Evolution of the Seattle coffee scene

historical photo of first Starbucks shop

People all around the Seattle area are area enjoying coffee, sometimes as an essential part of their day. “I drink coffee every morning and every lunchtime and sometimes also in the afternoon,” said A. Grace Steig who works in Seattle, “I’m dependent on it to wake me up.”  Fifty years back in time, the coffee scene was still in its infancy. The 1960s and the following years marked milestones in the history of coffee in Seattle.

In the 1930s, a study revealed that 98 percent of American families were coffee drinkers. The coffee consumed back then scores poorly compared to what we drink today. Being mass marketed and brewed alike all across the country, competition between different producers was based on price only. After World War II, coffee was “an old fashioned drink of older generations, of businessmen and gossiping housewives,” described author Mark Pendergrast in his book “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed our World.”

In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, change came with the rise of counterculture. The counterculture movement started in the United States and the United Kingdom and spread out through much of the western world in the following years. Protesting against political ideologies and rethinking established rules in society concerning topics like women’s rights and sexuality, young adults of the time embraced alternative lifestyles and experimented with drugs. Inspired by coffeehouses in Europe which were known as places of political discussion, they felt drawn to the coffee scene of the Beatniks. “Beat” refers to a group of authors called the Beat Generation who discussed topics like the human condition, religion, drug use, sexual liberation and exploration in their written work. The ending of the term, “-nik” comes from a Russian satellite named Sputnik. In the 1960s, a Beatnik was a person who didn’t follow mainstream culture and who showed communistic tendencies. Young people in Seattle started using coffeehouses for meet ups by the time “Cafe Encore” opened in 1958 on University Way, right in the hotspot of Seattle’s counterculture. Many others followed in the next years, for example “The Place Next Door” and “The Eigerwand.” Historian Walt Crowley described going to a coffee house in the 1960s as a way of “rebelling and smoking with eclectic, potentially dangerous people.” Especially the “Last Exit on Brooklyn” near the University of Washington which opened in 1967 became a haven for Seattle counterculture.

Improvements in the quality of the coffee followed soon. The first big success was achieved by Alfred Peet who sold coffee made from home roasted Columbian beans in California. In 1970, Gordon Bowker and his partner Zev Siegel convinced Peet to sell them beans and opened Starbucks in Seattle, which is now popular around the world. More bean companies like the Wet Whisker Roaster, known today as Seattle’s Best Coffee, also started out and found success at that time. Espresso and cappuccino machines were imported from Italy in the 1970s but didn’t became popular right away. Only when Howard Schulz, a Starbucks worker from New York, travelled to Italy in 1983 and discovered their diverse coffee drinks did espresso and the latte hit U.S. markets. He then opened his own Italian inspired coffee house “Giornale” which was a hit. In 1987, Schulz bought Starbucks and watched it explode, opening hundreds of stores in the years to come. Today Starbucks has more than 24,000 stores in 70 countries.

Everyone wanting to get an idea of the long history of coffee and the culture connected to it today can visit Cafe Allegro near the University of Washington. It opened in 1975 and is the oldest coffee house in Seattle. With three different sitting areas for people to work, chat and enjoy coffee the cafe offers its customers a first-hand experience of Seattle coffee culture.