Monday, 19 May 2014

Perky History: Five Words in The History of Coffee

Let's start with a classic ad that's pure cheese, but it works. I can taste that coffee now!

Coffee is always in the news. Is it good for you? Is it ethical or is it made with the tears of starving children just so you can get a hit before crawling off to work?

What is this great black liquid that so many of us, including me, deeply enjoy? Coffee originated in Ethiopia, but the Arabic world was the first to cultivate and trade coffee. By the fifteenth century, coffee was being grown in the Yemen district of Arabia and by the sixteenth century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

There's a huge amount of research out there on coffee and coffeehouses, but let's just hit five of the historic highlights below:

The Port of Mocha 1600s - world changing bean not pictured.


A type of bean native to Ethiopia and Yemen, Mocha was probably the first to be commercially cultivated. Legend states that the bean takes it name from the port city of Mocha, and that Marco Polo had a few sips in the Yemen port. He apparently bought some and bought them back to Europe. However, this is probably a nice story and that's it. More than likely traders brought it to Europe in the 1700s. Mocha originally did have a bit of a chocolate taste but that was for some stupid reason they bred it out of it. I like a complex note of yum.

Dutch East India Company: 

...or in Dutch the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, (VOC). Wow, no wonder they shortened it. The company was founded in 1602 and did well until they went bankrupt in 1799. When I say well, I mean the biggest global trading empire well. It also played politics brilliantly, and ended up becoming a colonial power in its own right. It was with great reluctance, however they decided to import commodities like tea, coffee, textiles and sugar. Why? Commodities had a lower profit margin than other goods, so they needed to sell a larger volume of things like coffee to make it worth their while. The Dutch East India Company realized that the hunger for coffee and tea was growing in Europe and they believed it would support their efforts. They were right and the company became the big supplier of coffee to Europe.

A lovely plantation Cafe Las Flores in Nicaragua - slaves or heavy labour by crying peasants not shown.
With the advent of so much trade in coffee, production needed to match demand. Coffee plantations in eastern Cuba and modern Haiti were some of the first. Coffee production was established in the island of Saint Domingue (Hispaniola) by French settlers in the 18th century. But this was no coffee guzzling paradise - these plantations were manned with slaves. With the uprising and eventual creating of an independent Haïti in 1804, the French plantation owners, dragging along their African slaves, went to Cuba, then under Spanish rule, to create plantations. They were to be joined by other coffee planters, from Metropolitan France and elsewhere, throughout the 19th century. In the late 19th century coffee production began in other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica. Large scale and intensive plantation production then extended to Hawaii. There's an awesome map by National Geographic of where you get your coffee from today.

Dating back to 1725, 'Sobrino de Botin' is the oldest working restaurant/cafe in the world -
bet your the coffee is awesome.

Lots of coffeehouses existed in the Arab world in the 1500s, but it took another century until Europe figured it out. By 1700, there were 500 coffeehouses in London. Business, like today, was conducted in these houses. The London Stock Exchange and Lloyd's Insurance both got their start in the cafes. In France, cafes were central for the exchange of revolutionary ideas. Camille Desmoulins gave his compatriots a famous call to arms at Paris’s Cafe de Foy, two days before the storming of the Bastille. If coffee can do that for them, what can it do for you?

Khaldi (Kaldi)

The legend and the man behind it is a bit far afield. A humble goat herder in the Yemen/Ethiopia area in the 800s CE, Khaldi noticed his goats getting high on red berries. It looked like fun to him, since he must have been bored to death, and he chewed a few himself. Apparently it was so delightful he started frolicking with the goats. Supposedly he and the local leaders embraced the new bean. More than likely he and other headers knew it would help keep them awake to tend to their animals for a while. But what a nice story of dancing around with the help of coffee!

Goats not pictured - but did the camels partake as well?
Want more? Head over to listen to an NPR interview about the history and impact of coffee.

Good sipping to you.

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