WASHINGTON — A recipe for beer brewed by the White House? The Obama administration happily shares it. A list of wines served at state dinners? No problem. But what about the First Family’s coffee habits?
My mug is empty.
Security concerns are initially cited. Then e-mails go unreturned. Caffeine consumption in the West Wing has, apparently, become a state secret.
For an administration that loves to talk about the importance of local food, especially when it comes from the celebrated White House vegetable garden, it turns out that the Obama White House makes it nearly impossible to find the source of its coffee and how it is prepared.
As a reporter covering the president in Washington — and as a passionate coffee drinker — I have sustained an enduring quest to figure out how the people inside one of the most intense work environments in the world get their caffeine fix.
Yes, the mysteries of ISIS or Russian President Vladimir Putin are more pressing. But coffee has currency within the White House. It is the fuel for peace summits, the jolt behind major speeches, and the lubricant for making world-altering decisions. The transition of two presidents traditionally involves a pre-inauguration cup of coffee between the sitting president and his soon-to-be successor.
Look at almost any photo of a meeting inside the Situation Room — from the killing of Osama bin Laden to preparations for a hurricane — and coffee cups are spread around the table. When foreign dignitaries come to visit, they are offered coffee. When top White House staffers need a charge for early mornings and late nights, there are urns full of Starbucks and longtime D.C.-based roaster ME Swings coffee waiting inside the exclusive dining room known as the White House Mess.
But what is served in the residence? Or when the White House pulls out all the stops for a state dinner? And is the First Lady a loyal coffee drinker?
No answers from the Obama administration.
Over the years, presidential candidates on the campaign trail show their taste for coffee by sipping diner brews in New Hampshire and Iowa. Once in office, coffee can become as intertwined with a president’s daily rituals as the morning briefing or the presidential motorcade leaving from the South Lawn.
“It was enjoyed every day,” said John Moeller, who served three presidents working in the White House kitchen from 1992 to 2005.
Thomas Jefferson, who stocked his cellar at Monticello with beans imported from the East and West Indies, deemed coffee “the favorite drink of the civilised world.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked White House staff to bring him a dark French roast with a coffee maker on the tray, so he could brew it to his liking.
Perhaps the truest barista-in-chief was Teddy Roosevelt, who had a coffee cup so sizable, his son once said, that was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” Roosevelt was also the one, legend has it, that said Maxwell House was “Good to the last drop,” coining what would become the coffee company’s catch-phrase.
During a White House renovation in the late 1990s, the kitchen staff had some money left over and decided to spring for a large espresso machine.
“We said what the heck, we could fit that into our kitchen,” said Moeller, a chef for the Clinton and both Bush administrations. “We were making espresso drinks for the first lady. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Bush enjoyed a nice latte in the afternoon. It wasn’t unusual getting a call at 1 or 2 in the afternoon: ‘Time for a latte.’ ”
In the residence, Moeller said, there was a Mr. Coffee drip machine, while downstairs there was a larger machine to serve the masses. Several French press devices were kept nearby, but were rarely used.
This brings us to Obama, whose history-making bid for the presidency apparently extends to the kitchen. The White House’s current chief occupant may not even be consuming whatever beans they’re buying.
That’s right. Obama, who has been bedeviled by the Tea Party and whose critics say he needs a little more pep in his step, is himself partial to tea.
Study photos of Obama — in the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One, inside the Situation Room — and he almost always has a cream-colored, gold-trimmed porcelain cup in front of him. But inside those cups, aides say, is almost certainly tea (his favorite is Black Forest Berry made by Honest Tea).
“Very honestly, I do not recall him drinking coffee ever,” said Arun Chaudhary, his former videographer.
“Obama’s not really a coffee drinker,” said Jon Favreau, who is the president’s former speech writer and most definitely a coffee drinker, often grabbing a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts on his way into work. “I’ve seen him order tea quite a few times but never coffee.”
When the president stepped into Starbucks recently, he emerged with a cup of tea. When he went to a specialty coffee shop in Missouri, he left with a cup of iced Earl Grey. When the barista offered tea with lavender, he responded, “I’m not confident enough to order that.”
Despite the boss’s indifference, the White House does care where its coffee comes from. They’re just not saying, citing “security of the White House food supply.”
Do they serve Dunkin’ Donuts? No, says Dunkin’. Is Starbucks the provider? They seem to suggest not (although one informed source suggests so).
The White House Mess, which is operated by the US Navy, served Dunkin’ Donuts from 2006 through the end of 2011. This was a joy for many of the Massachusetts natives who occupied the White House during the Obama administration. But Dunkin’ chose not to renew the contract, wanting its coffee to be served only at franchised locations.
Maybe the Obama White House relies on Intelligentsia, the roaster from his hometown Chicago? (Company officials say no, but the president was known to visit one of their stores before he ran for president). What about Blue Bottle, the buzzy brewer out of California? (They insist no, although they once served the First Lady a French press brew during a breakfast fund-raiser in Berkeley).
To those who may think the Obamas could actually be growing beans in the White House garden, think again.
It’s too cold. “It’s all to do with climate. You’re talking ideal 5,000 to 6,000 feet of altitude with 75 degree average — no higher than 86 no lower than 50,” says George Howell, a Massachusetts-based pioneer of the specialty coffee movement.
Since Lyndon Johnson, only American wines have been served at official functions. So if the White House wanted to ensure the same for coffee, they could only rely on two places to grow their coffee: Hawaii, or Puerto Rico.
Here’s where we might find some answers.
The State Department, it turns out, regularly orders its beans from a plantation in Puerto Rico. The White House could have access to that batch.
But the nearest clue as to where the White House brews may be coming from is a plantation in Hawaii. A little Googling reveals that one company that is known to have supplied the White House with coffee is Kona Rainforest Farm, a four-employee, 14,000-tree farm in Captain Cook. They tout on their website that they are “now served at the home of America’s First Family - the Obama White House.”
The White House has ordered from the farm four times, most recently for Independence Day 2013, for a total of about 50 pounds. They always get the same brew: the Extra Fancy Blend, which goes for $45 per pound.
“Initially they were buying pretty frequently. I think [they’ve been impacted] with budget cuts, and our coffee’s not cheap,” said Robert Barnes, the owner. “In recent years it’s been more special events.”
The White House sommelier, Daniel Shanks, also told them the White House doesn’t serve caffeinated coffee after noon, and asked where he could get some Hawaiian decaf. Barnes turned him toward nearby Pele Plantations and Shanks ordered about 25 pounds of it in 2009, according to the plantation owner, but hasn’t ordered since.
But here’s the thing. While we’ve tracked down the only known supplier of White House coffee, there is no way it is the only supplier. With about 50 pounds of regular, and 25 pounds of decaf, on the books, that would not be enough to keep the building going over the past five and a half years.
I go through more coffee than that in about two years.
As to where the rest of the coffee may be coming from, Americans want answers!
OK, maybe just this American does.
But the White House seems willing to let the mystery endure.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.