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St. Louis’ secret history as a major coffee hub (and your memories of the era)

Missouri History Museum Photos and Prints Collection.

If you’re a caffeine junkie, you know that St. Louis has a plethora of delicious coffee shops from which to seek your fix. Likewise, with several big coffee roasters such as Kaldi’s and Ronnoco and local icons such as Dana Brown with his famous Safari Coffee commercials, you may even think of St. Louis as a modern-day center for Midwestern coffee nuts. But did you know that St. Louis’ history with coffee reaches back almost 200 years?

At the turn of the 20th century there were around 80 different coffee roasters in the St. Louis area, said Katie Moon, the exhibits manager at the Missouri History Museum and content lead on the museum’s most recent exhibit on coffee, opening Oct. 3. The history of coffee in St. Louis had started as far back as the early 1800s, when coffee shipments came from New Orleans up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

“We were the largest inland distributor of coffee in the world,” Moon said. “From 1900-1920, was really kind of it for St. Louis.”

The Great Depression, World War I and national advertising for coffee brands took off all contributed to the downslide of coffee roasting in St. Louis, Moon said. But that’s not the end of its history here.

The Blanke Tea and Coffee Co., Jas. H. Forbes Tea and Coffee Co.,  Hanley & Kinsella Coffee & Spice Co., Old Judge Coffee Co., and even Dana Brown’s Safari Coffee all made names for themselves in St. Louis.

Today, there are around 20 different coffee roasters in the St. Louis area, Moon said. These include big names like Ronnoco and Kaldi’s, but also smaller shops like Chauvin and Blueprint.

Share your St. Louis coffee memories.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air” was hearing your memories of coffee in St. Louis. Here is a selection. If you have an especially poignant memory, send it to us here at talk@stlpublicradio.org, and we’ll add it to the story.

A Torcho, on Twitter:

Jay, a caller from Normandy:

“You said that coffee from the ‘50s wasn’t very good, but I remember going in the A&P grocery stores and it seemed like they had the special machines and they had bags, I’m not a coffee drinker, but I just remember how my parents would get a bag and put it up to the machine and it would pour out. So it surprised me that you would say that ‘50s-era coffee wasn’t that great since it was sort of interesting the way it came out.”

Rich, a caller from the Bevo neighborhood:

“Just noticing that if you frequent Tower Grove Park as I do that as the wind has shifted to a more northerly route, rather than smelling barley mash from the breweries, you can now smell coffee being roasted from the neighborhood between Manchester and Market.”

Elena, a caller from St. Louis:

“I remember as a 5 year old child traveling from California to Omaha and we used to sit on the porch late at night and there were fireflies and I can still remember the smell of coffee roasting, just wafting from the factory and at that time it was a brand called Folgers. After five or ten years, the factory closed but when I go back and visit that’s one thing I always miss.”

Related Event

“Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup”

Missouri History Museum

Open Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission is free.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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