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Coffee - Puddle Water or Panacea?

November 14, 2008

(This introduction is taken from the book Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast)



O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all care, thou are the object of desire to the scholar. This is the beverage of the friends of God.
--"In Praise of Coffee," Arabic poem, 1511



[Why do our men] trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty bitter stinking, nauseous Puddle water?
--Women's Petition Against Coffee, 1674



 



Mark Pendergrast - Author of Uncommon GroundsIt is, after all, only a berry, encasing a double-sided seed. It first grew on a shrub -- or small tree, depending on your perspective or height -- under the Ethiopian rain forest canopy, high on the mountainsides. The evergreen leaves form glossy ovals and, like the seeds, are laced with caffeine.

Yet coffee is the second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth (after oil), providing the largest jolt of the world's most widely taken psychoactive drug. From its original African home, coffee propagation has spread in a girdle around the globe, taking over whole plains and mountainsides between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In the form of a hot infusion of its ground, roasted seeds, coffee is consumed around the world for its bittersweet bouquet, its mind-racing jump-start, and its social binding. At various times, it has been prescribed as an aphrodisiac, an enema, a nerve tonic, or a life-extender.

Coffee provides a livelihood (of sorts) for over twenty million human beings. It is an incredibly labor-intensive crop, with all but a tiny percentage requiring the individual human hand. Calloused palms plant the seeds, nurse the seedlings under a shade canopy, transplant them to mountain-side ranks, prune and fertilize, spray for pests, irrigate, harvest, and lug 200-pound bags of coffee berries (called "cherries"). Laborers regulate the complicated process of removing the precious bean from its covering of pulp and mucilage. Then the beans must be spread to dry for several days (or heated in drums), the parchment and silver skin removed, and the resulting green bean (or café oro, "golden coffee," as it is known in Latin America) bagged for shipment, roasting, grinding, and brewing around the world.

The inescapable irony of the coffee industry is that the vast majority of those who perform these repetitive tasks work in the most beautiful places on earth, with tropical volcanic peaks as backdrop in a climate-controlled heaven that rarely dips below 70 degrees Fahrenheit or tops 80 -- and these laborers earn an average of $3 a day. Most live in abject poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods. The coffee they prepare travels half-way around the world and lands on breakfast tables, offices, and upscale coffee bars of the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed countries, where cosmopolitan consumers routinely pay half a day's Third World wages for a good cup of coffee.

The list of those who make money from coffee doesn't stop in the producing countries. There are the exporters, importers, and roasters. There are the frantic traders in the pits of the coffee exchanges who gesticulate, scream, and set the price of a commodity they rarely see in its raw form. There are the expert cuppers and liquorers (equivalent to wine-tasters) who spend their day slurping, savoring, and spitting coffee. There are the retailers, the vending machine suppliers, the marketers, the advertising copyrighters, the consultants.

Coffee is an extraordinarily delicate commodity. Its quality is first determined by essentials such as the type of plant, soil conditions, and growing altitude. It can be ruined at every step along the line, from fertilizer and pesticide application to harvesting methods to processing to shipping to roasting to packaging to brewing. A coffee bean greedily absorbs odors and flavors from a host of nauseating companions. Too much moisture produces mold. A too-light roast produces undeveloped, bitter coffee, while over-roasted coffee resembles charcoal. After roasting, the bean stales quickly unless used within a week or so. Boiling or sitting on a hot plate quickly reduces the finest brew to a stale, bitter, mouth-turning cup of black bile. In addition, it can be adulterated with an astonishing array of vegetable matter, ranging from chicory to figs.

How do we judge coffee quality? Coffee experts talk about four basic components that blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity, and flavor. The aroma is familiar and obvious enough -- that fragrance that often promises more than the taste delivers. "Body" is a more subjective quality and refers to the feel or "weight" of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity does not refer literally to a P.H. level, but to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory. Coffee experts, like wine connoisseurs, become downright poetic in describing these components. For example, Sulawesi coffee possesses "a seductive combination of butter-caramel sweetness and herbaceous, loamy tastes," coffee aficionado Kevin Knox writes.

