From New Amsterdam To New York City - Exploring Coffee History, Quirks, And Culture In The City That Never Sleeps

11 min read JUL 12, 2023

New York City: the city that never sleeps…and likely needs no introduction.

Whether you’ve visited (or lived in) this city or not, most Americans can name multiple landmarks and icons from NYC.

I mean, it’s the home of the Yankees and the Knicks. And, our nation’s leading Lady, one Ms. Liberty, stands tall and proud in this city’s harbor.

From Times Square to Central Park, from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center, Freedom Tower, and Grand Central Terminal, most everyone across our nation is at least somewhat familiar with several popular places, iconic attractions, teams, and other facets specific to the city.

But, what about these NYC details? Did you know…

  • NYC’s famous hot dog vendors can pay up to $300,000 for a year long hot dog stand lease in Central Park.
  • Toilet paper was invented in New York City in 1857.
  • NYC is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with more than 800 languages spoken.
  • The New York Public Library is the third largest library in the world, trailing only the Library of Congress in the US, with more than 50 million books and other items.
  • New York City was our nation’s first capital, in 1789.
  • The first pizzeria was opened in the US in New York City in 1895.
  • Pinball was banned in NYC until 1978.
  • “The entire population of the world could fit inside Texas if it were as densely populated as NYC.”

And, possibly the most interesting fact about this city, for all us coffee lovers at least, is the fact that New Yorkers drink more java than any other city in the US, even housing 3,389 coffee shops as of 2022!

So, today we’d like to tour America’s most populated city by examining its history, quirks, and culture as it relates to…coffee!

Coffee History In A New York Minute

Coffee History In A New York Minute

Let’s start our examination of New York’s coffee history with one more “did you know.”

Did you know the very first mention of coffee in America was in New York?

New York was first called New Amsterdam, and it was here in 1668 that the first mention of this beloved bean is recorded.

Coffee is thought to have been introduced here by the Dutch.

Throughout this time, drinking tea, the preferred British beverage, was viewed as unpatriotic for Americans, thus giving reason and therefore rising popularity to coffee consumption.

However, in these beginning stages, NYC coffee roasting, preparation, and enjoyment looked quite different than today’s scene.

In the late 1600’s women were the city’s original coffee roasters, and they did so from their own kitchens.

Explaining this process in her book New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History, Erin Meister describes early NYC coffee roasting as flammable and dangerous: “green coffee was scooped from barrels and bagged into greased sacks, ready to be pan roasted by housewives whose ceilings blackened with the smoke of the scorched coffee beans.”

It wasn’t until another NYC native, Jabez Burns, invented roasting equipment suitable for roasting coffee in large quantities that this in-home process received a needed upgrade.

And, as can be expected, such an invention soon led to the opening of coffee shops throughout the city.

Unfortunately for women, the original in-home coffee roasters, only men were permitted in coffee houses until the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In the early days of American coffee house history, New York City is said to have been a catalytic hub, with many of the trends we know and love today having their roots in the Big Apple.

  • Gillies Coffee is one of the nation’s oldest coffee merchants, opening in 1840 on Washington St in NYC. The company is still in operation today in Brooklyn.
  • By 1876 the United States was importing nearly one third of all the world’s coffee, most of which entered the country through a NYC port.
  • In 1902 the Porto Rico Importing Company opened in the Village and later went on to fuel the fad of flavored coffee (in the 1980’s).
  • William Black, founder of Chock full O’Nuts coffee, began his “coffee empire” in a small shop in Times Square in 1926.
  • While the espresso machine was invented in Italy, the first one used in America was in Cafe Reggio in Greenwich Village in 1927.
  • Throughout both world wars and the Industrial Revolution, especially in NYC, coffee was something workers could consume all throughout the day, for roughly five cents a cup. And, this is why java was often thought of as the affordable elixir which powered workers throughout this movement.
  • The Anthora, a now iconic symbol of (and in) NYC, is a simple, blue, to-go coffee cup created by Leslie Buck in 1963, imprinted with a design paying homage to Greek immigrants who owned many New York diners at the time. Now, the common sight of this small coffee cup is said to symbolize the city’s “on-the-go lifestyle.”
  • Even the expectation of coffee to be an affordable and easily accessible beverage is said to have begun in New York City where, during the Great Depression, soup kitchens often dispensed coffee and donuts to those in need.
  • From this practice, these expectations remained even after the Depression. And today, while multiple waves of change within the coffee culture have created sometimes expensive concoctions with a variety of origin and roast selections complete with equally exotic ingredients, it’s still possible in New York City for folks to get a simple $1 cup of coffee in the small, classic, iconic, blue cup.

