can’t see the forest

A Brief History of Coffee

Posted in beverages, coffee, culture, food, History, Uncategorized by Curtis on 11/24/06

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Coffee Tree - C. Arabica

There it is, bathed in glorious light, perhaps my favorite tree in the world: C. arabica.

The coffee tree is native to the Kaffa district of Ethiopia, in northern Africa. Other species of the genus have been found growing wild throughout Africa, but thanks to Middle Eastern traders, arabica is where it all began. And by it, I mean the process which resulted ultimately in that bubbling noise across the kitchen. Excuse me for one moment. ye-Razi, Persian father of medicine

It is thought that the great Persian philosopher-physician Razi (ca. 800 AD) might have been the first scholar to mention the plant, calling it bunchum. Razi is most famous for discovering that, if you get someone drunk enough, you can perform minor surgery on him with a minimum of fuss. Actually Razi was an immensely important scientist whose contributions to modern medicine cannot be overestimated, his work far outstripping that of his European contemporaries; he penned the first systematic works on allergies and immunology, on pharmaceutical equipment and tinctures, and on the menstrual cycle, among many other topics. In fact, after reviewing his achievements, I furiously wonder why it is that our modern doctors take a Hippocratic Oath and not a Razi Oath. Razi was also one of the earliest proponents of objective ethics in the practice of medicine.

In Ethiopia, coffee was not brewed as a beverage. Monks generally ate the beans whole to aid in wakefulness during prayers. But within a few centuries, al-qahwa was a drink widely available in the Arab and Persian world, coming through Yemen to greater Arabia and from there to Persia, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. Muslim trade with Venice had brought the custom into southern Europe by the early Renaissance, with the tradesmen of that city turning a readily available bean into an item of high luxury through exorbitant pricing.

The British and Dutch East India companies had brought coffee to England by the 16th Century. In 1538, the German physician Rauwolf wrote of the plant after a stint of travel in the Near East:

A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. Its consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu.

Note the European’s “frank” surprise that coffee was taken in the morning; Christian codes of pre-Enlightenment Europe normally discouraged breakfast of any kind.

England’s first coffeehouse, operated by a Turkish Jew named Jacob or Jacobs, opened in 1650; twenty-five years later there were several thousand coffeehouses open for business in the British Isles. Lloyd’s of London, the famous insurer, began its life as an early coffeehouse. In 1674, the anonymous “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” was published in London, reading, in part:

The Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying Up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled the more kind Gallants, that they are become Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought. a London Coffee House, 1660

The ultimate worry of the Englishwomen was, as further reading reveals, that the “continual sipping of this pitiful drink” would eventually render Englishmen more adept at “talkativeness” than their wives. The “fumes of TOBACCO” were also suspect under the watchful eyes of the petitionesses. But one must wonder whether or not the primary source of this feminine angst might have been that, in no uncertain terms, women were not allowed in the coffeehouses.

Through trade and diplomacy the consumption of coffee was also becoming widespread in continental Europe during these decades, first in the court of Louis XIV and later in Vienna, whose military simply stole a great quantity of beans from a defeated Turkish army and then set up shop. Incidentally, the custom of adding milk and sugar to one’s coffee appears to have originated with Franciszek Kulczycki, the Polish-born army officer who opened the first Viennese coffee establishment.

As with other tropical commodities, coffee did not become widely available outside of wealthier quarters until the establishment of slave-powered coffee plantations in the Americas. The French established farms in the West Indies during the late 1600s and early 1700s, and in 1727 Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta smuggled some beans from French Guiana into Brazil. Thus began Brazil’s nearly two hundred years-long monopoly on the crop. By the early 20th Century different strains of coffee grown in different lands were undercutting the Brazilian pricehold on the commodity—C. canephora (robusta) is the most common competitor to arabica, its beans containing a great deal more caffeine. Robusta coffee tends to thrive in a wider variety of wetter climates than the more desert-friendly arabica species.

