Yes, there was coffee before the wonder of Starbucks everywhere. And if you had lived in the American West in the heyday of cattle drives and main street gunfights, your coffee of choice would have been Arbuckle’s, for sure.
But to appreciate why Arbuckle's was so popular with all those cowboys and gunslingers, we have to go back just a little bit further than the rip roaring days of the West in the late 19th century.
Before Arbuckle's coffee became available, coffee beans were sold in the general store in their original state, unroasted and very green. The cowboy purchaser then had to take the beans, put them in a cast iron pan and roast them over an evening campfire.
If a single beam was burnt, which was very easy to do with only the stars overhead as light, the whole pan of beans had to be tossed. Even if the beans were successfully roasted, the roasting process was inconsistent and so was the strength of the much needed coffee at the end of a long and weary day.
It's easy to see why then that prior to Arbuckle's, tea was the preferred American beverage, not coffee. Enter John Arbuckle, coffee savior and trail-blazing food vendor extraordinaire.
Back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, far from the dusty plains of the West, John and his brother were experimenting with new ways to seal the flavor and aroma of already roasted coffee into a package while working at their family's grocery store.
Arbuckle found that if he added an egg and sugar glaze to the beans after roasting and pack them while still warm in airtight paper bags they retained their original flavor and freshness.
Fantastic – improved flavor and increased product stability! He had a winner (and he knew it!)
Arbuckle promptly formed his own company. But he still had to get his product noticed. He designed a bright yellow package with distinctive red lettering that any buyer could easily recognize on a country store shelf without having to read the label. For as the movies often portrayed, many of the cowboys were not highly educated.
Arbuckle knew that and he knew that the life of the cowboy was a lonely one. Often months were spent with only a herd of cows and one’s horse for company. Moving with the herd meant traveling light – no books, and certainly no laptop, Internet, i-Phone or i-Pad. Just silence alone under the hot sun and endless night sky.
So he created informational trading cards that featured historical and geographical information and images and packaged them in every bag of coffee.
He also included a stick of peppermint candy for sturring, just in case the cowboy didn't have a spoon. The peppermint flavor became so popular that local restaurants were forced to put similar small round candies to gain their business when the cowboys came to town. Still today many restaurants offer small peppermint candies at the end of the meal but most have forgotten how the tradition began.
But to return to the cards, so easily to carry, they were often called the “cowboy’s library”.They were so valued that cowboys even used them as money in a poker game. Arbuckle’s coffee is still available today and it's still as good. If you have never tasted the “Coffee that Won the West”, you should. It's literally history in a cup.
Just be sure, when you walk into a modern coffee shop today and see the news on the latest flat screen TV monitor or boot up the Internet to check the Market returns, to remember that your path links directly back to that solo cowboy - the one with a mug of Arbuckle’s coffee, gazing at a trading card and learning about the world beyond his campfire. The past, in truth, is never really far away for the day we live today.
That's something to remember because everything in our Industry has a history, a heritage- even a simple cup of coffee. Each and every day the past, as welll as the future, is with us as we work to serve our guests.
Post Note, November 8, 2011: After Arbuckle's introduced ground coffee, there was little use for the traditional hand-turned coffee mill until Joseph Glidden used it to twist common wire into barbed wire. With barbed wire came the end of the open range and the establishment of the great fenced western ranches.
Once the boundaries of the ranches were established, roads (and general commerce) could be more easily developed. A small but interesting culinary fact - thank you once again, John Arbuckle. Small things often make a great difference in the course of history.
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011