I’ve been doing a great deal of research on salted coffee and experimentation with the various preparations of the beverage. I’ve found that adding salt to coffee was a common practice among seamen as well as several diverse ethnicities up through most of the last century. Then it seems to have fallen out of mainstream favor — becoming a kind of legend and nearly a forgotten practice — until just recently.
For those who are now discovering this old method, know that it can be used to brighten up any bad cup of coffee and to take out the bitterness. It adds a new “savory” flavor to what is otherwise a sweet beverage, and provides several health benefits. And it has now proven (in early 2009) to be a hot international trend in its different variations, discussed below.
Salted coffee among ethnic groups
The origins of salted coffee go back to the history of various seafaring peoples of Europe and Asia. The addition of salt in coffee was especially popular among the seafaring, “partly nomadic people of Mongolian race” including those in North Europe (the Laplanders of Finland) and parts of the Orient, including China. In Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, it was said that it was “a habit of the Laplander in the far north.”
It should be noted that in these northern European nations of the North Sea, including the Netherlands and Finland, coffee drinking has always been popular — in fact Finland is still known today as one of the most coffee-drinking nations in the world. It has been reported in literature from the 1940s that it was “the Finnish way” (below) and one secretary claimed that it was a Dutch secret. This practice could be due to the seafaring nature of these nations. Supposedly some peoples from the seafaring lands of the Far East added salt to their coffee, and in recent years (2008) it was reported online that “all the Chinese-run coffee shops” in NYC do this.
Today, while nearly forgotten among English-speaking peoples — a search online for “Finnish coffee” brings not a single reference to the addition of salt — there are many anecdotal reports and old reminisces of housekeepers and mothers from back in the 1950s and at least one mother-in-law who used a percolator always putting a little salt in their coffee, both before and after brewing, to reportedly great results.
Salt Coffee, the new craze in Taiwan
But salt coffee is coming back, and this new phase of mass popularity for the preparation started in Taiwan. As recently reported in the news, Taiwan has “gone crazy” for salt coffee, with articles in late 2008 and early 2009 appearing in the international press, including Australia’s The Age as well as Time magazine (“Some Salt with Your Coffee? Taiwan’s Hot Drink,” Jan 15 2009.)
The 85 Degree Bakery Cafe — who beat Starbucks in 2005 to become that nation’s largest coffee chain — launched a new product called Salt Coffee on December 11, 2008; spokeswoman for the company Cathy Chung had reported in the news that sales for the new Salt Coffee product was 20 to 30 percent higher than their standard “American Coffee” product. Unlike other forms of salted coffee discussed here, the 85 Degrees Bakery Cafe product contains sea salt — and instead of mixing it into the grounds or the brew, the salt is sprinkled on the cold whipped cream that is dolloped on top of the hot and steaming regular cup or the chilled ice-coffee version.
The drink gives you many flavors in one drink, and as reported in a Reuters news story, the popular, new formulation has been predicted to go mainstream.
These predictions are already panning out: it’s now officially come to the US, as the first reports of sea-salt coffee as a healthful American trend have been reported in Florida. On March 6, 2009, Good Morning Jacksonville hosts Patty Crosby and Phil Amato did a live taste test of sea-salt coffee on the air. [video]
Recipes for this below; I’ll recommend a good Hawaiian organic sea salt and give recommendations for others, too.
Recipes for salted coffee
The recipes are simple; most instructions are to just add a pinch of the salt to the grounds before perking or brewing. Some add a small amount to the individual cup of coffee after it’s brewed; they also include cinnamon or cardamon and mix it in before brewing to cut the bitterness. A little bit of salt is supposed to be effective for that.
Chow.com has a few brewing hints.
An old recipe among sailors (below) is to use 1 part salt to 6 parts coffee grounds.
To prepare the new “sea salt coffee,” as served in Taiwan, just brew a good, rich cup of dark coffee using fresh grounds, optionally give it a dollop of creamed frothy milk or whipping cream, and shake out some sea salt either on top of the cream or milk (if you’ve used it) or straight into the coffee. What type of sea salt you decide to use will be a personal preference but (as with coffee) many people prefer a good Hawaiian sea salt. Try stirring in a mixture of sea salt and turbinado sugar! This is a good coffee beverage to have before working out, because the salt will prevent dehydration.
