The walls at Beth’s Cafe in Seattle drip with crude crayon drawings of Seahawks logos and random cartoon characters, and the oily odor of 12-egg omelets crammed with bacon lingers in the air. There’s a late-night frenzy radiating from every booth, as partygoers refuel between shindigs or, inevitably, crash out before making their way home. At the center of the early morning — or late night, depending on how you look at it — madness: a steaming cup of bitter coffee, an anchor in the chaos.
As I cradle the cup for warmth, a flash of guilt etches across my mind: Unlike the locally roasted single-origin coffee I might brew at home, this cup — courtesy of national distributor US Foods — is likely neither organic nor ethically sourced. At Beth’s and most American diners, the odds are high that the coffee comes from a vacuum-sealed tub stashed behind the bar. It’s the kind of commodity coffee processed in a big factory where the folks on the floor — and, for that matter, back at the farm where the beans were grown — may or may not get fair pay. Still, at diners and casual restaurants all across the United States, it’s bottomless carafes of the stuff that keep truckers, journeymen, service staff, and, frankly, anyone looking for a zip of strength chugging along. And at an affordable price.
I can’t help but remember, however, that the springs of energy from a powder keg cup of diner coffee carry ghosts at their heels. The cult of caffeine within hand’s reach arrived in the United States thanks to global conquest and a rare window in history. And despite it all and the changing times, diner coffee touches our road-weary souls in ways nothing else can — that cheap cup of bitter black brew occupies the nexus of all things nostalgic, familiar, and Americana.
It can be hard to remember, but coffee isn’t just a delicious liquid drug — at its most basic level, it’s a plant that people sow, grow, and harvest. There are plenty of kinds of coffee, too, and none as significant on the global market as coffee canephora, also known as robusta. That’s one of the hardiest, most caffeinated varieties of coffee. And while its counterpart arabica gets more attention for having a wider flavor profile, robusta is far less likely to be classified as “specialty” coffee. Both kinds’ global popularity is thanks to Europe’s carving up of coffee-growing regions such as East Africa and Southeast Asia for export: The Dutch taking coffee to Indonesia and enslaving locals is how we got the now-common term “java,” for example.
Political theorist Carl Schmitt called such adventures in mercantilism the beginning of the “Eurocentric nomos of the earth” — he’d know, given his support of the Nazi party. Thanks to coloniality, numerous commodities like coffee became associated with Europe. In brief, naval travel and military technology allowed Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch conquerors to leverage the addictive crop as one more line item in a growing global ledger. Propaganda supported the expansion. There was Edwin Lester Linden Arnold’s handbook for coffee growing in 1886, published one year after the Berlin Conference began cutting up Africa into new districts, and J.W.B. Money’s Java; or, How to Manage a Colony. Both treat the people harvesting large-commodity crops including coffee as inferior, which means coffee and subjugation go hand in hand.
The next generation of imperialists including the young United States took to these lessons and examples to enslave people the world over for their own sugar, spice, tea, and coffee. Take the Belgians’ colonization of the Congo in the late 1800s, a premier region for rubber and robusta coffee. It was the Belgians who named robusta coffee as such due to its “robust” resilience to pestilence. Locals were worked to death, often from exhaustion but also from acts of violence at the hands of Belgian exporters and guards. And, as Adam Hochschild writes in King Leopold’s Ghost, Africans were not to be paid in francs for their labor, instead receiving cloth, beads, and brass rods. “Money in free circulation might undermine what was essentially a command economy,” Hochschild writes.
The impacts of these actions live on. Burundi — also colonized by Europe — is today one of, if not the, poorest country in the world and depends heavily on coffee exports. According to Standart magazine, the government tightly controls seed allowances, pays farmers only once or twice a year, and mandates that farmers sell their coffee as a low-grade commodity rather than a specialty. Vietnam, which has suffered numerous invasions over generations, is the second-largest coffee producer behind Brazil. And El Salvador’s political unrest and civil war in the 1980s can be traced back to the early occupation of coffee barons, including James Hill, an English businessman who became one of the country’s most infamous coffee oligarchs.
No matter the ruination, the United States was eager for coffee to become part of its social fabric from the jump, and ingrained it has become. There’s evidence that suggests that coffee came to the East Coast in 1607 with English captain John Smith, and the drink became a backbone of the young new empire. A few centuries later, around the middle of the 20th century, the coffee break became a thing thanks to a greedy tie factory owner in Denver. In 1962, the International Coffee Agreements was established — actually a stabilizing move thanks to mandatory quotas on coffee imports — only to be blown up in 1989 amid market share disputes among producers and changing consumer tastes. Through it all, coffee burrowed deeper and deeper into the United States’ psyche.
Which is to say, diner coffee is, really, the improbable marriage of low prices and a hungry market. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the first attempt at a diner came from Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872 in the form of a horse-drawn wagon serving cheap, hot food to people looking for late-night eats. And by 1924, the name for the “rolling restaurants” and “dining cars” became shortened to diner. As these casual restaurants multiplied (long before anything was even considered “ethical” or “fair trade certified”), coffee emerged as a cheap, on-demand menu staple. That coffee became part and parcel of Americana is thanks to these historical events, the rise of restaurants in the country writ large, and, of course, public relations. See: Denny’s partnership with Major League Baseball, chimerically combining the dark elixir, baseball, and Americana on color TV.
With the rise of Equal Exchange and fair trade certification in the 1980s and the proliferation of coffee chains around the world that have fueled consumer tastes for ever-higher quality products, coffee is continuing to evolve. As of 2023, Fairtrade International upped its minimum purchase per pound for certified coffee to $1.80, coffee workers at Starbucks and Peet’s locations throughout the country are unionizing for better pay and conditions, and fourth-wave coffee, with all of its possibilities, is either just over the horizon or already here (depending on whom you ask). But diner coffee, and the low-quality sourcing and methods used in its production, falls well outside of all that progress. It’s a relic in time, an artifact of an America not unlike the restaurants it’s poured in that are still somehow super cheap.
In truth, diner coffee can’t really change. There’s virtually no demand for that coffee to taste better, and supply for the commodity-grade staple is as abundant (for now) as it is unethical. As Michael Pollan might prescribe, drink coffee you can trace, drink only as much as you can afford to buy that is thoughtfully sourced, and buy mostly from small and direct-purchasing farms. But as the botanist also concedes, sometimes you still crave an Oreo.
On a spring afternoon in Sedona, Arizona, the Coffee Pot Restaurant is somehow as busy as many diners would hope to be during the morning rush. Servers in bright red T-shirts and aprons chat beneath southwestern motifs and rockscape paintings. Hiking through Red Rock State Park just outside of town can really sap your energy. So while there are vortexes that might refill that void, a damn fine cup of coffee also does the job.
But for all the health-focused marketing throughout the touristy town, Sedona hosts more places to get your aura photo taken than cafes with transparently sourced, fairly purchased coffee. So, Coffee Pot’s $3.75 cup of coffee will have to do.
No, it isn’t good for the planet. Or, most likely, for workers. But when there’s nothing much better around, and when the nostalgia hits, a cup of jet-black, bitter diner coffee remains an affordable, bottomless delight.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein