Coffee, Coffee Everywhere, but Not a Drop in Boston

The recent water crisis in the greater Boston area, brought about by a massive rupture in a central water main, imposed many hardships on the two million people forced to boil water—or circle supermarkets hoping to spot a truck bringing in the bottled kind. With the taps shut off all across the city and throughout nearby suburbs until early morning May 4, the deprivation that was felt the most is the sudden lack of take-out coffee.

A cup of coffee has endless forms and uses: in a first date for singles, in a last-ditch study session for students, as an energizer or a relaxant, hot or cold, dressed up or straight up. Coffee has kept the US, and the world, awake and alert for centuries, often providing a handy between-meals social lubricant in the bargain.

No one knows where the story of the drink begins; ancient Greeks and Romans had no knowledge of it at all. The earliest history of coffee, written by Abd al-Qadir al-Jaziri circa 1558, records a drink called qahwa, which Sufis in Yemen drank to stay awake during prayer. The drink was prepared using curious beans, brought from Ethiopia by a Sufi named Dhabani. Since that time, coffee has overspread the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe, the US, and virtually the whole planet. There is even a coffee shop in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

In America, coffee shops are ubiquitous. As of 2008, there were an estimated 27,715 in the United States, with Starbucks alone accounting for over 11,100. (Compare that number to the nation’s 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants, which are so widespread in the contiguous US that at the farthest point from one— the middle of nowhere, South Dakota—you’re still only 120 miles from a McDonald’s.)

Starbucks is everywhere: bristling around Times Square in New York City (137 stores within a two-mile radius); inexplicably, next to the Harvard Sleep Clinic in Boston; and practically on top of the birthplace of Herman Melville (click “more…Street View,” pan right). The chain gets its name from Captain Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, in Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Specialty coffee has become a juggernaut, cultural and economic, in America. It has a sizeable market, after all: the odds a person 18 or older will drink a gourmet coffee beverage in a day are 1 in 7.14. Those are the chances that

  • An adult believes in witches
  • A country music song in the top 100 of all time contains a reference to the word “mama”
  • A white adult usually stiffs a food delivery person
  • A woman sleeps nude

And overall, more than half of Americans 18 and older—1 in 1.75, or 57%—drink some type of coffee in a day. The US is the world’s #1 consumer of coffee, and veins of trade connect it to countries like Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Ethiopia, and Indonesia, the world’s five biggest coffee-bean exporters. There certainly is enough to consume; in 2008, the world produced around 127 million bags of coffee. At 132 lbs. per bag, that’s roughly 16.7 billion lbs. of coffee beans produced per year.

US coffee consumption statistics read like flood data: according to the 2008 Coffee Statistics Report, Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day (an average of 1.3 cups of coffee per American per day). In a year, that adds up to 146 billion cups, or 9.125 billion gallons, of coffee, enough to fill 13,825 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

That’s equivalent to the amount of water you’d see pouring over Niagara Falls if you were to watch the falls for 3.3 straight hours.

“You should have seen him one morning sitting in the bombproof…where the shrapnel kept cracking over his hat. They couldn’t touch him, as he knew, and he sat there as unconcerned as if there were no such things as guns and battles, breaking the beans for his coffee with the butt of his revolver. He wasn’t going into the fight without his coffee.” —Teddy Roosevelt, referring to one of his Rough Riders

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