Strategically located on the banks of the Mississippi River and serving as the gateway to the majority of North America, New Orleans has had access to exotic imports for as long as they have been shipped to this continent. There are traditions in New Orleans around many items that passed through the port. Sugar, cotton, bananas: all have their places in culture here, and over the last two hundred plus years, New Orleans has served home to numerous green coffee importers, coffee roasters, and retail shops. While coffee importing and roasting aren’t as prevalent here as they once were, the city is still home to several importers and a few large roasting plants, especially the Folgers plant in New Orleans East, the largest coffee roasting facility in the world. While New Orleans is no longer the largest coffee port in the world (Antwerp claims this now), the city is still a significant player.
The deeply embedded French culture plays a huge role in the significance of coffee in New Orleans. By the time the French settled along the Mississippi in 1699, the practice of consuming coffee had been a part of their culture for about thirty years after being introduced to the homeland by a Turkish ambassador in 1669. It quickly caught on. The French, in turn, introduced coffee culture into North America via New Orleans, and into Vietnam (then French Indochina). Vietnamese coffee culture went a different course than New Orleans coffee culture, but history frequently turns back on itself and Vietnamese coffee culture has found its way into New Orleans via the influx of Vietnamese immigrants. Talk about a full circle moment! (For another French-Vietnamese-New Orleans circle, see our Banh Mi post on Culicurious.)
While today you’ll find national coffee chains like Starbucks in New Orleans, you’ll also find two very popular home-grown chains: PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans and CC’s Coffee House (a sister company of Community Coffee Roasters). Further, Cafe du Monde and Morning Call are two local beignet shops also known for their classic, chicory-laced café au lait. Locals like to joke that Starbucks is mainly in New Orleans for the tourists: they take pride in local brands like PJ’s and CC’s, and these brands have a much greater penetration in New Orleans neighborhoods, so residents are much more likely to buy a cup of joe from them over Starbucks. True coffee aficionados, whose ranks are growing across America, are more likely to go a bit deeper into the coffee culture and visit one of about a dozen specialty “third wave” coffee shops that dot our city. Our favorite of the third wave coffee shops is Spitfire Coffee on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, though places like Pulp and Grind, Hi-Volt, and Sólo Espresso all serve their own unique populations of coffee cravers across the city. For a city the size of New Orleans, the population manages to support an impressive web of coffee shops and retailers.
Of course, a wide variety of coffee drinks exist in New Orleans, stretching well beyond the Frappucino (or frappes as they’re called at non-Starbucks coffee shops) and other absurd coffee concoctions that have very little actual coffee to them. There are several coffee-centric drinks mostly unique to New Orleans, or at least much more popular in the city than elsewhere. Cold brewed coffee was popularized by the PJ’s coffee chain, causing many to consider New Orleans the American home of cold brewed coffee. Cold brew coffee is now, of course, taking the rest of the country by storm. The previously mentioned café au lait (coffee mixed with hot or steamed milk), staple beverage of beignet stands is still quite popular here in New Orleans and remains a tangible part of the taste of breakfast for many. Coffee with chicory (originally added to stretch the coffee) continues to be a popular option for some New Orleans locals who seem to have acquired a taste for its bitterness. That love of bitterness goes beyond chicory too: New Orleanians and many other Southeast Louisianians have a distinct preference for darker roasted coffee beans. Most would argue that a medium to light roast on the beans produces a more nuanced taste (and has more caffeine) many people here still adore their coffee nearly burnt. Dark roast continues to be among Community Coffee’s signature products. Of course, Vietnamese coffee is quite popular in New Orleans and growing. It’s drip-brewed by the cup using simple, beaten metalware only seen in Vietnamese restaurants in America – it’s like they ship the coffee equipment across the Pacific just for this. Best of all, the Vietnamese typically mixed their coffee with condensed milk for a special treat.
There is one other coffee tradition in New Orleans: Café Brûlot. This is the quintessential end to a large, cocktail accompanied meal in New Orleans. It was created in the French Quarter at Antoine’s Restaurant, but you can typically find it at any of the older fancy Creole-style restaurants in the French Quarter, and at places like Commander’s Palace. The drink consists of coffee spiked with cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel, and brandy. The broth is mixed in a large, ornate bowl tableside and lit on fire. As the alcohol in the brandy burns a ghostly blue, the waiter ladles the brew to mix the flavors. This part can get theatrical: some restaurants toss a flaming ladle of coffee to splash on the tablecloth, others will cut an orange peel into a spiral and pour the ladlefuls down like a little waterslide of fire. Once the show is over, the coffee is ladled into cups and consumed. Our absolute favorite take on the Café Brûlot experience? “By the time you’ve drunk the brûlot, you’re wide awake and dead drunk at the same time.” A lovely and accurate sentiment from Jon Newlin, New Orleans gastronome and bon vivant.
Coffee has been a large part of New Orleans culture since its inception as a French city. The city is fiercely proud of its coffee culture and has a long and storied history with the coffee industry. While national coffee chains like Starbucks exist in the suburbs and on the main thoroughfares, the neighborhoods of the city are home to unique regional and local chains, as well as a burgeoning independent “third-wave” coffee scene. Yes, it’s often hot in New Orleans, but the heat never chased any New Orleanian away from a cup of coffee, even if they had to figure out how to drink it ice cold first. Coffee is an old part of the culture here, after all. For generations the people of New Orleans have had it with breakfast, but also before and after lunch, in the afternoon, and most importantly, with the satisfied conversation that follows an extravagant dinner.