Clear Lake Coffee Roasters: Industry Insider Series - War and Relationships Brought Central American Coffee to San Francisco -Coffee on the High Seas: Central American Shipments to San Francisco Before, During, and After World War I- Jan 13, 2024

War and Relationships Brought Centrals to San Francisco

War and Relationships Brought Central American Coffee to San Francisco

n the early 20th century, the coffee trade was not merely a transaction; it was a journey across oceans, bridging continents and cultures. Central America, renowned for its fertile coffee-growing regions, played a pivotal role in supplying the world with the cherished beans. In this blog post, we embark on a historical voyage, exploring the nuances of coffee shipments from Central America to San Francisco before, during, and after the tumultuous period of World War I.

Before the Storm: The Prelude to World War I

Central American Coffee Dominance: Before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Central America was a powerhouse in the global coffee trade. Nations like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica had established themselves as key contributors to the coffee industry, cultivating beans with distinct flavors that captivated palates worldwide.

The San Francisco Connection: San Francisco, a burgeoning hub of commerce on the West Coast, emerged as a vital entry point for coffee shipments from Central America. The city's strategic location made it a natural gateway for the influx of coffee into the United States.

Sailing the Trade Winds: The transport of coffee in the early 20th century relied heavily on maritime routes. Sailing vessels, and later steamships, navigated the Pacific Ocean to deliver the precious cargo to the San Francisco docks. The journey was not only a logistical feat but also a testament to the interconnectedness of global trade.

Amidst the Storm: Coffee Shipping During World War I

Challenges at Sea: World War I disrupted global trade patterns, and the coffee industry felt the impact. The conflict led to increased risks for vessels navigating the seas, with the threat of enemy submarines and naval blockades. Coffee shipments faced delays and uncertainties, adding an element of unpredictability to an otherwise well-established trade route.

Adaptation and Resilience: Central American coffee producers and San Francisco importers had to adapt to the changing dynamics. The resilience of the industry was evident as new shipping routes were explored, and innovative strategies were employed to ensure a steady supply of coffee beans despite the challenges posed by the war.

After the Storm: Post-World War I Rejuvenation

Rebuilding and Reconnection: The end of World War I marked a period of rebuilding and rejuvenation for the global economy. Central American coffee-producing nations, having weathered the storm, sought to reconnect with international markets. San Francisco once again became a focal point for the revitalized coffee trade.

Technological Advances: Post-war advancements in transportation, including improvements in steamship technology, contributed to a more efficient and reliable coffee shipping process. The combination of innovation and a renewed sense of global cooperation fueled the resurgence of coffee shipments from Central America to San Francisco.

The Roaring Twenties: The post-World War I era, often referred to as the Roaring Twenties, saw a cultural and economic boom. This period of prosperity further fueled the demand for coffee, and the connection between Central America and San Francisco played a crucial role in satisfying the growing appetite for the aromatic beverage.

In September of 2023 we will mark the 100 year anniversary of an event I think is very relevant to coffee. I admit, I may be the only person on the planet marking this anniversary, but I nonetheless believe it’s interesting if not significant outside of my brain.

In the very early hours of September 8, 1923, the SS Cuba was steaming north along the coast of southern California, having last stopped in Mexico on September 3rd. Carrying both cargo and passengers the 26 year old steamship was war booty, captured from the Germans in 1917 and purchased from the US Navy for $400,000 in 1920 by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, renamed Cuba, and eventually put into services running between Panama and San Francisco.

Pacific Mail, by the way, is the same steamship company that brought the Folger brothers, including a 14 year old James A. Folger, from Nantucket to San Francisco 73 years earlier during the California gold rush, and that is why you’ll find a line of coffee from Folgers called 1850 on your grocery store shelf.

As midnight approached on September 7th the Cuba had been running in thick fog for 4 days without a radio. In the early days of radio they broke down a lot and without a “wireless” the Cuba didn’t know the fog would get even denser approaching the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. Around midnight captain Charles Holland went to bed but left instructions with the first mate to wake him if visibility became worse, and in any case no later than 3 am so he could take soundings. These were instructions the first mate did not follow. At 4 am the ship ran aground on a reef off San Miguel Island. The captain rushed to the bridge and took control of the situation, attempting to reverse the ship free but the Cuba kept getting tossed back onto the reef by unusually large swells which were caused by a massive 7.9 earthquake that hit Japan a week earlier, killing 140,000 people.

