Cutting coffee

My friend and fellow blogger Bill Carter has written an interesting post which mentions the use of chicory to blend with coffee and reduce its price (or increase the manufacturer’s markup!).

I was inspired to revisit a notebook that came from my great-great-grandfather’s grocery store at 147 Saltmarket Street, Glasgow. Auld John McGibbon (as our surname was then spelled) used the notebook during the 1840s to record blends and costings for the coffee he prepared and sold. He listed the ingredients, showed their cost prices and their proportions in a given blend, and noted what price each blend would retail for.

One of the pages in John McGibbon's notebook. Note the precision in the calculations. He sure knew how to do long arithmetic – though maybe he had some kind of ready-reckoner tables.  32/720ths of a penny is somewhat precise!

One of the pages in John McGibbon’s notebook. Note the precision calculations. He sure knew how to do long division – though maybe he had some kind of ready-reckoner tables. 32/720ths of a penny is somewhat precise!

As well as including pure coffee ingredients (usually he chose two, from Ceylon, Jamaica or Mocha), he padded the blends out with much cheaper ingredients: chicory and triage.

Chicory is a well-known coffee extender. Triage, I discovered via Google, is basically the rubbish left over after grading coffee beans – it includes broken or immature beans and quite possibly insects and other rubbish. Triage beans are still traded today – who knows what goes into instant coffee?

Another page from the notebook.

Another page from the notebook. This time the calculation was to 793rds of a penny.


A typical blend (this one prepared on 11 February 1845 to retail at 1s 8d (one shilling and eight pence) per pound), was:
6lb Jamaica No 6 @ 1/5¾ per pound
3lb Ceylon No 5 @ 1/6 per pound
4lb Triage @ 10¼d per pound
5lb Chicory @ 5¾d per pouxnd

The coffee ingredient prices included roasting (‘toasting’ he called it). I don’t know if he bought the ingredients pre-ground or ground them himself after mixing. He certainly would have retailed the blends ready-ground ­– advisable for an end-product that included chicory and trashy coffee beans. A fairly homogeneous powder would obscure the rubbish.

If you calculate all that out and average it by the total weight, the ingredient cost price per pound of the blended product comes out to 1s 0.75p (one shilling and 0.75 pence). The coffee was retailed at 1s 8d, so the markup was 67 percent.

The notebook only details blends, all of which were ‘cut’ with chicory and triage. I don’t know if he sold any pure coffee, but if he did, and applied the same 67% markup, it would have retailed for around 2s 6d per pound. Which in today’s values is equivalent to about £11 per pound. Or NZ$49 per kilogram!Bushells coffee and chicory essence

We still have a bottle of Bushells Coffee & Chicory Essence, which Liz uses occasionally when baking a coffee cake. Ironically, it gives a better flavour than the high quality coffee from our espresso machine.

What did coffee taste like in the 1840s, and how did they brew it? John McGibbon’s notebook gives us no idea.

From my reading on the net, I suspect most Glaswegians would have boiled coffee grounds and water in a pot and then decanted off the liquid (ugh). Some of John’s wealthier or more sophisticated coffee aficionados would have used a biggin. A biggin was a ceramic or metal pot, at the top of which sat a perforated metal container or a dangling fabric bag. Ground coffee was placed in the container/bag and boiling water was poured over it. Providing the coffee was good quality and freshly ground, this probably made a halfway decent brew.

Even as early as this, coffee no-nos that are widely accepted today were being circulated in Europe. For the best brew, use freshly ground coffee and if possible, grind your own beans. Make it fresh each time – don’t make a big quantity of coffee for re-heating through the day.

Perhaps John McGibbon’s knowledgeable or wealthier customers bought their coffee as beans while the rest bought more convenient pre-ground coffee, the way we buy instant coffee today.

What none of them could have used was an espresso machine, which makes the tastiest coffee in the 21st century. Not that America has discovered that yet. On a recent trip to the American south we saw few espresso machines – none in private homes and very few in cafés. Drip filtering was still de rigeur.

The tiniest, back of beyond cafés in New Zealand brew with espresso machines these days. So do many private homes. Kiwis largely gave up on drip filter machines years ago. Those who don’t have espresso machines certainly have plunger machines – still a better option than drip filter, IMHO. Or we make instant coffee – seemingly much more than Americans do, judging by the relatively small instant coffee sections in American grocery stores. Not a good advertisement for us, but read below.

The Yanks make great quantities of filtered joe, then keep it hot or reheat it in a microwave oven. The first, freshly-made cup is kinda ok, but drinkability goes downhill after that – frankly you’d be better off with a good brand of instant coffee.

The Glasgow notebook also detailed tea blends. The ingredients all appear to be genuine tea, mostly at similar prices. Included were Pekoe, John Moore, Syria, Euphrates, John Bibby, Emma, J Brewer, Marmion and Duke of Bedford.

Most tea blends sold for 4s 8d per pound, which was almost three times the price of the coffee blends. Pricey, but against that, by weight you’d use less tea than coffee to produce a cup of beverage.

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1 Response to Cutting coffee

  1. frazierf says:

    I’m surprised people even drank tea in those days then at triple the price of coffee ‘blends’.

    I’ve never heard of this stuff…interesting. Would be handy at times to flavor icing or make a mocha-flavor shake.

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab® S

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