A CUP OF ‘JOE,’ PLEASE: Coffee and the U.S. military enjoy a long coexistence that transcends the passage of time

By Tamara Eastman, DeCA historian

Note: To see an entertaining video related to the history of coffee, click here.

FORT LEE, Va. – Many people reach for a hot cup of coffee in the morning to help jumpstart their day. In fact, according to coffeeresearch.org Americans on average tend to consume about 3 cups of coffee each day.

Commissary customers can stock up on their daily brew – be it national coffee brands or the Defense Commissary Agency’s own private label coffee through its Freedom’s Choice brand – and save money in the process.

“Coffee and the military go together like the commissary and patron savings,” said Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael R. Saucedo, senior enlisted advisor to the DeCA director. “And our customers can shop their commissary to get whatever coffee they want at significant savings.”

The military’s love affair with coffee go back to the Revolutionary War.

Before the war, coffee was the first choice of beverage for George Washington and his wife, Martha, and he became an importer of coffee. In 1770 Washington received 200 pounds of coffee beans at his home. Martha Washington considered herself a coffee aficionado and established her own set of guidelines for the perfect roast.

By the time the Civil War broke out, coffee was a very popular beverage in the U.S. and it was extremely popular among the soldiers on both sides. Coffee prices escalated as supplies dwindled. For example, according to civilwartalk.com, the price per pound in 1861 was $3; in 1862, $1.50 to $4; in 1863, $5 to $30; and in 1864, $12 to $60. By 1863, the Union Army had an abundance of coffee beans, with Union soldiers receiving 36 pounds of coffee each year in their rations.

When the coffee rations began to run short for the Confederates, they found ways to make coffee substitutes using such things as acorns, chicory, dandelion root and beans. Needless to say, it wasn’t anything like real coffee.

When Union soldiers moved out after a skirmish in the Northern Neck of Virginia the Confederates scoured the campsites for leftover coffee beans on the ground. It didn’t matter that dirt and debris coated the dropped beans, they were too valuable to leave behind. Some Union and Confederate troops met up and traded coffee beans for tobacco.

In Petersburg, Virginia, James Hall, a soldier in the 31st Virginia Infantry, wrote in his diary that they had maintained a truce with a Yankee unit for a few minutes and traded tobacco for coffee beans before they resumed firing upon one another.

The first time instant coffee was mass produced was in 1910 by George Constant Louis Washington, and by World War I instant coffee was giving the American troops a much-needed boost in the trenches. The Department of Defense was purchasing as much as 37,000 pounds of instant coffee each day for the troops.

During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels prohibited alcohol on all naval vessels and the strongest drink permissible on the ships was coffee. The disgruntled sailors weren’t too happy about their alcohol being eliminated and began referring to their coffee as a “cup of Joe.” To this day the term “cup of Joe” continues to mean a cup of coffee.

Nescafé was the first national brand of instant coffee released by the Nestlé Corporation on April 1, 1938, becoming an American staple during World War II. When the war started, Nescafé was producing small, lightweight packages of instant coffee that were inserted in individual Army ration kits and ensured the troops would enjoy a cup of steaming coffee wherever they went.

The U.S. troops in World War II found the Italian espresso roast coffee too strong and watered the coffee down, creating the Café Americano. The same small rations of instant coffee continued to be inserted into ration kits throughout the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The G.I.s during the Vietnam War made coffee using C-4 explosives as a heat source. Red Cross canteens served hot coffee to troops throughout both World Wars, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

Today, U.S. service members continue to love their coffee, and some military retirees have started their own coffee companies including Lock ‘N Load Java; Veteran Coffee Roasters; Black Rifle Coffee Company; and Ranger Coffee.



Photo caption: A look at the coffee aisle at Fort Belvoir shows a variety of national and Commissary Store brand K-cups. (DeCA photo)


About DeCA: The Defense Commissary Agency operates a worldwide chain of commissaries providing groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Commissaries provide a military benefit, saving authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually on their purchases compared to similar products at commercial retailers. The discounted prices include a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. A core military family support element, and a valued part of military pay and benefits, commissaries contribute to family readiness, enhance the quality of life for America’s military and their families, and help recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.