Brazil today retains its position as the world’s largest exporter of coffee. Vietnam is currently the world’s number two bean-pusher, with Colombia and Indonesia also producing significantly. Australia is a minor coffee producer, though it exports very little. Development of the coffee industry ‘down under’ began with the establishment of a farm between northern NSW and Cooktown in 1880.

In fact, coffee is one of the world’s most important primary commodities among which it ranks not far behind crude oil. It is estimated that by 2010 the planet will produce about 7 million tons of coffee annually. In 1997, the price of arabica coffee had reached an average of $3.00/lb. in New York. But the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement of 1975 which resulted in this pricing pressured the “Big Four” coffee companies to seek cheaper robusta beans, and by 2001 the New York price had stabilized at around $0.43/lb. due to a huge influx of the cheaper variety of coffee from secondary growing nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. This change in the market drove many South Asian, African, and Latin American producers of arabica out of business, not a few of whom turned to coca or other illicit crops for their livelihoods. As a compromise, many smaller roasters and later a few larger ones, such as Starbucks, began the “fair trade” practice of establishing pre-harvest pricing with smaller-scale coffee growers. The economic demand for fine-quality arabica beans is steadily recovering.

Espresso-roasted Coffee Beans Coffee beans must be roasted before they are sold for grinding and brewing. Through the 19th Century, coffee beans were generally purchased raw (“green”) and were cooked in a frying pan. This practice was eclipsed by the advent of vacuum-sealed packaging.

A number of chemical changes occur as the beans are roasted. Modern coffee roasters are usually large drums which rotate the beans through a current of hot gases. Roasting eliminates a number of the chemicals within the bean, including some of the caffeine, while transforming others into essential oils. Lighter roasts boast more of the original flavor of the bean, in which regional soil characteristics and other environmental peculiarities are evident, while darker roasts yield a more robust, homogenous, and less earthy flavor. After roasting, the beans are ‘quenched’ in sprays of cold water and any remaining impurities not eliminated through initial processing are removed. Local ‘artisan’ roasting has been increasingly popular in many of the world’s metropolitan areas, most predominately among the West Coast of the United States in cities such as Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Since roasting is the most flavor-centric aspect of the coffee production process, it is widely held that a craftsman’s approach to roasting can produce more interesting varieties of coffee than the large-scale automated processes of the industrial distributors.

There are a number of methods in common use through which ground beans are brewed. Most common today are the drip coffee maker, which largely supplanted the pressure-driven stovetop percolator, and the espresso machine. The drip maker causes a small stream of near-boiling water to pass through the coffee grounds and a filter and into the pot below. Espresso makers, which generally are used with very dark-roasted coffee, force hot (but not boiling) water under high pressure through the grounds and the result is a more strongly flavored beverage with a higher concentration of coffee matter in the suspension.

In North America, a common practice among rural peoples in bygone times (particularly Acadians and by extension the later Cajuns) was to substitute chickory for coffee due to the high price and limited availability of the latter. In New Orleans, a mixture of coffee and chickory is now commonplace, being served, for example, along with beignets in the Café du Monde in Jackson Square.

So how does your loyal blogsmith take his brew? Fresh-ground beans each morning; run them through the drip with at least twice the recommended amount of ground coffee; first and second cups black; third and fourth with half-and-half, cinnamon, sugar, and pure vanilla extract only. I’m not picky. I’m just an addict. Also, I decry foo-foo coffee specialty beverages such as ‘frapps’ and ‘mocha_____s’ and the like. But I will take a cappuccino now and again.

Modern Damascus Coffee House Ascertaining the beneficial and detrimental health effects of coffee consumption is a difficult matter, because certain observed effects cannot be attributed to any one substance within the complex organic mixture that is brewed coffee. Excessive caffeine consumption is known to affect the sleep cycle and may stimulate certain cancers and cardiovascular disorders. But some of the other chemicals in coffee have been shown to lower the risk for diabetes type 2 as well as cirrhosis of the liver. At any rate, it is understood that caffeine can be at least a psychologically addictive compound, particularly when it is regularly relied upon as one’s chief means of getting the day started or of ‘burning the midnight oil.’

