The Wild Foods Guide to Coffee - A Short History of Coffee
A Short Coffee history
"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."
-T. S. Eliot
There is a legend surrounding the origin of coffee.
It goes something like this: A goat herder in Ethiopia named Kaldi noticed that some of his goats were acting erratic after eating berries from a nearby bush. After trying a berry himself, he began dancing around with his goats, excited by the obvious caffeine rush. Kaldi soon turned his newfound cherry-eating into a daily ritual.
A local monk then noticed Kaldi's new habit and tried some of the berries himself. After feeling the effects, he thought of boiling the berries to make a drink that monks could sip during long meditations and prayers. News quickly spread to neighboring monasteries and, as they say, the rest is history.
Long before coffee was a drink, coffee beans were crushed and rolled into balls of animal fat and eaten by nomadic warriors in Ethiopia. There is debate among historians on the exact date of coffee cultivation. The first recorded mention of coffee was by a philosopher and astronomer named Rhazes (850-922 A.D.), whom referred to coffee as “bunchum” and promoted it’s medicinal use when he said, "bunchum is hot and dry and very good for the stomach.” Soon after, Europeans traveling to the Middle East during the sixteenth century recorded coffee in travel journals.
Due to the prohibition of alcohol in Islamic countries, coffee become a popular substitute, especially in Turkey. Most coffee beans during the sixteenth century came from Yemen. As the Ottoman Empire grew throughout the Middle Ages, coffee continued to grow in popularity to the point that it was considered as important as bread in everyday Islamic life. There was even a Turkish law passed that allowed a wife to divorce her husband if he refused her coffee.
As coffee’s popularity grew, the Arab world become protective of the crop, forbidding foreigners from visiting coffee farms and allowing beans to be exported only after they had been boiled to destroy their germinating potential. Eventually, in the early 1600s, Dutch spies were able to smuggle out a coffee plant, which was brought to the colonies in Java.
As coffee spread throughout Europe, it became so popular that people started meeting to drink it together, which led to the creation of the coffee house. Coffee houses become known as “schools of the cultured,” where patrons played games, discussed ideas and played music. The first English coffee house was opened in 1650 in Oxford, England.
During the same time, many doctors became the first champions of coffee in England, praising the liquid for it's health benefits. The public perception of coffee, and coffeehouses, became a public meeting place that was the counterpoint to the most popular social place of the time, the tavern. Some even viewed coffee as a solution to the problem of public drunkenness.
In 18th century, coffeehouses became known as "penny universities" because patrons were charged a penny for a cup of coffee and entry. Once inside, patrons had access to other patrons, games, books and news. Coffee houses became a place for spreading news and ideas, and were open to any individual regardless of social or economic class.
Coffee house topics of discussion included politics, gossip, business ideas, current events and debate. In fact, historians often associate the Age of Enlightenment with the widespread popularity of coffeehouses in English society.
Coffee Becomes A Target
But not all was always peachy keen for the coffee bean. Many a revolution can be traced back to coffee house gatherings where ideas spread and convictions hardened into action. The connection between the coffee house and the spread of ideas made coffee a risk to political and religious establishments.
This made coffee a target.
A coffee prohibition in Turkey resulted in any second-time offender being sewn up in a leather bag and thrown into the river. In other parts of the Arab world, coffee was suppressed by authorities in an effort to stifle it's spread, although these bans were usually short lived. Like alcohol, coffee served too powerful a tonic to ban without stirring public unrest.
Finally, in the early 1700s, coffee growing spread rapidly throughout the tropics, becoming a perfect crop (addicting and grown cheaply) for the European empires to trade.
Coffee In America
The first license to sell coffee in the American colonies was issued in 1670 to an individual in Boston. It wasn't long before the big London coffeehouses established coffee houses in America. After the Boston Tea Party of 1765, drinking coffee, which could be imported directly from French and Dutch colonies, became an act of patriotism. By choosing coffee over the British taxed, and favorite, tea, Americans found a way to circumvent paying unjust taxes. This helped fuel coffee's popularity in American culture, and may be the reason why coffee is a more popular drink than tea nowadays.
Coffee still had its ups and downs in America, with it initially being too expensive for most. But when the taverns near popular ports started buying beans, coffee’s popularity grew. It wasn’t until the advent of steam-powered ships and advancements in roasting and packaging—which helped improve the quality and flavor of coffee while reducing cost—that coffee became accessible to the lower classes.
Then World War 2 happened. Companies started marketing cheap robusta beans in the form of “instant coffee” in conjunction with prompting coffee as a drink for convenience rather than enjoyment. Unfortunately, these campaigns worked and the American public developed the habit and perception that coffee should be cheap, fast and not flavorful. Because these instant coffees were barely drinkable without adding more sugar and cream, Americans got used to drinking coffee this way.
The instant coffee revolution is known as the first of three “Waves” of coffee. They coffee waves go like this:
First Wave: Mass-produced coffee meant to reach as many people as possible. Instant coffee. Not fresh. Cheap beans. No flavor.
Second Wave: Promotion of “specialty coffee,” in which consumers become more interested in the coffee, paying special attention to the roast, while viewing coffee as an enjoyable experience. Starbucks, and the growth of other independent coffee shops around the country, are largely attributed to having the most influence on this wave. Espresso was a big part of this wave, which included flavored espresso beverages popularized by Starbucks that, nowadays, seem to be more of a “coffee-flavored” drink than anything.
Third Wave: The current wave of coffee is the wave we are in now (and one we embrace here at Wild Foods): An interest to know everything there is to know about coffee, from bean to cup. And the importance on quality.
The newest wave of coffee is back-to-basics; celebrating quality coffee, how it’s produced and where it’s from, and often enjoyed straight—espresso, cold brew, black, hot—or in simple concoctions—latte, macchiato, cappuccino, Americano—all of which allow you to experience more of the coffee itself. Compare this to the second wave in which coffee was “masked” with more and more elaborate flavorings and mixes (undoubtedly a means to appeal to the milder American coffee palate).
We are all about the Third Wave of coffee here at Wild Foods. By focusing on the quality of the coffee beans themselves, the entire chain of supply is improved all the way down to the coffee plant itself. Farmers get better wages for their crop, which allows them to invest in even better crops. Better crops result in a better working conditions and pay for the laborers and a better local environment. Supporting better crops ensures a more sustainable, and fair, system of trade, import and export.
When farmers are paid a fair wage for their crops, they are less likely to fall into a form of debt peonage in which exporters batter down prices while holding the farmers a “hostage” of sorts due to farmers having no alternatives. Think of this anytime you buy cheap coffee; you are supporting a modern-day form of slavery—maybe even actual slavery in some cases—while also lining the pockets of those that thrive by taking advantage of others and the environment.
Of course, the quality of coffee isn’t merely a moral argument, it’s also a matter of taste. Quality coffee tastes better. In some cases, good coffee isn't in the same realm of cheap coffee; it's like comparing apples to oranges. Combine this with the moldy coffee issue, which is a health implication, and you have a pretty strong case for quality coffee.
*Personally, this is the same way I feel about cheap, factory farmed meat. I won’t support it. I won’t eat it. I can hardly even look at it. And that is as much a moral stance as it is a health and palate decision.
As I said in the introduction, if there’s at least one thing you takeaway from this guide it is this: BUY GREAT COFFEE AND SHUN THE REST!