But, apart from these points on NYC’s coffee history timeline, what sets this city apart when it comes to this beloved bean?

Big Apple Or Big Bean?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the common NYC nickname, The Big Apple. But, the more I’ve learned of New York’s love for coffee, the more I’m convinced that The Big Bean may be a more fitting label.

While The Big Apple certainly has a better ring to it, it’s still overwhelmingly apparent that New Yorkers top the charts when it comes to their love for beans…coffee beans that is.

Originally, coffee in NYC wasn’t enjoyed as the morning wake up call we know it for today, instead being enjoyed at dinner as coffee was then considered a luxury.

But, clearly this dinner tradition, in time, evolved into somewhat of an obsession…or more tamely stated a loveable need, as New York City citizens, in fact, drink more coffee than any other city in the United States!

Oh wait, maybe that’s why NYC is also known as the city that never sleeps.

Drinking 6.7 times more coffee than any other US city, at least 40% of New Yorkers have, at minimum, one cup of coffee everyday.

And, folks don’t have to look far to find a great cup with nearly 3,400 coffee shops located within New York City!

What’s more, from 2017-2020 an estimated 5 coffee operations opened in NYC each week.

Even fashion labels are known to open their own on-brand cafes in New York.

And, remember the iconic blue coffee cup we mentioned in the section above? First off, this historic cup is said to have gotten its name, the Anthora, only because the cup’s creator mispronounced amphora, the Greek name of the two-handled coffee pitcher printed on the side of each cup.

Secondly, this cup is such a New York City coffee staple, it’s likely many of you have seen it pictured, routinely, in many hit movies and sitcoms such as: Law & Order, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Wolf of Wall Street, and many more.

This cup is also representative of NYC’s coffee culture as it often contains the most common coffee orders within the city.

Sure, New Yorkers today enjoy the same varied and fancified coffee drinks loved by many across the country, but this city is still known for its “regular.”

And, a “regular” is just that…regular…a small drip coffee with two sugars and a splash of milk.

Of course, if you’re skipping dairy and sugar, you can always order a “plain” coffee in NYC which is simply a small coffee, served black.

Ordering a beige coffee here would signify the desire for a bit more milk than a regular. And, another favorite, a light and sweet, would deliver you a coffee with a lot of milk and sugar.

When ordering coffee at street carts, bodegas, and diners in NYC, don’t expect the traditional coffeehouse offerings such as macchiatos, lattes, and cappuccinos. Without the needed equipment and barista expertise, these coffee-serving locations are generally where you’ll find the above-mentioned “regular,” “beige,” “plain,” etc coffee.

Only in recent years, due to demand, have these locations (outside of traditional cafes and coffeehouses) offered plant based milks for customers.

But, what if you want something more?

What if you’re looking for organic, fair trade, sustainably grown, region specific flavors, and precise roasts?

What if you’re looking for artisanally crafted brews, espressos, choice milks, foams, and a specific atmosphere that invites you to take a moment to enjoy your brew?