You don’t have to stick with the organic Hawaiian sea salt — there are many types and pedigrees of sea salt, and it’s best to experiment and try a few. Brittany Sea Salt manufactures French sea salt in a handy shaker-top bottle that’s good for the workplace coffee station. (They also have large canisters of their signature “Fleur De Sel De Camargue” French Sea Salt at a very reasonable price.) It’s an interesting idea to try sea salts from around the world as well as to match the region of the sea salt with the type of beans: Italian roasts or Greek coffee with mediterranean sea salt, French roast with Brittany’s product, Kona blend with Hawaiian organic, and so on.
Salted coffee among sailors and seamen
The origins of salted coffee go back to the sea. Adding salt to the water used to brew coffee has been called a common practice among sailors, commercial fishermen, workers on offshore oil rigs and among any groups where potable water “has been stored for a long time,” the reason being that the added salt will cut the bitterness but removes some of the “stale” taste of the stored water.
“In 1926 Major Cheesman, for eight years British Consul in northwest Ethiopia, was served salted coffee”: from Ethiopia in Broader Perspective by Katsuyoshi Fukui (1997).
This is called Black Gang Coffee and has its origin among the men who worked in the engine rooms of ships. The thick, dark coffee they would brew would keep them up and going for the long, extended hours of their shifts, and the addition of salt was done “for the electrolytes” and because salt is a natural water softener. One “black gang coffee” recipe is to use one part salt to six parts dark coffee grounds, mix, and then brew
Salted coffee for your health
The sailors and seamen were probably on to something. It does improve flavor and the idea of adding salt to soften the water is good, but in a 1906 issue of Interstate Druggist, an American trade magazine, it was reported that a Dr. William C. Alpers of New York [search] added “a small quantity” of salt to the grounds used in brewing the coffee he served at the soda fountain of his drug store. Dr. Alpers claimed that the addition of salt gave the brew “a finer flavor” and at a meeting of the Manhattan Pharmaceutical Association he claimed to obtain the formulation from this practice from an old-time coffee manufacturer that had since gone out of business. [full text of his remarks] The pinch of salt added to his percolated coffee “improved sales considerably.” What Dr. Alpers also did was soak the coffee grounds in water for several hours before he added the salt or percolated it, “treating it as he would any crude drug from which he proposed to extract the active principle.” Too much salt, he said, would spoil the product.
With the advent of Taiwan’s new salt coffee beverage, food writers are discussing the healthful benefits of adding salt to coffee.
Salted coffee in literature
It’s referenced as Finnish coffee in Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women (1942), in which a hot coffee being perked by a Finnish woman in a small oceanside New England town is described as salty-tasting “in the Finnish way.”
It’s mentioned early on in The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces by Elsie Janis (1919), a WWI memoir, and apparently salt in coffee is mentioned at least a few times in mid-20th century literature, and even later: it’s been said that in an early Tom Clancy novel (Patriot Games?), an “ex-admiral at the CIA” instructed someone to add a pinch of salt to the brew, and that it was the old Navy method. And in a more recent mystery novel by Robert B. Parker, Hush Money, one of the “Spenser Mysteries,” the protagonist/chef puts a pinch of salt in his coffee grounds before brewing.
Black gang coffee is mentioned in at least three novels, all dealing with naval and military subjects. The oldest reference I’ve found is in Richard McKenna’s 1962 classic, The Sand Pebbles, a tale of a U.S. Navy gunboat on the eve of the Chinese revolution. (Amazon is currently offering it on sale with another postwar military classic, The Caine Mutiny.) Later, it’s mentioned in two of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” novels, Debt of Honor and The Bear and the Dragon. In an old WWII Navy book by Capt Abercrombie and Fletcher Pratt, they claim that the coffee’s tested by floating an iron wedge in it. (If it’s salted properly, the wedge floats, not sinks.)
The addition of salt in coffee is not always presented favorably. In Truman Capote’s classic true-crime “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, it’s a breakfast mistake — and the sugar went into the eggs (the exact line is used in a forgotten nineteenth century story from the “Monthly Packet”). [excerpt] It’s also a mistake in an old children’s book, “Tim’s Salted Coffee” (1974) [buy] And in Debbie Levy’s Richard Wright: A Biography, it was claimed that employees at one coffee shop hated black people and added salt to their coffee, giving them an “unpalatable” beverage.
For further reference