Coffee is Big Business
being the second most traded legal commodity on the planet. Once known as The Wine of Araby and having been banned in many places over the centuries, it now employs 125 million people worldwide, with 80 per cent being produced by 25 million smallholders.
Coffee’s discovery goes something like: an Ethiopian goatherd noticed that one of his flock was very frisky which on closer examination, seemed to be the result of the goat eating red coffee berries. After much trial and error, roasting the beans was found to be a way of producing a pleasant drink with additions which included sugar, cardamom, ginger & figs – adding milk to coffee came much later. The trees found their way across the Red Sea to Yemen and for centuries, you could only get the roasted beans from the port of Mocha Roasting the beans prevented propagation with the death penalty for anyone caught trying to smuggle unroasted beans out. But like silk which had a similar sanction, it eventually slipped out.
The human story behind this beverage which we now take for granted is tragic even today. Two books on the subject (see below) give the grisly detail.
A few positives
First British coffee house is opened by an enterprising apothecary (read chemist) in Oxford in 1651, soon spreading all over the UK leading to the establishment of: our London Stock Exchange, Lloyds of London (the worldwide insurance market) Lloyds Register of Shipping (where’s my ship? is it still afloat?) The Royal Society (scientists’ club) and even Freemasonry as we now know it. Public houses were fine for meeting friends but not so good for business. Enter coffee houses where the beverage kept you awake e.g. Jonathan’s Coffee House, Tillyard’s Coffee House, Grecian Coffee House (Popular with Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley) & Jerusalem Coffee House in Cornhill.
Intimately entwined with coffee is slavery. Five million Africans were captured and sold to Brazilian plantation owners by other African traders compared to the half-million taken to North America. The buyers did not have to spend any time chasing round the jungle to get their cargo – they were already penned up in jails when the ships arrived – having been captured by other Africans – a fact usually forgotten when reparations for slavery are mentioned. These unfortunates were traded for European manufactures like guns where the price of a slave varied between 2 and 7 rifles. Half died on the voyage to the New World.
The well-known hymn Amazing Grace was written by slave trader and later clergyman John Newton. After being pressed into the Royal Navy he became involved in the slave trade but had a sort of religious conversion in 1748 during a violent storm. For what are presumably financial reasons, he continued with the trade until 1754 or 55 when having sorted out his pension, he decided to become a man of the cloth and pen the now very popular hymn.
But I Digress
Of the two books, the larger one by Anthony Wild Coffee: A Dark History is more thorough although some reviewers on Amazon moan that he wanders off the subject too much. For me and perhaps regular readers of my blog, this is one of the charms of the book. The shorter book by Stewart Lee Allen The Devil’s Cup is a coffee travelogue through East Africa, Yemen, Europe, West Africa, Brazil and finally his native USA.
Both books mention American coffee historian William H Ukers. Wild mentions Ukers looking for anything anti-British. Stewart quotes him at the intro to his Chapter War where not giving your wife enough coffee (beans) was grounds for divorce in the Ottoman Empire. But something was lost in translation here as the real meaning is not doing your duty as a husband, rather than not buying her enough coffee beans!
Wild’s story of American foreign policy in central America largely revolving around coffee and other cash crops has to be one of the most depressing history chapters I have ever read. Genocide, corruption & incompetence run through the history of: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica & Panama. And I haven’t even mentioned the South America bit.
What is Caffeine?
Weirdest fact comes from Wild’s book. Why do the plants coffea arabica and coffea canephora produce caffeine in the first place? The former variety produces better quality coffee accounting for around 70 per cent of world coffee production, while the latter better known as robusta has higher caffeine content being used in instant coffees.
Plants can be clever and the caffeine most coffee drinkers savour is produced by the host plant as an insecticide or repellent. So if you have a headache after too many cups of coffee, now you know why. And drinking coffee after drinking alcohol does not sober you up.
The taste can also take some getting used to. Sun King Louis XIV thought coffee was vile when he first tasted it, but once it became fashionable, his coffee parties where he apparently roasted the beans himself, were some of the wildest he ever gave.
World’s Most Expensive Coffee Beans
are listed here where quite a few people know that the most expensive coffee is Kopi Luwak. The former means coffee in Malaysian while the latter is the local name for the Asian Palm Civet a small monkey which eats coffee beans (plus mangoes and meat) before passing them out in its droppings.
But with deforestation and such a premium on these beans, they are now very difficult to find in the wild so these creatures (and similar) are kept in factory farm conditions