The Origin Story Of Nescafé Instant Coffee Dates Back To The 1930s

Necessity is the mother of invention. The old adage applies to instant coffee. Contrary to prevailing logic, Nescafé, the world's first globally distributed instant coffee brand, wasn't developed as a modern convenience for mid-century homemakers. Its genesis was driven by a last-ditch effort to repurpose tons of coffee beans laying waste in Brazilian storage facilities. It's a story that involves loss, unexpected connections, and perseverance.

When the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, coffee prices tanked. As the world's largest coffee producer, Brazil took a direct hit. A longstanding government policy made matters even worse. In order to maintain steady prices on the country's largest export, the Brazilian government routinely purchased excess stores of coffee beans and held them in warehouses for later distribution. The laws-of-supply-and-demand strategy was meant to drive up prices by limiting available inventory. It worked for a while, but there was a fatal flaw in the plan. To finance the scheme, the government borrowed from foreign governments. When the market crashed, the value of existing inventory dropped 90%, leaving the government of Brazil and its financiers with tons of worthless coffee beans.

Banque Française et Italienne pour l'Amérique du Sud, a government creditor, took a lemons-to-lemonade approach to the dire situation, partnering with Nestlé to invent a process for making high-quality instant coffee. Coincidentally, Louis Dapples, then-president of Nestlé, was a former bank employee. Dapples, in turn, tapped recent Nestlé hire, Max Morgenthaler, to seal the deal. The result? Nescafé.

If at first you don't succeed, grab some more coffee

Morgenthaler's mission wasn't easy. Others had tried and failed. On Civil War battlefields, soldiers quaffed an early version of instant coffee that reportedly went down like axle grease. And in 1901, Japanese-American chemist Sartori Kato patented a process for making soluble coffee concentrate, but it lacked the flavor and aroma of fresh coffee. Even Morgenthaler hit obstacles, including the loss of funding when, after three years of trial and error, Nestlé put the kibosh on his research. Undeterred, Morgenthaler continued experimenting on his own. Two years after Nestlé executives lost faith in the initiative, the resourceful chemist invited them to a tasting where he debuted his product. And the rest is history.

In 1937, Nestlé did a test run of Morgenthaler's instant coffee. The product, advertised as "coffee without a pot," was initially marketed to single men. (Apparently, there was some concern at the time that men were incapable of brewing a pot of coffee without female supervision). The test market also targeted mid-20th century homemakers, enabling them to serve up fresh coffee at a moment's notice. Nestlé was in for a surprise. In an instant (pun intended), it became clear that Nescafé was a hit with people from all walks of life. World War II further solidified Nescafé's hold on the market when the U.S. government ruled it was vital to the war effort. These days coffee lovers in more than 180 countries worldwide consume approximately 5,500 cups of Nescafé every second.