SS Cuba passing through Panama Canal

It didn’t take long for the ship’s twin propellers to be destroyed by the reef. When it became clear the ship would sink—very slowly but sink nevertheless—the captain ordered that the ship be abandoned, an exercise that was complicated by the large waves and some unruly sea lions that didn’t want to share the beach. Because the radio was broken they could not send out an SOS so a group of crew members volunteered to set out in a lifeboat to find help; but in the heavy fog they accidently set out in the wrong direction, heading west out into the open ocean. As a result, they were the last to be rescued, but all the crew and passenger were eventually saved, many by the sailors of the USS Reno which had been participating in war exercises in the area and more or less stumbled upon the sinking Cuba. Extracting the passengers from the rocky shore in high surf was extremely difficult but the sailors got the job done and apart from some relatively minor injuries every one was okay. Unfortunately, that same night and due to the same dense fog, seven battle-ready navy destroyers ran aground on Honda Point near Santa Barbara, which is to this day the largest peacetime loss of ships in US Navy history.

Captain Holland and 10 armed crew members remained behind to guard the cargo until the next day when a flotilla of volunteers arrived in a wide variety of boats to help rescue the cargo. The captain declared the following priorities when it came to saving cargo. First, rescue the 2.5 million dollars’ worth of gold and silver. Fair enough. I mean, that’s 45 million dollars today. Second, he wanted to be sure they rescued all the mahogany lumber. European lust for Caribbean mahogany throughout the 18th and 19th century had more or less depleted that resource and the market shifted to the Central American “bigleaf” mahogany, which was also becoming scarce by 1923 ... so don’t let it sink.

Finally, Captain Holland instructed the rescuers to be sure and save the green coffee. I know it seems like coffee is keeping some pretty good company here but when you look at the price of green coffee at the time it makes sense. Adjusting for inflation to 2023: in 1921, green coffee traded for an average of 1.09 a pound. In 1922, green coffee traded for an average of 1.66 a pound. In 1923, the year the Cuba went down, green coffee traded for an average of 2.45 a pound and in 1924 it was 3.59. No wonder coffee was on the rescue priority list.

However, it seems that maybe not all of the coffee was rescued by the captain because two weeks after the Cuba hit the reef a Santa Barbara newspaper reported that “Several amateur adventurers are thinking of chartering a boat to save a bit of the cargo of the coffee that is still intact in the hold of the vessel.” Perhaps it was a slow news day if people just thinking about doing something was news.


“A few years earlier there would have been little if any coffee aboard the Cuba.”

But the story behind this story is more interesting to me because just a few years earlier there would have been little if any coffee aboard the Cuba, and if there had been coffee it would not have been the best Central America had to offer. Before WWl, 85% of Central American coffee production went to Europe. After the war, W.H. Ukers would write about this time that “Europeans were firmly entrenched in the coffee business in Central America … with the United States getting only the leavings.” But with war came German submarines targeting merchant ships and the British fleet running a blockade on Germany. Coffee couldn’t get through to Europe easily but it was super easy to run up the coast of California … when it wasn’t foggy, that is.


In 1914 San Francisco received 380,000 bags of coffee. In 1918 it was 1 million bags. Prior to WWI most Americans, especially away from the coasts, were drinking Brazils. No offense to our friends in Brazil but 100 years ago when cupping coffee was known as cup testing, most Brazil’s were getting maybe a D+. The influx of highly differentiated coffees from Central America helped fuel the eastward expansion of San Francisco coffee roasters like Folgers, Hills Brothers, and MJB and allowed them to compete with the east coast giants like Arbuckle’s, which was basically just Yuban by that time. The August 1916 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal reported:

“A circular recently issued by C. E. Bickford & Co., San Francisco, states that the total arrivals of Central American coffee in that port for the first five months of this year exceeded those of any previous year by over 80,000 bags. The circular explained that this situation has been brought about by the European war, together with the favorable rail and water freight rates enjoyed by San Francisco, which permits of the advantageous redistribution of these coffees throughout the United States.”

But that’s still not the most interesting part of the more interesting story to me. After the war, why didn’t the coffees go back to Europe? Well, several reasons. Germans had owned a lot of coffee farms in Central America prior to the war and after the war … well, they didn’t anymore. Also, European roasters were historically willing to pay significantly more for Central American coffees than American roasters generally, but that was harder for them to do immediately after the war.  

I think the biggest reason that Centrals didn’t return to Europe at pre-war volumes is that several years before the war, the coffee industry in San Francisco got fed up with the fact that they couldn’t buy more Central American coffees even though they were interested in quality and willing to pay for it. They understood that the difference between them and the industry in Europe were the relationships, so they started sending delegations to Central America to spend time, not like tourists and not in the big cities where the large roasters like Arbuckle’s had buying hubs, but further down the supply chain. They recognized that the people conducting coffee business in major cities were basically bankers and not coffee people and at that time the San Francisco coffee roasters and importers were nothing if not coffee people. They basically (and arguably to be sure) invented cup testing in San Francisco and the idea of judging quality based on taste rather than the size of the bean. They were really into coffee and they established relationships with people at origin who were close to the coffee. When Europe became inaccessible as a market, the San Francisco roasters and importers were able to take advantage of the opportunity because they had established relationships with no immediate return that took years to pay off.


