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San Francisco’s Coffee Culture Unpacked

Caffe Trieste, San Francisco (photo: Howard Malone)

For travelers, coffee shops are essential. They’re places to refresh yourself, take a breath, gather your thoughts and plan your day. As well as being somewhere to meet up with friends or make new ones.

So, understanding the café culture of the city you are traveling to is always worthwhile.

In San Francisco, you’re spoiled for choice. According to Matador Network and ApartmentGuide, the city has one coffee shop for every 2,297 souls, making it the third most caffeinated city in the States.

That’s a lot, so why does San Francisco have so many cafes?

Caffe Trieste, San Francisco (photo: Howard Malone)
Caffe Trieste, San Francisco (photo: Howard Malone)

To answer that question, we must look back to the days of the gold rush.

History of Coffee in San Francisco

The Gold Rush

Before the gold rush, San Francisco only had a population of around 1,000. Most of those people were not in the city for long, as they were mainly whalers, sailors, trappers, and fishermen.

That all changed when gold was discovered in the nearby hills in January 1848. Within a year, the city’s population had mushroomed to 25,000.

San Francisco as Roasting Hub

In 1850, coffee became popular in the city, and William Bovee’s new Pioneer Coffee and Spice Mills enabled everyone to buy ground coffee.

This innovation sowed the seeds of San Francisco becoming a coffee hub. Within 25 years, most of the beans imported into the United States came through the city’s ports.

Much of it was roasted and ground before being sent across the country. That was the start of San Francisco’s specialty coffee industry, which still thrives today.

San Francisco skyline (photo: Lili Popper)
SF skyline (photo: Lili Popper)

Temperance and Prohibition

The Temperance Movement was strong in the city, so coffee sales soared. Prohibition helped to keep them that way.

The Italian and Dutch Influence

Espresso coffee took a long time to find a home in San Francisco.

Until the mid-sixties, only a few places used expresso machines, which were very old and worn. Then, the Italian Carlo Di Ruocco began importing expresso machines.

Around the same time, coffee impresarios like the Dutchman Alfred Peet started to make a different kind of coffee. He was the guy who trained the founders of Starbucks.

So, that’s how we got here. Now let’s look at the coffee scene in the present day and give you a flavor of what you can expect when you visit The City by the Bay.

Related: The Perfect Coffee in Vietnam

Iced latte (photo: Demi DeHerrera)
Iced latte (photo: Demi DeHerrera)


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