NYC’s got a café for that too…

Coffee State Of Mind

Should Jay-Z and Alicia Keys ever go on a coffee tour through NYC, I’d imagine the following edits to Empire State Of Mind:

“In New York, their coffee’s what dreams are made of, there’s nothing they can’t brew. When you’re in New York, their beans will make you feel brand new, their mugs will inspire you…”

Hmm, sounds catchy enough, but let’s take some time as we close out today to test those coffee-themed lyrics and see if they accurately fit the NYC bean scene.

Of course, with nearly 4,000 coffee shops in NYC, we could keep this list going for days. So, we’ll keep each of these sections short, giving you a sampling before moving on to a different aspect of this city’s coffee culture.

First, is New York City coffee really what dreams are made of? Will their beans make you feel brand new? In other words, are the brews here really that fabulous?

When in NYC, if you’re looking for the best coffee, there are a wide variety of cozy cafes and coffeehouses, but if you’re looking for something a mug above the rest, check out any of the following:

1- Abraco

The beans at Abraco are sourced from South America and roasted in-house for peak freshness. The cow’s milk is organic, the atmosphere is busy, and the pour-overs are described as incredibly rich.

While they don’t offer an extensive selection of milks, and other add-ins, the beans are the freshest around, and that’s what keeps folks coming back for more.

2- Porto Rico Importing

Not a café/coffeehouse, but if you’re looking for sustainably grown, organic, fair trade whole bean options within the city to brew at home, Porto Rico Importing is highly recommended among locals for their selection and quality.

3- Sey Coffee

With their own roasting room in the back of the shop, Sey Coffee focuses on high quality beans and a Scandinavian approach to flavor.

Scandinavian coffee is generally lightly roasted to ensure the flavors of the bean’s growing region are front and center in the brew. And, Sey will delight your palate with these light, fruity coffee flavors.

4- Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee

Less fancy than the above location, at Jack’s you can find fair trade, organic, shade grown, coffee and espresso offerings as well as vegan baked goods and other artisanal products.

5- Devocion

Devocion is described as farm fresh, specialty coffee, from Columbia to cup in 10 days. How can they accomplish this? Devocion is an outpost out of Bogota, Columbia. And, in their roastery and cafe in NYC, the coffee beans arrive raw, from Columbia, within 10 days of harvesting where they are freshly roasted for customers. Yes, that’s about as fresh as it gets!

So then, is there really nothing NYC can’t brew? What kind of exotic, fanciful, rare, or truly exceptional selections can you expect on the streets of New York?

1- Felix Roasting Company

Slightly more upscale than your average café, here you’ll find more exotic coffee creations such as their deconstructed espresso tonic served in a Bordeaux wine glass filled with tonic water, a campari reduction, and lemon basil leaves. Once served, it’s recommended that you swirl, then sip from the glass before adding the rich shot of espresso.

2- Drip Coffee

The name’s a bit misleading, because Drip Coffee is anything but ordinary. The drip here refers to the slow drip from a hand-crafted pour over. Yes, you will have to wait just a bit longer for your brew, but owner Nigel Price explains that great coffee is worth slowing down for.

3- Everyman Espresso

Everyman Espresso is the place to go if you’re feeling adventurous. Some of their coffee cocktails include the panacea, an espresso with lemon, honey, and bitters, and the espresso old-fashioned with espresso bitters and sugar. Of course, you can find a wide variety of traditional espresso based beverages at Everyman as well.

4- Coffee Project

Aside from great coffee, some NYC cafes also specialize in great coffee art. At Coffee Project they serve a variety of specialty pour-overs as well as deconstructed lattes, and extreme latte art.

Each of their brews offered come from small cooperatives and farms, and they’re prepared by they’re award winning owners and baristas.

5- La Cabra

If busiest equals best, La Cabra just might be the cafe to try! A Danish coffee shop, both the coffee and pastries here are divine. The only drawback? The lines during rush hour extend out the door! I mean, I’ve always heard you should go where the crowds are when it comes to great coffee, so with that alone in mind, I’d say it’s worth a try.

Check out Lifeboost Coffee Medium Roast.


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