Why Do We Drink Coffee at Breakfast?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Basheer Tome)

Many of us associate coffee with mornings. It’s the thing that we need to kickstart the day. But it has been shown that the best time to drink coffee isn’t even right when you get up. Because of the chemistry in your brain, it’s actually a few hours later, when the coffee gives you its full effects.

So, why did we even start drinking coffee in the morning?

Well, it was better than alcohol in the morning.

The introduction of coffee to Europe has been said to have helped in the sobering of the “alcohol-soaked” continent, the caffeinated drink replacing alcoholic libations, which were often consumed even in the morning.

Different social circles in different countries obviously had various traditions of what they consumed for their morning beverage, but there are many references to alcoholic and fermented drinks throughout history. The Romans ate bread soaked in wine, British soldiers in the 1890s are said to have kicked off their days with rum and tea, children in the US used to drink hard cider, and in Germany, a beer soup was the morning drink of choice.

The arrival of coffee in the late 1700s and then in the early 1800s, as it went from a drink for the upper echelons of society to something more democratized, completely changed Europe. As Mark Pendergast writes in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World, “the drink of the aristocracy had become the necessary drug of the masses.”

(Image credit: David Leggett)

And it kept the Industrial Revolution humming.

During the Industrial Revolution, coffee kept textile workers going through the entire day, as they were paid low wages and worked long hours, keeping them from cooking full meals. “Because coffee was stimulating and warm, it provided an illusion of nutrition,” writes Pendergast. When coffee came to the United States it was embraced as well, even becoming the patriotic drink of choice in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party debacle.

A buzz (but no hangover).

Drink a cup of coffee (or two) and you know what it feels like when the effects kick in. You feel alive, excited, and ready to take on the world. You have a bit of a buzz. But of course, that buzz doesn’t go in the same direction as it does when you are drinking alcohol. It makes sense that this alert feeling that we get from coffee would fit perfectly into our morning routine. In other words: Do we drink coffee because it gives us a buzz but doesn’t leave us drunk? Regardless of what the reasons were that our forefathers opted for this new beverage in the early hours of the day, coffee as a morning drink was here to stay.

Coffee became so ubiquitous with breakfast that Mark Twain wrote in A Tramp Abroad, published 1880: “the average American’s simplest and commonest form of breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak.”

(Image credit: Thomas Leth-Olsen)

It is interesting that we would attach this exact time slot to coffee.

Coffee is after all, not just a morning drink. It’s the fodder for late morning and early afternoon breaks at the office, it is said to have fueled the intellectual ideas of the French Revolution, and it’s often the thing to round off a long meal in Europe.

Coffee is certainly not just a morning drink, but there’s something in its characteristics and properties — warm and caffeinated — that have made it so we identify it with our morning routines.

Love coffee in the morning? We’re in the same boat. But don’t underestimate its powers at other times of the day, too.