What’s your go-to add-on to your brewed coffee? Sugar? Cream? Maybe chocolate powder or a dash of cinnamon? How about a pinch of salt in coffee? Well, the Navy during World War II used to do that.

The Practice of Adding Salt in Coffee in the Navy

Crewmen have coffee aboard the USS Corvina while docked at New London, Connecticut, in 1943. (Nationals Archives and Records Administration)/Military.com

It all started when navy Secretary Josephus Daniels banned alcohol “on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station” to put an end to the officers’ “wine mess.” Our sailors had to be fueled for their everyday naval works, so what’s else was left to do but rely on the coffee beans’ caffeine to keep them up, regardless of the time. You see, they had to work round the clock on different shifts, so they had to keep the coffee brewing all the time, ready for whoever needed a cup of steaming alertness. If you’re a coffee-lover, you’ll know that brewing a pot of coffee longer than necessary will result in a terribly bitter taste. You could try to fix it, as mentioned above, by maybe adding sugar or cream or perhaps even trying to water it down. For the WWII mariners, the most convenient and readily available quick fix was table salt. And so, as weird as it may sound, they started adding a pinch of salt to reduce the bitter taste of their coffee and make it bearable, if not better.

The practice could also be attributed to the fact that the desalination process of the seawater to turn it into drinking water couldn’t remove all the salt, thus resulting in a slightly salty-tasting cup of coffee that became the normal taste of coffee to sailors.  After they left the fleet, coffee in the civilian world just didn’t taste right without a slightly salty taste.

The Science Behind The Practice

Salt in a cup of coffee. Photo from VinePair Inc.

Did the trick really work? The answer is yes. Let’s look at the Science behind our seafarers’ practice to understand how it worked.