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Coffee, Sugar, and the History of John Street

Walking the bridges over the tidal channel in BBP’s John Street section, you might look across the river at the stunning Manhattan skyline. You might take in the beautiful new parkland. Maybe your gaze shifts down into the channel, where you see tidal grasses wafting in the current.

Have you noticed the footings? These relics- four-sided, tapering structures of metal and concrete- are the last remnants of a sugar refinery that used to stand there. The building was owned by Brooklyn coffee kingpins, the Arbuckle brothers, known for creating the first brand of nationally marketed pre-roasted coffee, called Ariosa. But the Arbuckles’ refinery didn’t produce sugar to use as a coffee sweetener. Nonetheless, refined sugar was one of the keys to Ariosa’s nationwide success.

When the Arbuckles started operating in the late 19th century, coffee was sold as green, unroasted beans. The difficult roasting process took place at home over a wood-burning stove or campfire. Even one burned bean could ruin the batch, and the coffee had to be used soon after roasting or it would go stale. The short shelf life of roasted beans prevented them from being sold pre-roasted, but Ariosa’s unique glaze eliminated this concern. After roasting, the beans were glazed with a mixture of sugar and egg that sealed the surface and halted the staling process. It was a revolutionary idea. Buying pre-roasted meant the drinker only had to grind it before brewing. It isn’t hard to see why it was so popular - Ariosa saved customers time and effort. But to glaze all of the beans in the country’s most popular brand of coffee, the Arbuckles needed a lot of sugar.

Their longtime sugar suppliers, Havemeyer Sugar, refused to negotiate lower bulk prices when the Arbuckles approached them with increased demand. So the brothers took a bold step to ensure the future of their best-selling brand and built their very own refinery next to their factory. This refinery processed the sugar that was vital to Ariosa’s success, and there was a lot of it. At its height, Arbuckles’ Coffee roasted 25 million pounds of coffee every month.

©Etienne Frossard

The sugar refinery’s footings survive today in John Street’s tidal channel. Their presence creates an interesting mix of historic periods. The channel’s native plantings and edge design evoke the Brooklyn waterfront before industrialization. The industrial-era footings remind us that the waterfront never stops changing. Tying pre- and post-industrial periods together in this new parkland gives visitors a bigger picture of the Brooklyn waterfront: its past, present, and hints at what may come in the future. To fully appreciate it, we suggest bringing a coffee, finding a seat, and enjoying the view.

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