Cuba boasts an oddly large percentage of octagenarians-and-up in its demographic, many of whom attribute their longevity, at least in passing, to wholesome rations of coffee and cigars.

Apart from its long and distinguished career as a neurological stimulant, coffee has also provided a great deal of social stimulus in communities around the world, from early Ethiopian and Muslim cultures forward. In Persian and Ottoman life the coffeehouses were gathering places where men would meet to drink, smoke, tell stories, listen to recitations of poetry, and play board games. Early European coffeehouses, particularly in England, were well-known as lively venues for literary and political discussion. The English King Charles II knew coffeehouses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”—truly my kind of place, let me tell you. We have mentioned that Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse, as was what would later become the London Stock Exchange!

In continental Europe of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and in much of the contemporary world, cafés and coffeehouses increasingly grew to represent arts culture, often featuring live or recorded music and/or visual artwork from independent, sometimes local, artists. Many feature a selection of pastries and light sandwiches along with espresso specialties, in a tradition originating with the Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and San Francisco North Beach establishments created by Italian-Americans. Performances of acoustic music, light theatre, and literary recitations are sometimes planned. Since bars and pubs in the US do not allow clintèle under the age of 21, American coffeehouses often serve as ad hoc meeting places for socially inclined youth.

Coffee has become a part of the modern corporate culture, with office employees freely partaking of the blaaaaack driiiiink in copious quantities to help them through mazes of spreadsheets, data processing chores, and TPS reports. Certainly caffeine appears to be the Fortune 500’s drug of choice.

That’s the history of coffee as we know it! And now, if you’ll be so kind, I must be off for my second pot of the morning.

For further information:

Wikipedia – Coffee
Wikipedia – History of coffee

Wikipedia – Coffee roasting
Wikipedia – Coffeehouse

Cup of Coffee - Ft. Lauderdale Coffee

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9 Responses

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  1. pegasus said, on 11/24/06 at 12:11 pm

    more info about my cappachino would be highly appreciated

  2. Curtis said, on 11/24/06 at 12:25 pm

    ;-) Phooey.

    Actually, Wikipedia has a nice article on cappuccino. It is a decidedly Italian tradition, but there is no mention of exactly when this particular concoction was invented.

  3. peoplesgeography said, on 11/26/06 at 4:34 am

    Aaaah (contented sigh) so good to hear someone expresso himself so well on the other liquid black gold topic, and must try vanilla essence. More on the Gemayel-Fisk post later as it warrants more than a quick slap-dash comment, and of course with my heritage I feel obliged to comment. Thanks for forwarding the Deep South Banana Pudding recipe; if you haven’t already forwarded to other friends, I think its good enough to post :)

  4. Curtis said, on 11/26/06 at 5:23 am

    Thanks on all counts, and I’m very keen to hear your take on the developments in Lebanon.

  5. anna said, on 11/30/06 at 1:55 pm

    i love coffee and now i know all about it, thanks!!

  6. Curtis said, on 12/1/06 at 12:47 pm

    Quite welcome. Drink up! I’m such a pusher.

  7. Kristen Lawrence said, on 1/18/07 at 1:44 am

    Google is the best search engine

  8. Nick S said, on 3/5/07 at 4:57 am

    Very much enjoyed the coffee discussion – have sent the link to some e-learners I’m tutoring at present. But no mention of Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BMV211)?

  9. Curtis said, on 3/6/07 at 1:11 am

    Thanks very much, glad to be of service. And, you’re right, the Coffee Cantata shouldn’t go unnoticed. Here’s Wikipedia on that work, the title of which was „Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (“Keep Quiet, Don’t Chatter”). It includes the full text in English translation.


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