Food & Drink

NOLA's Coffee Culture Grinds on (20 Billion Cups and Counting)

Like the music, cuisine, and occasionally hard-to-understand accents in New Orleans, the story behind our coffee culture comes from a variety of international influences over the centuries. Since the 1700s, coffee beans poured into New Orleans from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and today the Crescent City is the country’s most prodigious java-handling port, with some of the world’s largest silos to store it. In 2015 alone, 250,000 tons of coffee came through the Port of New Orleans, enough to make 20 billion cups of coffee. It’s thought that New Orleans’ historic easygoing attitude is what created the mid-morning “coffee break” in the 1920s, when business owners would skip out of work throughout the day for a cup.

“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,” local author Lyle Saxon wrote in his 1928 book Fabulous New Orleans. “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.” Regardless of the truth of this rumor, it’s impossible to deny the long and strong hold New Orleans’ coffee culture has had on the city for the better part of 300 years.

The history behind chicory

One of the city’s most beloved institutions is the chicory coffee café au lait accompanied by the freshly fried pillows of dough we know as beignets. In the French Quarter, Café du Monde is a 24-hour-a-day must-try for visitors and crucial for locals who have a hankering for the classic combination. Café du Monde’s competitor, Morning Call, was mere steps away in the French Market on Decatur St for more than 100 years before moving to Metairie in 1974. In 2012, a location opened in City Park, where café au lait and beignets are accompanied by views of the lagoons, trees, and bandstand.

It’s been a long rivalry -- Café du Monde is 155-years-old while Morning Call has been around for 147, and during all that time, people have sided with one or the other as the local favorite. Ask a New Orleanian whose roots go back generations and they’ll tell you which establishment they go to and why, relaying old memories of powdered sugar and caffeination.

The secret to the traditional café au lait found at both of these spots comes from the chicory root, which was historically used to increase strength and bitterness, especially during the Civil War and Great Depression when beans were scarce. Using chicory -- or more specifically, the chicory root -- as a supplement or replacement for coffee originally came to the colony of New Orleans from its native France in the early 1800s, and the pungent flavor and aroma eventually became a local tradition. Like crawfish boil spice, bananas Foster rum sauce, and freshly shucked Gulf oysters, it’s one of the most historic flavors associated with the city.

Vietnamese culture has also wrapped around the traditions of café au lait. If you go to Café du Monde, you’ll notice that almost all the servers are Vietnamese. It’s one of those unique New Orleans convergences that happens organically over shared flavor profiles and thoughts of home, especially with the Vietnamese population here. Their coffee palate was also shaped by French colonization, and the result of brewing with dark, Robusta beans used in Vietnam is very similar to our coffee and chicory blend.

Vietnamese tastes influence coffee

There’s been a significant increase in popularity in Vietnamese-style coffee, even outside of traditional Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries. “Third Wave” coffee enthusiasts -- those with an interest in single-sourced beans, small-batch roasting, and esoteric brewing techniques -- have embraced the style, which is a slow-drip, single-serve, very strong black coffee combined with condensed milk, with variations popping up in places like New York City and Southern California. In order to make traditional Vietnamese coffee in the US, Café du Monde chicory coffee is usually what’s called for, even though chicory was never a coffee ingredient back in Vietnam.

Given the New Orleans region’s culinary connection with the Asian nation, a result of a steadily growing population since the fall of Saigon that now nears 16,000 people, it’s no surprise Vietnamese coffee is found in any number of trendy spots. It’s served at Dee’s Coffee, Drip Affogato Bar, and District Donut Sliders Brew, in addition to modern and traditional Vietnamese eateries like Magasin, Mint Modern, and Lilly’s Cafe.

Just as France introduced chicory into coffee in New Orleans, the country’s colonists brought coffee to Vietnam. Since dairy there was scarce, the French added sweetened condensed milk to the dark, bitter coffee. The phin, or individual filter used to brew Vietnamese-style coffee by the cup, evolved from a French drip filter. In local recipes for this kind of coffee, hot or iced, the grounds from Café du Monde are almost always suggested because they have a similarity to Vietnamese Robusta beans. It seems the French colonists needed to bring this powerful flavor profile everywhere they landed.

And in a turn of tradition, longtime New Orleans coffee chain PJ’s opened a couple of locations in Ho Chi Minh City in the past year, closing the cycle of coffee and the chicory root from its importation from France to its colony New Orleans in the early 1800s, to the French introduction of coffee in Vietnam during its occupation there in the late 1800s, to the immigration of the Vietnamese to New Orleans in the mid-20th century, where the new residents took quickly to the French import from another old colony.

Coffee culture’s new traditions

Just as it’s done with food, music, and cocktails, New Orleans has created plenty of its own coffee traditions -- the best of which involves fire.

Café brûlot is a hot brandy-based cocktail that also serves as after-dinner entertainment. Originally created at Antoine’s in the 1890s, it can be found at any old-school fancy Creole restaurant, including Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, and Broussard’s. This table-side coffee presentation is like bananas Foster, but much more intricate.

