History Of Coffee

Coffee is a lot more than the cuppa joe at the diner every morning. It has history, politics, even religion and power in its tradition.

The lowly cuppa joe has historically had a lot more cultural and economic oomph that most of us realize. In that regard, even Starbucks is a johnny come lately in the world of coffee, although the company probably ranks among the largest single private buyers/ retailers on the planet, opening new stores at a clip of three per day worldwide. Starbucks has become to coffee what Ben and Jerry's is to ice cream - the right thing to do.

Coffee actually began coming into its own more than a thousand years ago. Whatever may happen to the coffee between field and cup, it remains that there two basic coffee species: arabica, which constitutes about 80% of all coffee, and which originated in Ethiopia; and robusta, which came first from the Congo basin of west Africa. While these two have certainly most of the market over the centuries, at least another hundred species of coffee have been identified. With genetically modified seed research, we can assume more are on the horizon.

Legend has it that animals, extraordinarily lively goats in this case, led to the discovery of coffee. The goatherd made "tea" from the berries and in due course the beverage found its way into Arab trade circles, all of this in the four centuries between 600 and 1000 AD. Roasting the beans has been credited to the Persians.

The first coffee shop of record was opened in 1475 in Constantinople, hardly two years after coffee was introduced in Turkey.

By the 16th century coffee was being seen as a scourge of sorts in the Middle East. Mohammedans attempted to have it prohibited, primarily because of the socio-political-religious arguments and discussions that boiled in the coffee houses. Coffee was likened to wine, an Islamic taboo.

Recognizing a good thing, in the early 17th century Dutch traders secured seed and were growing coffee in Java, a part of present day Sri Lanka. The closely-guarded Arab monopoly was broken, as could happen to OPEC today if the North Slope is exploited by the United States. By mid-century coffee was being sold throughout Europe, and coffee houses quickly followed.

The first and most famous of the European coffee houses was the Caffe Florian, opened in 1683. As in the Middle East, coffee houses soon became hotbeds of artistic and political discussion, debating and scheming. They were called "penny universities" because entry fee was one cent, presumably for all the coffee one could drink.

The King of Prussia, sniffing revolt simmering in the coffee houses, tried to close them down. He failed. Coffee was here to stay, and so were the open discussions wafting around the cuppa. The coffee klatch has a long tradition.

Coffee cultivation was introduced to the Caribbean in 1723 by a Frenchman, Gabriel Mathieu de Thieu. Today coffee is the most profitable legal industry in the tropics and developing countries. Indeed, it is second only to cotton as the most valuable agricultural crop in the world.

Fifty countries now produce coffee and forty of these rely on coffee as an essential source of foreign exchange. Forty percent of Colombia's national economy hinges on coffee exports, representing direct and spin-off employment for more than three million people. Worldwide, the

coffee industry is estimated to employ more than twenty-five million people.

The coffee we sip today from our mugs, demi-tasses, and wide-mouthed cups rides a circuitous route to our palate. From berry to brew involves much more than many realize. First, the coffee cherries must be hand-picked. Then the beans must be extracted from the "coffee cherry", husked

usually by water using a fermentation process. A drying process is sometimes used. Either way, the result is the bean - two per cherry; which is again husked in a mill. The coffee is then graded. Graded, processed beans are finally roasted and blended.

As for the coffee shops, whether Starbucks around the world will stimulate as much social discussion or, as some may opine, social unrest as occurred in the penny universities, is moot.

As for coffee klatches? Who knows. Suffice it to say, Americans consume more than thirty percent of all the world's roasted coffee. That translates into 2.5 Billion pounds annually within the United States.

What then, one should perhaps ask, is so great about coffee? The answers, at least for Americans, may be cultural. Americans instituted the coffee break. Small town America has its coffee row and urban America now has its Starbucks and its donut shops.

Specialty coffees now hold a major market share in the United States. For example, because it is more environmentally friendly, shade-grown coffee now demands a premium price. Ironically, twenty years ago and centuries before that, almost all coffee was shade-grown. Monocropping and agrochemicals have suddenly made shade-grown coffee unique, to say nothing of organically

grown coffee.

Perhaps the trend among the affluent toward these kinds of specialty coffees may solve the problem of rain forest degradation, if inadvertently. Even Starbucks is financing projects in several countries to encourage growers to return to cultivating under a forest canopy.

Obviously, coffee is more than the cuppa joe at the local diner every morning, more than the café

au lait, espresso, or cappuccino we boil hissing and bubbling out of our chrome-plated, multi-

levered coffee makers before we even brush our teeth. Coffee has history, politics, even religion and power in its tradition; truly something to savor.

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