George Washington’s Instant Cup of George

G Washington's Instant Coffee

G Washington’s Instant Coffee

We imagine tender hands reaching for the perfect purple cherry and plucking it from the coffee tree, the expert roasting and the perfect grind. We pretend we’re firing up our fancy Italian espresso machine and pumping out delicious demis of paradise.

But it’s a fantasy. Our host only has instant coffee, so we smile, hide our horror, and stir our spoons without saying a word.

Instant coffee? Who drinks that stuff anymore?

Fact is, about a fifth of American coffee drinkers prefer instant coffee (or at least are willing to sacrifice personal dignity and moral decency for convenience). With many food relics from a bygone era like canned cranberry sauce and egg foo young, people cling to comfort, what they know, and the good feelings they generate. Instant coffee is one of those comfort foods for many people.

But the question was hanging in the air like stale dragon breath: who is responsible for instant coffee and why not just use a French press? Well, it turns out that George Washington was the first to mass produce instant coffee. True story.

Coffee Powder on a Tarnished Silver Spout

Coffee has always taken time to make, which is funny if you consider how impatient drinking it makes people. Maybe that’s why the dream of a coffee you could make in an instant goes back a long way in the murky history of coffee. The first known patent for a soluble coffee was granted in Britain in 1771, but little is known about this so-called “coffee compound” except that it must have tasted really awful.

Both American armies during the Civil War tried various instant coffee schemes, but they too were unimaginably unpalatable. Armies had a huge interest in a viable instant coffee solution because coffee can’t be foraged by an army marching on its stomach and has to be horsed in with the bullets and the bandages.

So the demand for something—anything—coffee-like to mix in hot water was big, and around 1901, a Chicago chemist named Satori Kato invented the first truly soluble coffee. Strangely, nothing became of his 1903 patent. Maybe it tasted funny or something.

Instead, a few years later, a Belgian immigrant to Brooklyn named George Constant Louis Washington (apparently so as not to be confused with other famous George Washingtons) used his own patent to mass produce Red E Coffee, the first instant coffee available to the public.

Legend has it that Washington was inspired by seeing crusted coffee powder on a silver coffee pot. Maybe, but generals and majors definitely took notice of Red E Coffee, especially when World War One broke out over in Europe.

Instant coffee was a national security secret weapon. E. F. Holbrook, coffee czar at the US War Department, thought coffee was a vital cure for exposure to mustard gas, something the Doughboys would surely have to deal with over in France. (Yep, coffee was so important the War Department had an office for it!)

So Washington’s company, G. Washington Coffee Refining Company, got the juicy government contract to supply the US Army with instant coffee. It was an Edwardian marketer’s dream, soldiers writing glowing letters home about the glories of Mr. Washington’s instant, trench-friendly coffee beverage product! Most troops, however, knew caffeine when they saw it and often drank their “cup of George” cold.

A Real, Red E Monkey on Your Shoulder

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, G. Washington Coffee was a nationally known brand. Washington himself was somewhat of an eccentric, known to attend swanky jazz-age parties with a pet monkey on his shoulder. He filled his New Jersey estate with a menagerie of exotic animals.

But in 1937, chemists in Switzerland invented an allegedly better process for making an allegedly better tasting instant coffee product called Nescafe. Troops going off to the Big One sometimes had a cup of George, but more often, it was a Nescafe in their foxhole rations. By the beginning of the 1960s, G. Washington Coffee was sold off and dissolved.