tea was no longer a controversial act the colonies began buying it directly from China as soon as 1784, less than a year after the war ended. 10 By this time though many people had become accustomed to coffee’s stronger flavor and more stimulating effects. In addition, it was also grown much closer to the colonies and by that virtue become the cheaper option. 11 This helped to propagate it among the masses, and so helped the importers and merchants make a tidy profit. In summary, the many protests to a British tea tax combined with the monetary gains to be had from the coffee trade (as well as a slight palate switch) were the major aspects of the time that factored into why the United States not only became a coffee drinking nation, but largely remained one as well.
Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Level 1 and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He’s also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer’s Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.
1. McCoy, Elin and Frederick Walker, John. Coffee and Tea. New American Library 1976 pg. 148 ↩
2. Lou Heiss, Mary and J. Heiss, Robert. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press 2007 pg. 23 ↩
3. R. Alden, John. A History of the American Revolution. Da Capo Press 1969 pg. 137 ↩
4. Tea Act ↩
5. R. Alden, John. A History of the American Revolution. Da Capo Press 1969 pg. 139 ↩
6. Lou Heiss, Mary and J. Heiss, Robert. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press 2007 pg. 24 ↩
7. R. Alden, John. A History of the American Revolution. Da Capo Press 1969 pg. 139 ↩
8. The Burning of the Peggy Stewart ↩
9. Uker, William Harrison. All About Coffee. The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company 1922 pg. 110 ↩
10. Lou Heiss, Mary and J. Heiss, Robert. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press 2007 pg. 27 ↩
11. Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. Basic Books 1999 pg. 15 ↩