8 Things You Didn't Know About Coffee Before Missouri History Museum's Exhibition

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Before we get into this article about a coffee exhibition, I will say one thing: I am not a coffee person. I will have, occasionally, a mocha frappucino (if the day is souring and I have lost my sense of dignity), and even more occasionally, an espresso (if I am in a city far away). These are the cosmo and Scotch of the coffee world, and despite my proclivity for extremes, or perhaps because of, I never got into coffee as a daily habit.

The disclaimer having been made, I can now write about the coffee exhibition, “Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup” that has just opened at the Missouri History Museum, where 6,000 square feet are dedicated to telling the story of coffee not just globally, but here in St. Louis, where a post-Starbucks coffee culture is turning the drink into art (check out Managing Editor Kelsey Waananen’s story about latte-art throwdowns in our upcoming November issue for more on that). Two thousand square feet focus on the global bean and its history, accidentally caffeinated African goats and all; double that are allotted to St. Louis.

You don’t have to be a coffee-lover to enjoy the look into the city’s (or world’s) romance with coffee. The exhibition is engaging, well-designed and, especially the St. Louis chapter, quite captivating. These are things I learned.

1/ Ronocco coffee, which is one of St. Louis’ original roasters, was started by two brothers with collectively odd names: J.J. and P.J. Their last name, however, was O’Connor. It wasn’t exotic enough to distinguish themselves from the competition (this was a time when movie theaters were named with a sense of grandeur, after all), so they flipped their name around, and a coffee empire was born.

2/ A thing that is possible: turning the butt of a rifle, especially a Civil War-era one, into a coffee mill. This did not catch on on a grander scale.

3/ St. Louis’ Berix coffee was the first company in America devoted to the production of Turkish coffee. You can catch a glimpse of an elaborate coffee service belonging to the cafe at the exhibition (and if you want a cup of the strong stuff—and a Bosnian pastry to go with it—you’ll find the cafe at at 2201 Lemay Ferry Road).

The Other Side Coffee House in Gaslight Square | Photograph by Edward Goldberger, 1961. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection.

The Other Side Coffee House in Gaslight Square | Photograph by Edward Goldberger, 1961. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection.

4/ All the exhibition labels are made with Kona paper, which is in turn made from recycled coffee bags.

5/ The section on advertising coffee in the St. Louis segment is particularly interesting—especially some of the promo tactics. Examples: coffee that comes in a cake tin so you can reuse the tin for such purposes (this was Great Depression-era); a two-quart jug that sits in an insulated carrier for picnics. Those were the days.

Sultana Coffee advertising card from when pre-roasted and pre-ground beans started to become a thing. | Advertising Card by unknown, 1882. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum Photos and Prints Collection.

Sultana Coffee advertising card from when pre-roasted and pre-ground beans started to become a thing. | Advertising Card by unknown, 1882. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum Photos and Prints Collection.

6/ The coffee bean mural, which utilized more than 260,000 beans in its making, is every bit as awesome IRL as the museum’s Instagram portrays.

7/ St. Louis’ coffeeshop game is pretty strong now, but back in 1845, there were 50 coffeeshops for its 35,000 residents—one for every 700. A Yelp search pulling in as many as possible of St. Louis city’s neighborhoods turns up 309 coffeeshops for 318,416 city residents. Take the following math with a grain of salt because the search overlooks a few areas in the city, but that’s one coffeeshop for every 1,030 or so St. Louisans now.

8/ And finally, if the name “Dana Brown” means anything to long-time St. Louisans, yes, he’s in here—and still posing his Safari coffee cans next to exotic baby animals on a loop of black-and-white commercials.

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