Yes, I know that I’m supposed to be a WINE blog and all, but behind every good wine story is a big cup of joe. In retrospect, its not terribly suprising that wine afficianado could be drawn to the warm and steamy stimulant. The same devotion to detail in soil types, plants, climate, history, culture, and taste evaluation are as present in premium coffee production as they are in the vinification of wine. So, i’m just guessing, but perhaps many of you regular wine drinkers are equally selective in your coffee consumption. And if not, well – maybe skip the rest of this piece and go slurp a big Zinfandel somewhere with my blessing.
Many office workers depend on a cup of coffee as elixir of life. It’s that mini indulgence that helps one face another day in a cubicle or perks up the tired eyes to focus on that screen for another eight hours. Some folks are downright crabby without their caffeine infusion, and savvy executive assistants know to pass difficult requests by the boss well after they’ve enjoyed that first cup. As a nation, we are “Coffee Achievers” and quite dependent on the stuff. So how did we develop the Mocha Java monkey on our back?
Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat herd named Kaldi was perplexed one afternoon when his goats did not return on his command. He found them jumping and frolicking while chewing red berries off an unfamiliar bush. He too decided to taste the berries and suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to dance, sing, and compose poetry for his girlfriend. It is said he brought the coffee berries back to his village and coffee production, farming, and trade began from there. Probably not true, but a good story and I’m all about that. In any case, coffee does originate from
Eventually the fertile berries were smuggled to other parts of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Asian Pacific, and much later Latin America. It was only in the mid 19th century after a plant disease ravaged South East Asia that Brazil emerged as the largest coffee grower in the world, a title it still holds. These coffee producing countries are all players in the world market and their economies can be largely dependent on the market price. This is a big deal. Coffee is the second largest (legal) commodity traded on the world market after oil. Even the comparatively tiny market of specialty coffees has enticed behemoths like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds to follow Starbucks into the game with pricing and advertising wars over “premium” coffee.
Coffee has inspired revolutions and started wars throughout history. Religious leaders and tyrants in Europe and the
Middle East often banned coffee consumption and or coffee houses as they feared both the effects of the drink and the exchange of ideas it inspired. The only historically successful slave revolt on a large scale was organized by coffee picking slaves in Haiti. Here in the US, it was considered unpatriotic to drink tea during the American Revolution. After we dumped all that tea in the Boston Harbor, we’ve pretty much preferred coffee and consumed lots of it.
Despite this, coffee producers and advertisers wanted Americans to drink even more coffee and integrate the beverage into their daily life. In 1952 the Pan American Coffee Bureau actually invented the term “coffee break” and backed by a two million dollar ad campaign “Give Yourself a Coffee Break – and Get What Coffee Gives to You” office employees bought in to the idea like gangbusters. Later that year, 80% of companies polled had a sanctioned break time for employees to drink coffee. To further promote American understanding of coffee and to encourage “premium” brand loyalty, the TV character Juan Valdez was created to promote coffee of Columbian origin. Juan carried his coffee beans to market on a mule and instructed his son on why coffee from their country was special and superior to others. Not only did Americans now look for Columbia on the label, but the friendly farmer Juan Valdez on the can. In fact, as of 1999 the actor who played Juan Valdez was prosperous enough to eventually own both a silk screen T –shirt factory and a coffee farm where he employees others to farm the crop for him.
Americans were definitely brewing coffee at home and at work, but the tradition of the European coffee house culture didn’t really take hold until the expansion of the Seattle company Starbucks took over every major street corner in metro areas. Named for the coffee loving character in Moby Dick, Starbucks introduced specialty coffees and espresso based drinks on a grand scale. Whether we truly prefer the taste of specialty coffee, or we simply enjoy the air of success and intellectualism that toting a signature cup implies, many commuters think nothing of spending four dollars or more for their daily morning drink. Despite the omnipresent green awnings, Starbucks is actually a fairly small part of the US coffee market dwarfed in production by companies like Maxwell House, Folgers, and Nestle. Yet Starbucks tends to be the favored target of human rights and environmental activists.
Specialty coffee retailers are actually the leaders in efforts to protect the environment and the health of farm workers. Companies like Starbucks and Peet’s offer a relatively large selection of organic, shade grown, and bird friendly beans that help preserve the land and natural resources of the major coffee producing regions. While shareholders definitely enjoy hefty dividends, Starbucks also buys more Fair Trade coffee than any other corporation. The Fair Trade blends let the consumer know that the farmers were paid a regulated minimum price, regardless of market fluctuations, and ensured some modicum of financial stability. While most coffee laborers still live in poverty by American standards, this system helps offer a boost in quality of life to farmers who form cooperatives and produce according to specialty coffee standards.
So whether you snag a cup at the gas station, speak fluent “Fritalian” at a specialty shop, or French press your own home roasted beans, you are fueling a global industry with a rich history. It may seem amazing to think that wars and revolutions have been waged over a humble berry of a rather unremarkable looking shrub. But for those who depend on their morning java for basic brain function, it’s no surprise at all. While we may depend on oil to fuel our cars, coffee fuels our mind and national productivity. Even if it’s frothed with soy milk, doused with vanilla syrup, and topped with whipped cream.
If you want to learn more, I recommend the sources below as well as this recent article in the Chicago Tribune.
Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast
Coffee: From Beans to Buzz National Geographic Channel