August 17, 2021

A guide to New Orleans coffee culture

Famous for its unique café au lait, chicory roasted coffee, and the beignet pastry, New Orleans has long since enjoyed a strong reputation for its coffee. For this and other reasons, the Big Easy remains a perfect destination for tourists looking to enjoy a good cup of coffee.

In recent years, New Orleans has also become home to a number of specialty coffee shops and micro roasters. While the city’s coffee traditions remain popular, there is evidence that the city’s coffee culture is open to some change.

To learn more, I spoke to some local experts. They told me about the contrast between traditional coffee culture and the rise of specialty coffee in the city. Read on to learn more about the Big Easy’s coffee scene.

You might also like our article on specialty coffee shops in Lisbon.

bags of roasted chicory

New Orleans: The coffee port

New Orleans is located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, making it a key international shipping port. For centuries, coffee has been a major import.

According to the Louisiana Department of Tourism, dozens of coffee importers have operated in the area as far back as the late nineteenth century. The coffee they imported was then shipped to roasters around the country, bridging the geographical gap between producing countries and the US.

Today, the Port of New Orleans is still one of the USA’s most important coffee importing hubs. It brings in hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coffee per year, and boasts millions of square feet of warehousing space for storing green coffee. There are even roasting facilities at the port itself.

The city has also historically been home to some major US coffee brand names, too. One of Folgers’ largest national coffee roasting facilities is located near the port, adding to the area’s coffee heritage. 

After more than a century of this kind of access to coffee, it’s no wonder that the city has such a rich coffee culture.

coffee and beignets

Classic coffee culture

The complex and diverse coffee traditions of New Orleans derive from the city’s status as a maritime trading hub.

Over the years, New Orleans welcomed merchants from all across the world, perhaps most prominently from Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s no surprise that their traditions have since left their mark on the coffee.

Traditionally, dark roasted coffee has been popular in New Orleans. While it appeals to a large cross-section of coffee consumers by default, it is especially popular in the city as part of the classic New Orleans café au lait.

Café au lait is a classic French beverage, typically made with a 1:1 ratio of espresso to steamed milk. In New Orleans, you can find this type of beverage in some coffee shops, but the milk will often be just heated or scalded, rather than steamed.

However, older coffee shops will likely serve a unique style of café au lait – one made with espresso, milk, and chicory. 

While many associate the bitter, intense flavour of chicory with salads, the root of the chicory plant can actually be roasted, ground, and added to coffee. Roasted chicory root is bittersweet, and pairs well with dark roasted coffee.

This tradition can be traced back to French New Orleans, who used chicory root to bolster their coffee supplies during the naval blockades of the American Civil War. The habit of adding it to coffee has stayed with the city ever since.

However, this tradition is principally associated with one classic coffeehouse above all others: Café Du Monde.

The 150-year-old coffee shop is a great spot to enjoy a traditional cafe au lait with chicory. As with many other classic New Orleans coffee spots, Café Du Monde also sells beignets. These are square, fluffy donuts doused with powdered sugar, and they make a perfect sweet pairing with the traditional café au lait.

Beyond Café Du Mone, the classic chicory café au lait can be found in other coffee shops across New Orleans. In addition, grocery store shelves in the Big Easy are often lined with dark-roasted chicory coffee blends. 

Some local specialty coffee shops have even come to incorporate chicory into their menus, recognising the city’s unique coffee tradition.

man with bags of coffee

The Big Easy today: Micro roasters & modern coffee culture

As with many other coffee consuming cities, specialty coffee shops and roasters have started to emerge across New Orleans in recent years.

Byron Gomez is a Louisiana native and the founder of Exile Coffee Roasters. He has worked in coffee for nearly a decade. When he initially discovered specialty coffee, he knew he wanted to bring it back to New Orleans.

“I wanted to share the things I learned with the place where I’m from…I wanted to keep pursuing coffee,” Byron says. “I saw that a three-dollar cup of coffee could have a global impact, and I thought that was really cool.” 

Byron spent years as a barista at a specialty coffee shop in the French Quarter, before finally starting his own roastery.

“New Orleans needs to be represented on the coffee map,” Byron adds. “When people think of New Orleans within the realm of coffee, I think specialty coffee needs to join the conversation. 

