A Guide to New Orleans Coffee Culture
Famous for its unique latte, chicory roast coffee and beignet dough, New Orleans has long enjoyed a solid reputation for its coffee. For this and other reasons, the Big Easy remains a perfect destination for tourists to enjoy a good cup of coffee.
In recent years, New Orleans has also become home to a number of specialty coffee shops and micro-roasters. Although the city’s coffee traditions remain popular, there is evidence that the city’s coffee culture is open to some changes.
To learn more, I spoke to local experts. They told me about the contrast between traditional coffee culture and the rise of specialty coffee in the city. Read on to learn more about Big Easy’s coffee scene.
you might also like our article on specialty cafes in Lisbon.
New Orleans: the port of coffee
New Orleans is located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, making it a key international seaport. For centuries, coffee has been a major import.
According to the Louisiana Department of Tourism, dozens of coffee importers operated in the region as early as the late 19th century. The coffee they imported was then shipped to roasters across the country, bridging the geographic gap between the producing countries and the United States.
Today, the port of New Orleans is still one of the most important coffee import centers in the United States. It brings in hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee per year and has millions of square feet of warehouse space for storing green coffee. There are even roasting facilities in the port itself.
The city has also historically hosted some major American coffee brands. One of Folgers’ largest national coffee roasting facilities is located near the harbor, adding to the region’s coffee heritage.
After more than a century of access to this type of coffee, it’s no wonder the city has such a rich coffee culture.
Classic coffee culture
New Orleans’ complex and diverse coffee traditions stem from the city’s status as a hub of maritime commerce.
Over the years, New Orleans has welcomed merchants from all over the world, perhaps especially from Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s no surprise that their traditions have since left their mark on coffee.
Traditionally, dark roast coffee is popular in New Orleans. Although it appeals to a wide range of coffee drinkers by default, it is particularly popular in town as part of the classic New Orleans latte.
Café au lait is a classic French drink, usually made with a 1:1 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. In New Orleans, you can find this type of drink in some cafes, but the milk will often just be heated or boiled, rather than steamed.
However, older cafes will likely serve a unique style of café au lait – a coffee made with espresso, milk and chicory.
While many associate the bitter, intense flavor of chicory with salads, the root of the chicory plant can actually be roasted, ground, and added to coffee. Roasted chicory root is bittersweet and goes well with dark roast coffee.
This tradition dates back to French New Orleans, which used chicory root to bolster its coffee supplies during the naval blockades of the American Civil War. The habit of adding it to coffee has remained in the city ever since.
However, this tradition is mainly associated with a classic café above all others: Café Du Monde.
The 150-year-old cafe is a great place to enjoy a traditional latte with chicory. Like many other classic New Orleans cafes, Café Du Monde also sells donuts. These are square, fluffy donuts drizzled with powdered sugar, and they make a perfect sweet pairing with the traditional café au lait.
Beyond Café Du Mone, the classic chicory latte can be found at other New Orleans cafes. Plus, grocery store shelves in the Big Easy are often lined with roasted chicory coffee blends.
Some local specialty cafes have even come to incorporate chicory into their menus, recognizing the city’s unique coffee tradition.
The Big Easy Today: Micro-Roasters and Modern Coffee Culture
As in many other coffee-consuming cities, specialty coffee shops and roasters have begun to emerge in New Orleans in recent years.
Byron Gomez is a Louisiana native and founder of Coffee roasters in exile. He worked in coffee for almost a decade. When he discovered specialty coffee, he knew he wanted to bring it back to New Orleans.
“I wanted to share the things I learned with where I come from… I wanted to keep looking for coffee,” says Byron. “I saw that a three dollar cup of coffee could have a global impact, and I thought that was really cool.”
Byron spent years as a barista at a specialty coffee shop in the French Quarter, before eventually launching his own roastery.
“New Orleans needs to be on the coffee map,” adds Byron. “When people think of New Orleans in coffee, I think specialty coffee needs to join the conversation.
“Historically so much coffee has passed through our port, but unfortunately today very little coffee is a specialty. I hope that will change.
