Coffee is perhaps one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. Its history can be traced back as early to the 9th century, and it is believed to have originated in Western Ethiopia. In fact, some suggest that the name coffee might come from Kafia, an Ethiopian city. The popularity of coffee is known to have spread to European countries by the 17th century and eventually made its way to the American colonies. It is somewhat interesting to note that coffee was not well received initially in America. The popularity of coffee grew during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, when the country experienced a tea shortage. Today, coffee is a very popular beverage in the United Sates, as well as the rest of the world.
The most common form of coffee to be found in households is instant coffee. Instant coffee does not require brewing, or any preparation other than adding hot water and mixing it with a spoon. During production coffee beans are first roasted and then ground. The ground beans are cooked several times in water in order to extract flavor from the beans. This creates a liquid that is referred to as coffee “liquor”, which is eventually dried into a powder by injecting hot steam to remove the moisture from the liquor. The drying process is known as agglomeration, and the name of the piece of equipment used during this procedure, is yes, called an agglomerator. The higher quality instant coffees are dried through a process known as freeze-drying. This entails freezing the coffee liquor before the drying process. Unlike agglomeration, the drying process occurs in vacuum. In the case of both methods, the drying occurs at above ambient temperatures.
It is assumed that instant coffee does not require a hechsher, since coffee plants process just that and nothing else. Although there are forms of flavored instant coffees, the flavors are added at ambient temperatures after the drying process. Nevertheless, it is good and prudent practice to purchase instant coffee with a hechsher. Circumstances and processing methods are always subject to change, and require constant monitoring to confirm that these assumptions remain correct. Many years ago, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt’l recommended that consumers purchase salt and other seemingly harmless products, with a hechsher only (see Eidus LeYisroel p. 132).
There are several interesting halachik discussions involving coffee. One fascinating topic is whether the prohibition of bishul akum applies to this beverage. The gemara in Avodah Zarah (38a) states that it is prohibited to consume food cooked by a goy if the item cannot otherwise be eaten raw, and is prepared in a way that it could be served at an elegant affair. Coffee would seemingly fall into these categories since it is a cooked beverage, the coffee beans are not edible raw, and it can be served at high class meals. Accordingly, many poskim ruled that the restriction of bishul akum applies to coffee (see Pischei Teshuva Yoreh Deah 114:1 and Darchei Teshuva 113:2). However, there are a number of poskim that were lenient as well. Tosafos in Avodah Zarah (31b) posits that the prohibition of bishul akum does not apply to beer since the beracha of beer is shehakol, not mezonos, this demonstrates that the beverage is viewed primarily as water. Therefore, the prohibition of bishul akum would not apply to beer, since water cooked by a goy is permitted. The Pri Chodosh (Yoreh Deah 113:7) applies this reasoning to coffee as well.
The psak of the Pri Chodosh was accepted by a number of poskim. Rav Shlomo Eiger cites in his Gilyon Maharsha (Yoreh Deah 113) that it was accepted practice amongst many righteous individuals to purchase coffee at coffeehouses owned by goyim (also see Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 113:22). In recent years the existence of coffeehouses has become very prevalent in the United States. There are however, notable differences between Rav Shlomo Eiger’s time and today. Aside from the issue of bishul akum, there are other possible considerations. Modern coffeehouses all serve flavored coffees, which should require a hechsher. Moreover, it should also be assumed that hoses and other utensils could be shared between all varieties of coffee. It is not simple to assume that one may even purchase black coffee from this type of establishment. Whether the status of utensils used at a coffeehouse should be assumed treif is not a simple question. and requires the consultation of a Rov. Moreover, the Chochmas Adom (66:14) writes that although the prohibition of drinking with a goy (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 114) only applies to certain alcoholic beverages, it is proper to refrain from sitting and drinking any beverages amongst goyim. Very often these type of establishments are not a proper “heimishe” atmosphere. According to the Chochmas Adom, even if one assumes that the non-flavored coffee is kosher, it is still proper to drink it elsewhere.
Viewing coffee essentially as water could have other halachic consequences. The halacha is that common beverages, known as chamra medinah, at times may be substituted for wine intended for a kos shel bracha. However, water does not qualify (see Pesachim 107a and Shulchan Aruch 272:9). Whether coffee qualifies as chamra medinah is questionable. The Rogatchover Gaon (see Shut Tzafnos Paneach 2:34) writes that tea may not be substituted for wine since it is principally water.1 However, a number of poskim were of the opinion that tea would be acceptable as chamra medinah (see Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 272:14). Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l writes that tea may be used for a kos shel bracha as chamar medinah if there is no other alternative (see Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 2:75). Seemingly, this should apply to coffee as well2.
There is another possible upshot to viewing coffee as similar to water. It is forbidden for a person to eat or drink in the morning before davening shacharis. However, it is permissible to drink water (see Berachos 14b and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 89:3). The Mishnah Berurah (89:22) writes that it is permitted to drink black coffee, without milk or sugar, in the morning before davening.3 According to the Mishnah Berurah, black coffee is viewed like water with regards to this halacha.
The OU periodically gets contacted by consumers about the status of OU certified instant coffees with regards to cooking on Shabbos. Since the ground coffee beans are cooked in water before the drying process, there should certainly be no problem making instant coffee on Shabbos in a kli sheini (see Mishneh Berurah 318:39).
As always, a Rov should be consulted.
1 There could be other consideration whether tea or coffee may be used for a kos shel beracha. See Mishneh LeMelech Hilchos Berachos 3:12 and Shut Maharm Shick Orach Chaim 81.
2 Assuming that tea or coffee may be substituted for wine does not seem to have any bearing on the discussions above about bishul akum and beracha rishonah. Beer for example, requires the beracha of shehakol and is not subject to the restriction of bishul akum according to Tosafos in Avodah Zarah (31b) because it is principally water. However, beer is also provided as an example of chamra medina and may be used for a kos shel beracha.
3 There are contemporary poskim that permit drinking coffee in the morning with sugar and milk before davening shachris. See sefer Doleh U’Mashkeh p.65, footnote 182.