“Historically, so much coffee has come through our port, but sadly, today, precious little of it is specialty. I hope that changes.”

Even newer to the scene is Undergrowth Coffee, a queer-owned and run coffee shop that sees micro roasting as a tool for “socially equitable community building”. 

Undergrowth’s co-owner, Alyssa, explains that as a part of this, all the baristas at Undergrowth receive some level of roasting training.

She adds: “We wanted to give people an opportunity that they otherwise might not have had to get into coffee roasting, as it is such a niche industry.”

coffee shop interior

How is coffee culture changing in New Orleans?

To learn more about how things are changing, I spoke with Sarah Lambeth, the owner of Pretty Coffee Roasting. Sarah says that for positive change, it’s important to balance tradition and innovation.

“[For example], I have no qualms with chicory coffee,” Sarah says. “I would rather embrace it, personally. I even tried to make some syrups from chicory. I like the concept of keeping the chicory flavour for nostalgia.”

She says that at Pretty Coffee, they have focused on omni roasting, making sure they get the best out of each coffee they buy.

She says: “It’s a balance. I want [our coffees] to be versatile. I try to get the coffees to show themselves off. Attention to detail, quality; these are things that are very important to me in my business.”

Alyssa, however, says that customers in New Orleans have a certain expectation for darker roasted coffee. 

“We primarily focus on city/medium roasts,” she says. “We don’t do [loads of full] dark roasting at this point, which is counter-intuitive as far as New Orleans coffee culture is concerned.

“The belief is that [medium roasts] are a much easier learning opportunity for the baristas.”

Alyssa also notes that Undergrowth does listen to its customers and the wider New Orleans coffee community. If something doesn’t work for customers, she says they address it.

She says: “Being such a micro roaster has worked out for us because we can tweak things as we need to, basically in the moment.”

In contrast to Alyssa and Sarah, Byron says Exile is “all about” specialty coffee. He tells me that he looks for unique coffees that are “hyper traceable with interesting stories and interesting characteristics”.

“I’m not adding anything to [the coffee],” he says. “My job is just to make it soluble so you can drink it and so you can taste the work that was put into it at the farm. My job is to just tell the story.”

coffee shop interior

Visiting New Orleans?

Here is a small list of recommended specialty coffee shops, should you decide to explore New Orleans’ coffee culture.

Cafe Du Monde is a must for tourists looking to sample a “classic” café au lait. Try their chicory coffee and beignets (which come in orders of three).

Spitfire Coffee in the heart of the French Quarter. They serve coffee from Exile, among other local roasters.

Bearcat Café serves amazing breakfast and lunch food, and has a great coffee program with Alinea Coffee Roasters, another local micro roaster.

Old Road Coffee is located in a charming little neighborhood, and slightly off the beaten track. However, it works with multiple local roasters to feature a range of different coffees.

New Orleans style coffee

What does the future hold for the New Orleans coffee scene?

It’s safe to say that people will always want to enjoy a beignet with a chicory café au lait in the French Quarter. These are rich, historic parts of New Orleans’ coffee culture, and it seems they’re here to stay. 

But what will change in the future?

“I’m not satisfied yet, but I’m excited,” Byron says. “I feel like the page is turning a little bit. I feel like there is a new wave of young entrepreneurs in New Orleans, all trying to do their own thing. 

“I personally have this dream of making coffee in New Orleans more accessible. I want to operate a shared café and roasting space, and invite people to do their own thing, with lower risks and lower startup costs.”

Ultimately, Byron says that the New Orleans coffee scene is at an interesting juncture. He sees change in the city’s coffee culture, even if it is slow, but notes that this could be an example for other cities across the US to follow.

sugar coated beignets

New Orleans has a rich coffee heritage, steeped in traditions that are centuries old. But while the chicory café au lait and beignets remain popular, specialty coffee culture is starting to emerge across the city. Ultimately, this means that there’s something for every kind of coffee drinker to enjoy, no matter what they like.

Between the large historic businesses operating near the port, and the younger start-ups seeking to source and roast high-scoring coffees, there is clearly a balance of tradition and innovation in the city, just as Sarah says. Whether or not this balance will continue in the years to come, however, remains to be seen.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the unique relationship between coffee and doughnuts.

Photo credits: Dominic Vittitow, Exile Coffee Roasters, Park Island Coffee Roasters

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