It would be hard to find anyone willing to assert—out loud at least—that relationships are not important in business. It’s cliché if not outright dogma and thus nothing more than lip-service much of the time. All of us have had nightmare customer service experiences with companies that publicly declare a devotion to great relationships with their customers.

In specialty coffee most people agree relationships are not important, they are absolutely critical. Like vital organs, we need relationships to survive and thrive and very few of us are willing to relegate this idea to lip-service, that is, offering little substance behind the words; because, in an industry where we can all be so fundamentally impacted, for better or worse, by the whims and wiles of nature and/or the seemingly fickle flow of global logistics, trust is just simply air, so basic a necessity that it cannot even be discussed in terms of relevance. We must have it. Trust is a necessity when the level of risk threaded throughout any series of ongoing transactions can threaten the well-being of our endeavors.

We are, all of us, forced to do various bits of business in our daily lives in the absence of meaningful trust, applying a sort of rote faith in technology, from paying bills online to ordering on eBay. These transactions are vaguely reminiscent of gambling, though we become immune to the feeling. And while risk is inherent the universe of green coffee, to feel like one is gambling during any green coffee transaction is to feel … well, maybe something similar to an absence of oxygen. And trust finds no harbor outside of relationships.

As mentioned, prior to WWI American coffee roasters, and by extension American coffee drinkers, had a lousy reputation among Central American coffee producers not only for being unwilling to pay for quality, but for roasting their coffee too light to reduce weight loss, making it less appealing to consumers of the day.  The following quote is from a 1915 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce about Central America. A longer and very interesting quote from the report can be found at the end of this article:

“Growers of the fine grades of coffee are not at all optimistic as to the outlook for a largely increased trade with the United States. The assertion is quite generally made that American people will not pay the price for the best quality …”

This was the reality on the ground in Central America when the coffee industry based in San Francisco started sending people to Central America to establish relationships. Their credibility was at a minimum and words were clearly not enough. Importers in San Francisco initiated the practice of paying in advance of harvest in order to help finance the harvest. In 1922, W.H. Ukers wrote in his book All About Coffee:

“Handling Central American coffees in San Francisco is distinctly different from the business in Brazils. In order to secure the Central American planter's crops, the importers find it necessary to finance his operations to a large extent. Consequently, the Central American trade is not a simple matter of buying and selling, but an intricate financial operation on the part of the San Francisco importers.”


While it may be interesting if unsurprising to see relationships at work in the coffee industry 100 years ago, we shouldn’t romanticize this particular bit of the past too much. Prior to the war, the shipping lines of W.R. Grace and Pacific Mail fought a bitter battle with Kosmos, a German shipping company, over their domination in Central and South American ports. During the fight the companies involved would offer to ship freight for free just to take business away from their competition. They would even pay people to use them rather than their competition. The conflict was eventually settled through something like an arbitration, but not long after this the U.S. shippers used the war to establish the same kind of virtual monopoly on shipping lanes that Kosmos had just a few years earlier. That helped the coffee industry in San Francisco maintain its hold on Central American coffee following the war. It also didn’t hurt that many of the coffee farms owned by Germans before the war ended up in American hands.

Aggressive business tactics aside, it’s clear that a presence at origin and meaningful relationships—including connections outside of comfortable urban hubs—became a clear priority for American coffee roasters 100 years ago as they sought to obtain larger volumes of high quality coffee from Central America, and that this strategy lands squarely in the column of “thing that haven’t changed.”

The story of coffee shipments from Central America to San Francisco before, during, and after World War I is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the global coffee trade. Despite the challenges posed by geopolitical events, the connection between coffee producers and consumers endured, shaping the industry and contributing to the rich tapestry of coffee culture that we savor today. As we enjoy our cups of coffee, let us reflect on the journeys these beans undertook, crossing oceans and navigating through history to bring us the aromatic delight we cherish. 


 Six reasons for making Clear Lake Coffee Roasters - CLCR - your go-to coffee roaster:

☕️ We are a local family-run business located in the heart of Clear Lake, Iowa.

☕️ We go to great lengths to find only the finest and ethically sourced coffee around, from the top 2% of coffee beans in the world.

☕️ We only source 100% certified Arabica coffee beans, carefully hand-selecting each coffee based on specific quality and taste attributes.

☕️ Our roasting process has been refined over the years and each roast profile is individually designed to complement the nuances of the coffee we source, from Cup of Excellence (COE) award-winning producers.

☕️ By roasting in smaller batches, we can ensure our coffee is ALWAYS fresh, in fact, we roast your coffee only after you place an order - the same day your order ships out.

☕️ At CLCR, we are dedicated to a single mission: the unyielding pursuit of coffee perfection in every cup.

We would give you more reasons, but rather than reading it's better if you visit our website, purchase a bag or two, and experience a unique caffeinated or half-caff journey for yourself 😊!
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