A brief history of coffee and Jews on National Coffee Day


Mel Brooks drinking coffee photographed by Carl Reiner while the two were writers for Your Show of Shows, c. 1950-1954 in The Automat. Photo courtesy of A Slice of Pie Productions

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

Who doesn’t love their coffee in the morning? I know I do, which got me thinking, could there be a Jewish connection to the joe in my mug?

The answer: there is and it’s quite interesting.

The rich history of coffee is traced back as early as the 9th century and it is believed to have originated in the western Ethiopian city of Kafia. While Jews may not have been the ones to discover the caffeinated effects of the beverage, we sure did have a hand in popularizing the drink throughout Europe and the United States.

The story of the bean

Coffee is regarded as the second largest commodity traded in the world, just behind oil. The popularity of the drink quickly spread from Africa to the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. Religious Jews, like Muslims, drank it to stay awake during their nightly devotions, says Israeli history professor Elliott Horowitz in his article “Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

“Coffee has expanded the opportunities for usage during night hours, whether for pious or profane purposes,” wrote Horowitz. “But at the same time, the new drink sparked a debate in the Jewish world. Was it kosher? (Yes). Should it be considered a medicine? (No). What blessing should be said on this drink? (Shehakol, the all-encompassing blessing.)”

Soon the idea of coffeehouses began to grow. According to Horowitz, the first coffeehouses opened in Constantinople around 1550, then in Damascus, Mecca and Cairo.

“This led to another question: Can Jews drink coffee in non-Jewish establishments?” wrote Horowitz. “Jews had their answer when David ibn Abi Zimra, a Cairo rabbi, ruled in 1553 that Jews could drink coffee prepared by a non-Jew, he also warned them against coffeehouses and told them to have their coffee ‘delivered home.’”

Jewish coffeehouses

Jews not only continued frequenting coffeehouses they also began opening them. The first coffee house in Europe was opened in 1632 in Livorno, Italy, by a Jewish merchant. In 1650, a Lebanese Jew known as “Jacob the Jew” founded the first English coffeehouse called the Angel Inn in Oxford.

“Coffeehouses across Europe became egalitarian meeting places where people exchanged ideas,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of the 2010 book “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.” “Vienna’s ‘coffee culture’ will turn into an incubator for the Jewish intelligentsia: leading figures such as the writer Stefan Zweig, psychologist Alfred Adler and young journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl, will be among those who were sipping coffee in the Austrian capital.”

American Jews and coffee

When European Jews began arriving in the United States in the 19th century, many entered the coffee trade.

“Jews found that trading and peddling were commercial areas open to them, so they plied their trade in seaport cities dealing with coffee as a commodity,” wrote Donald Schoenholt in a 2013 blog post on the Gillies Coffee Company website. Shoenholt is the president of Gillies, the oldest coffee company in the country, founded in 1840 and purchased by his uncle.

The Shoenholts were among dozens of Jewish families who owned coffee companies. Others included Joseph Martinson who created the Martinson brand, Samuel Schonbrunn, who produced the Savarin brand served at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and  William Black, whose nut stores became Chock Full o ‘Nuts coffee shops.

The competition was fierce for Jewish and non-Jewish coffee customers. One astute observer named Joseph Jacobs happened to own the first Jewish advertising agency in New York. One of his clients was the Maxwell House Coffee Company. Jacobs understood that many Jews believed that the coffee bean was not allowed to be eaten during Passover. Jacobs knew this not to be true and found an Orthodox rabbi who ruled that coffee was a berry and certified that the Maxwell House coffee was kosher for Passover.

In 1932, Jacobs convinced Maxwell House to distribute free Haggadot, printed with illustrations and ads. According to the Maxwell House company history, some 60 million copies have been printed since then, in what has been called the longest-running sales promotion in the history of advertising.

Understanding kosher coffee

Plain, unflavored coffee does not need kosher certification. However, any flavored coffee needs kosher certification since flavors can contain non-kosher ingredients. For Passover, decaffeinated coffee requires kosher certification, as heated grain alcohol is often used to take the caffeine out of the beans and grains are a leavening agent that is prohibited on Passover.

Most major coffee producers in the market are OU kosher certified, including Starbucks, Nestlé brands Nescafe and Tasters Choice, as well as the J.M. Smucker Co., which produces Folgers.

Kosher coffee in STL

As of this writing, the only locally produced kosher coffee can be found at Kaldi’s. All of Kaldi’s coffees are processed under the supervision of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, one of the world’s most respected kashrus agencies.

“While there is nothing inherently ‘un-kosher’ about coffee in general, we invite a specially trained rabbi’s inspection of our roasting facility to ensure that our practices conform to the highest standards of cleanliness and purity. That inspection permits Kaldi’s to use the prestigious ‘OV’ symbol on our packaging,” wrote Kaldi’s on their website.

For more information about kosher food, visit www.ovkosher.org.