The 1973 Coffee Crisis at MSU

The past two decades have been a peaceful and prosperous time in the world of coffee. But it wasn’t always this way. Most current MSU students are too young to remember, but there was a time of turbulence and even violence associated with coffee.

It all began in 1973 with the rise of the instant coffee conglomerate. For decades the coffee industry was dominated by pure roasted coffee beans that were either preground and packaged or sold whole for the consumer to grind. And in the shadow of this were always the instant coffee producers. Instant coffee is made by grinding roasted coffee beans to a fine grit, dissolving the grounds in water, then filtering and freeze-drying the resulting product. The process creates a granulated, powder-like substance that dissolves in hot water. Although instant coffee is cheap and easy to make, it was never popular in Europe due to their long-standing traditions of coffee brewing, and it held only a small market in the United States.

But instant coffee producers were determined to change this, and in 1973 they formed a conglomerate cartel intent on creating a larger U.S. market. In order to do this the conglomerate began funneling millions of dollars into the U.S. government via lobbyists. Eventually the efforts of the new organization were successful, and a bill was passed that would place a hefty tariff on the importing of coffee beans in a non-freeze-dried form.

However, this angered the Organization of Coffee Exporting Countries (OCEC) which was a global cartel composed of the world’s most prolific coffee producers — Brazil, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Ethiopia and more — headed by the Italian government. Enraged by the U.S. tariff, OCEC raised the cost of pure coffee beans by the pound from $.50 to $3.00. This caused the prices in the U.S. to skyrocket — coffee shops began to close down by the hundreds, and those that managed to stay in business had lines of people that went for blocks. Grocery stores were forced to put up large signs that read “Only Instant in Stock.” The caffeine crisis did force some to turn to instant coffee, but it also angered a large proportion of Americans. Riots began to break out in major cities; protesters carried large banners that read “Say NO to Big Instant.” In an effort to combat the civil unrest, the then president Richard Nixon passed legislation that would limit the length of the workday to lessen the intake of coffee.

Montana was not insulated from this crisis. Here at MSU there were two on-campus coffee shops that felt the full effect of the shortage. Although they existed in the same place as the SRO and the Brewed Awakening do today, they were named differently in 1973. But no one can be sure of their previous names since they have been redacted from any and all MSU documents from that time.

What is known is that the crisis caused immense hostility between the two as they fought for business. It began as a friendly competition, but soon escalated to vandalism. One coffee shop supposedly spray-painted or otherwise defaced the other’s shop. In retaliation that shop snuck into the other’s and stole their supply of coffee. That was when things became violent. The workers and patrons of one shop would start wearing a specific color of clothing while the other shop would do the same and the conflict descended into a kind of gangwar. The last recorded event in the war was that one of the shops burned down its rival during the night. Then it appears as if all records of that time period at MSU disappeared. It is still unknown how the conflict ended, or if it truly did ever end. But the caffeine crisis of 1973 eventually ended, and to this day the two coffee shops of MSU continue to serve coffee. Some say there is still quite a rivalry between them.