The drink involves skills like cutting one long piece of peel off an orange, and juggling that task with integrating the coffee to the brandy that’s already aflame while handling specialized equipment. There’s the silver bowl that holds the brandy and coffee, which is placed on top of a tray filled with more brandy. The booze on the tray is set on fire, heating the brandy and coffee mixture in the silver bowl above it. Then, a ladleful of the potion in the bowl is used to bring the flame into the vessel, so that’s on fire now, too. While the mixture is flaming, the server holds the long orange peel over it and ladles flaming cups of coffee and brandy over the peel, which creates a ribbon of blue and orange light traveling down the citrus rind. Usually, the establishment’s lights are dimmed to enhance the effect, creating an impressive sight that’s quintessential New Orleans in its mix of drink and flamboyance, as if someone once thought, “You know what would make this after-dinner coffee better? Booze and fire.”

Revelator Coffee Company
Meredith Singer

Mass shipping and micro-roasters

With such deeply entrenched traditions, it took New Orleans a little extra time to push beyond its aforementioned roots. Today, all aspects of the coffee trade are in play locally, from the importation of green coffee beans, which have been harvested but not roasted to the typical dark brown hue, to micro-roasters, companies that cure and roast beans on a very small scale. Large wholesale commercial roasting, as it happens, also takes place in New Orleans: According to the Port of New Orleans, the city has “14 warehouses, more than 5.5 million square feet of storage space and six roasting facilities within a 20-mile radius.”

The Dupuy Group started in 1936 as a coffee warehouse on South Peters St, and has grown into a storage, transportation, and logistics operation that works in ports throughout the South, opening the first green coffee silo in the country in 1992. Another large importing New Orleans-based operation, Silocaf USA, manages the largest automated silo plant for raw, green coffee beans in the world, located on Coffee Drive within the Port. Silocaf also supplies the largest coffee roasting facility in the world, Folgers in New Orleans East, with their beans.

Apart from these large-scale commercial corporations, New Orleans has smaller, consumer-forward micro-roasters throughout the city. Zephyr Coffee is an importer that works with a variety of roasters and emphasizes sustainability. Small-batch roasting has been growing rapidly over the past few years, with French Truck, Mojo Coffee Roasters, New Orleans Roast, Orleans Coffee, and Congregation Coffee all staking a claim to bring New Orleans local, high-quality beans.

And they’re doing it in a variety of ways. French Truck is a local roaster for wholesale accounts that’s moved to include direct retail sales in its shop on Magazine St and cafe on Dryades. Mojo Coffee ran two shops -- one on Freret St and one on Magazine -- for several years before expanding into the roasting game. New Orleans Roast, founded in 2008, and Orleans Coffee, founded in 1985, are both wholesale and online sales outlets.

Then there’s newcomer Congregation Coffee, which started in 2015 as a partnership between Seattle and New Orleans folks, and has quickly become the coffee of choice at all of Donald Link’s restaurants, not to mention Patois, Brennan’s, and Vessel. Congregation even collaborated with new brewery Urban South to create a winter seasonal coffee porter called Rectify.

Hey! Cafe is perhaps the smallest roasting operation in the city, calling itself New Orleans’ only “nano-roaster,” which means they roast very small batches, monitoring each one closely and controlling the process manually. They serve the beans they roast in their Magazine St cafe as well as other spots like Spitfire Coffee, and also collaborated with NOLA Brewing on a coffee saison.

The most visible signs of New Orleans’ evolving coffee culture are the specialized, third-wave cafes that have opened in the last few years: HiVolt, Revelator (a mini-chain based out of Alabama that also roasts its own beans in house), Cherry Espresso Bar, Mammoth Espresso, Arrow Cafe, Salon by Sucré, and Addiction Coffee. Each has breathed new life into the long-standing coffee culture of the Crescent City.

With coffee shops serving multiple purposes, like the new trend of hybrid cafes and bike shops in the Warehouse District’s Rouler, local coffee shop and brewery collaborations, coffee shop and bakeries, and coffee shop/bars, there’s no lack of creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, and culinary chops in New Orleans to continue innovating to offer everyone who lives and visits to find their own niche, in the spot that the coffee break was allegedly born. We like to take a moment to think, reflect, and relax over a well-made cup, and the sheer number of places throughout the city to do so reflects that.

New Orleans is nothing if not a brew of different cultures over the last 300 years -- from France, Vietnam, and even Seattle. The geography and industry of a major port, the outlier social tendencies emphasizing relaxation and fun, a sophisticated palate, and an identity steeped in welcoming all have played a part in shaping not only the local coffee culture, but the city itself.

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Nora McGunnigle requires much caffeine to offset all the booze and food she consumes, and is profoundly grateful that this city is more than happy to comply on all three fronts. Follow her adventures on Twitter: @noradeirdre or Instagram: @nolabeerblog.