Milk and coffee. It seems like a no brainer, right? Imagine the complaints a coffee shop would get if it refused to offer cream to its customers. Heck, here in New England, walk into any Dunkin’ Donuts and ask for a regular coffee and you’ll be getting coffee with cream and sugar. When you have coffee, milk is an expectation. So it might surprise you that milk and coffee haven't always been an expected combination.
We don’t have any specific dates or fantastical stories of accidentally spilling cream into the coffee pot, unfortunately. Trying to figure out exact culinary histories is like searching for a strand of hay in a stack of needles: painfully hard, meaningless to most people, and possibly nonexistent. Our best guess is that milk most likely wasn’t added to coffee until at least two centuries after the first credible evidence of its existence.
In other words, coffee drinkers were doing just fine without milk for as long as the US has been a country. This may have something to do with the people drinking the coffee: for the first few centuries of its existence, coffee was made in Ethiopia and the Arabian peninsula, where drinking milk isn’t as common. Coffee was also appreciated for its strength, brewed Turkish style, with just a little sugar added, so milk would’ve just been making things weaker.
It should be no surprise that milk and coffee first met in Europe, probably making eyes across a croissant in some overly picturesque Parisian café. The first European coffee shops didn’t open until the 17th century, and even though dairy and cheese were everywhere in European culture, it still took a little while before someone made the leap to add milk to coffee. Most agree that it probably happened in France, as a country whose answer to any culinary problem is ‘add dairy fat.’
At the time, coffee was being touted as a medical wonder to aid to digestion and productivity, but the flavor of coffee was a little off-putting for Europeans at the time. It probably would have been a little off-putting for us as well: brewing methods of the time can best be described as a big ol’ pot of boiling water.
The discovery of ‘milky coffee’ may have helped it spread; the Marquise de Sevigne even went so far as to call it "the nicest thing in the world.” Clearly, 17th century Europe was facing the worst case of ‘the Mondays’ known to man. By the 18th century, coffee had spread across the continent, and even the tea-loving Brits had coffee shops before they choose tea as their caffeination of choice. London was an early coffee house hot spot but it was quickly replaced by tea, partially because the English “had never learned to make coffee properly, and the milk they added to it was foul.” Of course, that should be expected of the country that has “only three vegetables, and two of them are cabbage.”
So how did milk help coffee go from ‘medicine from Arabia’ to one of the most popular beverages on the planet? Milk just happens to be a good way to balance out the flavor of coffee for most palettes, especially if that coffee is subpar. Bitterness and sharp acidity would have been common issues with coffee in the 17th century, due to the less than ideal growing, roasting and brewing situations of the time, and milk’s sweetness and fattiness cuts both of them perfectly.
If you're looking for more information of how to make the most of your milk, keep an eye out for our next post which will talk about the importance of good milk and where we source our milk from. Until then, what are your feelings about milk when it comes to coffee? Is black the only way, or do you need a solid helping of half and half to get your drink your morning cup?
Much of this information came from an excerpt of Mark Pendergast's Uncommon Grounds, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of coffee.