King Coffee, the Magic Beans That Powered Brooklyn

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

If coffee was a controlled substance, most of us would be addicts of the worst sort. Our national morning jones for caffeine has been the catalyst for fortune and failure over the centuries. Everyone loves a coffee shop, and most are welcomed into any neighborhood like a water fountain in the desert.

There have been countless arguments, discussions and even culinary classes about the world’s best coffee — how to grow the beans, roast them, package them and brew them. Our stores are full of different devices that do whatever we need to get us our fixes.

Although many people, especially in upscale urban and suburban communities, swear by their special blends, their small batch, artisanal and exotic coffees, most of the coffee brewed in America comes from a few large companies that supply supermarkets and restaurants across the nation.

The Arbuckle Brothers, working out of Brooklyn, were one the coffee giants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They roasted and packaged the first popular coffee brand, called Ariosa, and created Yuban coffee, a brand still on the market after 150-plus years.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Coffee plants. Photo via

A Short History

Coffee is said to have originated in Ethiopia. Legend has it that a shepherd noticed his goats enjoyed eating the berries on a certain bush. Afterward, they had boundless energy and wouldn’t sleep at night.

The shepherd told this to a monk, who made a drink from the berries so that he could stay awake through his prayers, and coffee was born. It soon became a popular drink in the Muslim world.

Coffee came to Europe by way of North African and the Middle East way back in the Middle Ages. Its power as a stimulant caused it to be both praised and banned by several different cultures and religions.

Venice, which traded heavily with North African Muslim nations, was the first European city to savor coffee. The Venetians opened the first coffee shops in 1645. They began the custom of adding milk and sugar to the brew.

By the 1600s, coffee had made its way to England, France and many other European countries. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffee shops in England alone. But coffee was an upscale drink, enjoyed only by the privileged.

There are all kinds of tales about men smuggling coffee beans across borders, with the goods taped to their stomachs, as well as tales of people sneaking into royal orchards to steal cuttings. Coffee was not going to be the drink of royalty and the rich for long. There was too much money at stake.

Different kinds of coffee can grow in different climates. European explorers took plants on their expeditions to new lands, and by the 1700s coffee was introduced to Ceylon, India, the Caribbean, Central and South America, parts of Africa, and anywhere else it would grow.

Large plantations were established in most of these places, depending on Native, African slave or indentured labor. Coffee came with a high price in human life and toil.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Early Manhattan coffee shop. Photo via All About Coffee by William H. Ukers, 1922

Here in America, coffee began coming into its own after the Boston Tea Party. Many patriotic people switched to coffee to support the cause of independence, and never went back. It soon became America’s hot beverage of choice.

The first coffee shop in New York City opened in 1696 in Lower Manhattan. It was called the King’s Arms and it stood on Broadway, near present-day Cedar Street. It was the beginning of New York’s coffee obsession.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Wall Street coffee traders’ buildings. Photo via All About Coffee by William H. Ukers, 1922

Manhattan’s Coffee Business in the 19th Century

Manhattan soon became the green coffee warehouse of America. Beginning just after the end of the Revolutionary War and on into the 19th century, New York became home to some of the world’s largest coffee importers.

The coffee beans came primarily from the Caribbean and Central and South America, with Brazil being the largest exporter. All the big shippers of the day brought in coffee, including the company owned by the Low family in Brooklyn.

Green coffee beans rot after a short time. The coffee importers realized that in order to preserve their precious commodity, they needed to either become coffee roasters themselves or send their coffee to independent roasters.

The business of roasting coffee beans practically took over the real estate of Lower Manhattan. Coffee merchants were clustered in the warehouses around the South Street seaport, and they spread outward from there.

Always innovating in order to be more efficient, the roasters also were on the cutting edge of development of roasting, grinding and packaging equipment. Hundreds of patents were granted, and their machinery was replicated in coffee centers across the country and around the world.

By 1876, 75 percent of the coffee entering the United States was coming into Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1882, the Coffee Exchange was founded to trade this valuable commodity on Wall Street. Only 20 years later, in 1896, 86 percent of the country’s coffee supply landed in New York Harbor.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Empire Stores. Photo by Dumbonyc via Flickr

The Coffee Trade in Brooklyn

Brooklyn had a lot more space for storage than Manhattan, with a much longer coastline dedicated to shipping. Manhattan was too crowded, so ships began preferring Brooklyn as their final destination.

Beginning after the Civil War, the shoreline under Brooklyn Heights was built up into a solid wall of “stores” —  long warehouse buildings that housed everything from cotton to hides, lemons, jute, tobacco, sugar and, of course, coffee.

The Empire Stores and the Tobacco Inspection Warehouse are the only surviving buildings from this era, a time when the massed warehouses were called “the walled city.” The Empire Stores buildings were built in 1869.

These brick warehouses were large empty and dark spaces meant to store goods. The large openings made it easy to hoist goods into the stores, while the metal shutters kept the elements, fire and thieves out.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Coffee was being shipped in record amounts to the Empire Stores and other warehouses from the Heights to Red Hook. The green beans from all over the world made their way here. They came in large burlap bags stenciled with the beans’ country of origin, variety and grade.

By the end of the 19th century, most of those beans were going into the roasters of the Arbuckle Brothers Company, the largest coffee roaster in Brooklyn, as well as one of the largest and most successful in the world.

Brothers John and Charles Arbuckle came to Brooklyn from Pittsburg. Younger brother John was the genius behind one of the most successful coffee companies in America.

Next: The story of John Arbuckle, Brooklyn’s great coffee merchant prince. He was an important developer of Dumbo, a proud resident of Clinton Hill, and a Brooklyn philanthropist and business leader.

Brooklyn History Dumbo Empire Stores John Arbuckle

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

[Top illustration: 19th-century coffee roasting plant, via All About Coffee by William H. Ukers, 1922]

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