Even newer on the scene is Undergrowth coffeea gay-owned and run cafe that sees micro-roasting as a tool for “socially equitable community building.”
Undergrowth co-owner Alyssa explains that as part of this, all Undergrowth baristas receive some level of roasting training.
She adds: “We wanted to give people an opportunity they might not have had otherwise to get into coffee roasting because it’s a niche industry.”
How is coffee culture changing in New Orleans?
To find out more about how things are changing, I spoke with Sarah Lambeth, the owner of Nice coffee roast. Sarah says that for positive change, it’s important to balance tradition and innovation.
“[For example], I have no qualms with chicory coffee,” says Sarah. “I would rather kiss him, personally. I even tried to make chicory-based syrups. I like the concept of saving the chicory flavor for nostalgia.
She says that at Pretty Coffee they have focused on omnidirectional roasting, making sure they get the most out of every coffee they buy.
She says, “It’s a balance. I want [our coffees] to be polyvalent. I try to get the cafes to show. Attention to detail, quality; these are things that are very important to me in my business.
Alyssa, however, says customers in New Orleans have some expectation for darker roast coffee.
“We mainly focus on city/medium roasts,” she says. ” We dont do [loads of full] dark roast at this point, which is counterintuitive when it comes to New Orleans coffee culture.
“The belief is that [medium roasts] are a much easier learning opportunity for baristas.
Alyssa also notes that Undergrowth listens to its customers and the wider New Orleans coffee community. If something isn’t working for customers, she says they fix it.
She says, “Being such a micro-roaster has worked for us because we can change things to our needs, basically in the moment.”
Unlike Alyssa and Sarah, Byron says Exile is “all about” specialty coffee. He tells me he’s looking for unique cafes that are “hyper traceable with interesting stories and interesting characteristics.”
“I add nothing to [the coffee],” he says. “My job is just to make it dissolvable so you can drink it and you can taste the work that has been done on the farm. My job is just to tell the story.
Visiting New Orleans?
Here is a small list of recommended specialty coffee shops, if you decide to explore the coffee culture of New Orleans.
Coffee of the world is a must for tourists who want to taste a “classic” latte. Try their chicory coffee and donuts (which come in threes).
Spitfire Cafe in the heart of the French Quarter. They serve coffee from Exile, among other local roasters.
Bearcat Cafe serves amazing food for breakfast and lunch, and has a great coffee program with Alinea Coffee Roasters, another local micro-roaster.
Old Road Cafe is located in a lovely little neighborhood, a bit off the beaten track. However, it works with several local roasters to offer a range of different coffees.
What next for the New Orleans coffee scene?
It’s safe to say that people will always want to enjoy a beignet with a chicory latte in the French Quarter. These are rich, historic parts of New Orleans coffeehouse culture, and it looks like they’re here to stay.
But what will change in the future?
“I’m not satisfied yet, but I’m excited,” says Byron. “I have the impression that the page is turning a little. I feel like there’s a new wave of young entrepreneurs in New Orleans, all trying to do their own thing.
“Personally, I have this dream of making New Orleans coffee more accessible. I want to operate a shared cafe and roasting space, and invite people to do their own thing, with less risk and lower start-up costs. »
Ultimately, Byron says the New Orleans coffee scene is at an interesting time. He sees a change in the city’s coffee culture, albeit slow, but notes that it could be an example for other cities in the United States to follow.
New Orleans has a rich coffee heritage, steeped in centuries-old traditions. But while lattes and chicory fritters remain popular, specialty coffee culture is beginning to emerge across the city. Ultimately, that means there’s something for every type of coffee drinker, no matter what they like.
Between the large historic companies operating near the port and the young start-ups looking to source and roast high-scoring coffees, there is clearly a balance between tradition and innovation in the city, as Sarah says. It remains to be seen whether or not this balance will continue in the years to come.
Did you like it? Then read our article about the unique relationship between coffee and donuts.
Photo credits : Dominic Vittitow, coffee roasters in exile, Park Island Coffee Roasters
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