A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide an all-important moment of contemplation, can rekindle a romance. And yet, poetic as its taste may be, coffee's history is rife with controversy and politics. It has been banned as a creator of revolutionary sedition in Arab countries and in Europe. It has been vilified as the worst health-destroyer on earth and praised as the boon of mankind. Coffee lies at the heart of the Mayan Indian's continued subjugation in Guatemala, of the democratic tradition in Costa Rica, of the taming of the Wild West in the USA. When Idi Amin was killing his Ugandan countrymen, coffee provided virtually all of his foreign exchange, and the Sandinistas launched their revolution by commandeering Somoza's coffee plantations.

Beginning as a medicinal drink for the elite, coffee became the favored modern stimulant of the blue-collar worker during his break, the gossip-starter in middle-class kitchens, the romantic binder for wooing couples, and the sole, bitter companion of the lost soul. Coffeehouses have provided places to plan revolutions, write poetry, do business, and meet friends. The drink became such an intrinsic part of Western culture that it has seeped into an incredible number of popular songs. "You're the cream in my coffee." "Let's have another cup of coffee, let's have another piece of pie." "I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me." "Black coffee, love's a hand-me-down brew."

The modern coffee industry was spawned in late 19th century America, during the furiously capitalistic Gilded Age. At the end of the Civil War, Jabez Burns invented the first efficient industrial coffee roaster. The railroad, telegraph, and steam ship revolutionized distribution and communication, while newspapers, magazines, and lithography allowed massive advertising campaigns. Moguls tried to corner the coffee market, while Brazilians frantically planted thousands of acres of coffee trees, only to see the price decline catastrophically. A pattern of world-wide boom and bust commenced.

By the early 20th century, coffee had become a major consumer product, advertised widely throughout the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, national corporations such as Standard Brands and General Foods snapped up major brands and pushed them through radio programs. By the 1950s, coffee was the American middle-class beverage of choice.

For good or ill, coffee's modern saga explores broader themes as well -- the importance of advertising, development of assembly line mass production, urbanization, women's issues, concentration and consolidation of national markets, the rise of the supermarket, automobile, radio, television, "instant" gratification, technological innovation, multinational conglomerates, market segmentation, commodity control schemes, and just-in-time inventories. The bean's history also illustrates how an entire industry can lose focus, allowing upstart micro-roasters to reclaim quality and profits -- and then how the cycle begins again, with bigger companies gobbling smaller ones in another round of concentration and merger.

The coffee industry has dominated and molded the economy, politics, and social structure of entire countries. On the one hand, its monocultural avatar has led to the oppression and land dispossession of indigenous peoples, to the abandoning of subsistence agriculture in favor of exports, to over-reliance on foreign markets, to destruction of the rain forest and environmental degradation. On the other hand, coffee has provided an essential cash crop for struggling family farmers, the basis for national industrialization and modernization, a model of organic production and fair trade, and a valuable habitat for migratory birds.

The coffee saga encompasses a panoramic story of epic proportions involving the clash and blending of cultures, the cheap jazzing of the industrial laborer, the rise of the national brand, and the ultimate abandonment of quality in favor of price-cutting and commodification of a fine product in the post-World War II era. It involves an eccentric cast of characters, all of them with a passion for the golden bean. Something about coffee must make coffee men (and the few women who have made their way into their ranks) opinionated, contentious, arrogant, and monomaniacal. They disagree over just about everything, from whether Ethiopian Harrar or Guatemalan Antigua is the best coffee, to the best roasting method, to whether a press pot or drip filter makes superior coffee.

Around the world, we are currently witnessing a coffee revival, as mini-roasters revive the fine art of coffee blending and customers rediscover the joy of fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, fresh-brewed coffee and espresso, made from the best beans in the world.

Coffee has assumed a social meaning that goes far beyond the simple black brew in the cup. The worldwide coffee culture is more than a culture -- it is a cult. There are usenet newsgroups on the subject, along with innumerable sites on the World Wide Web, and Starbucks outlets populate every street corner, vying for space with other coffeehouses and chains.

And after all is said and done, it's just the pit of a berry from an Ethiopian shrub.

Coffee. May you enjoy its convoluted history over many cups.
Uncommon Grounds - cover






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