Salted coffee

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 topics/370705#2290097”>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 [amazonify]0142001619::text::::Salt: A World History[/amazonify], 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 to-coffee-binge-drinking/”>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 topics/370705#2289455”>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 “topics/370705#2291739”>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 topics/370705#2288387”>housekeepers and topics/370705#2289304”>mothers from back in the 1950s and at least one topics/370705#3088683”>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. [toryid=132989&catid=142″>video]

Recipes for this below; I’ll rec­om­mend a good Hawai­ian [amazonify]B000K7644E::text::::organic sea salt[/amazonify] and give rec­om­men­da­tions for oth­ers, too.

Get the lat­est news on this trend

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 topics/370705#2288429”>include cin­na­mon or car­da­mon and mix it in before brew­ing to cut the bit­ter­ness. A lit­tle bit of salt is sup­posed to be topics/370705#2288527”>effective for that. 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 [amazonify]B000K7644E::text::::a good Hawai­ian sea salt[/amazonify]. 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 [amazonify]B000X678VU::text::::handy shak­er-top bottle[/amazonify] that’s good for the work­place cof­fee sta­tion. (They also have [amazonify]B000EQSAIY::text::::large can­is­ters of their sig­na­ture “Fleur De Sel De Camar­gue” French Sea Salt at a very rea­son­able price[/amazonify].) It’s an inter­est­ing idea to [amazonify]B000NJH4KC::text::::try sea salts from around the world[/amazonify] 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 topics/370705#2289174”>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

Interstate Druggist, 1906

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 [amazonify]0452261406::text::::The Prodi­gal Women[/amazonify] (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 ([amazonify]B001FGDEEM::text::::Patri­ot Games?[/amazonify]), 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, [amazonify]0425174018::text::::Hush Mon­ey[/amazonify], one of the “Spenser Mys­ter­ies,” topics/370705”>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, [amazonify]0899668577::text::::The Sand Peb­bles[/amazonify], 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, [amazonify]0899668577::text::::The Caine Mutiny[/amazonify].) Lat­er, it’s men­tioned in two of Tom Clan­cy’s “Jack Ryan” nov­els, [amazonify]0425147584::text::::Debt of Hon­or[/amazonify] and [amazonify]0425180964::text::::The Bear and the Drag­on[/amazonify]. In an [amazonify]B000KII7MA::text::::old WWII Navy book by Capt Aber­crom­bie and Fletch­er Pratt[/amazonify], 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” [amazonify]0375507906::text::::In Cold Blood[/amazonify], 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) [[amazonify]141206922X::text::::buy[/amazonify]] And in Deb­bie Levy’s [amazonify]0822567938::text::::Richard Wright: A Biog­ra­phy[/amazonify], 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

There’s a lit­tle story out there about one man’s rea­son for salt­ing his cof­fee, and you can also read the fun­ny story of Bar­bara O’Con­nor’s expe­ri­ence with salt­ed cof­fee.

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First published on March 7th, 2009 at 4:13 pm (EST) and last modified on March 12th, 2009 at 9:58 am (EST).

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