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As coffee spread from its native Africa to the Middle East, then to Europe and other parts of the world, it was transformed from the drink of a select few to a product for mass consumption. Throughout its rich and varied history, coffee has been associated with prayer, luxury, colonialism, and slavery. It has stimulated all manners and modes of conversation, energized the workforce, and affected myriad aspects of human life.
Coffee’s indirect journey—from Africa to the Middle East, across the Indian Ocean to Europe, then to Latin America and the United States, and lately as far as Australia and eastern Asia—reflects its different uses throughout history by distant and distinct peoples. Coffee was first consumed by hunters and warriors; it became over time an aristocratic luxury, then a bourgeois treat, and finally, for many caffeine lovers, a necessity—only to reemerge in the late twentieth century as an object of distinction in the age of specialty beans and brews. Coffee production, marketing, and consumption have been intimately involved in the creation of the modern world, for good and for bad. Coffee has helped fuel the expansion of the modern world economy and has helped energize the industrial workforce. It also prolonged the use of slaves while industrializing food production and enriched colonial empires while heightening awareness of fair trade practices.
The Origins of Coffee
Although the origins of the term coffee are disputed, most scholars today agree that it probably derives from the corruption of an Arabic word qahwah, which was a derogatory word for liquor, a prohibited beverage in Islam. Numerous species of trees and bushes and many more cultivars produce the “bean” for coffee, which is actually a seed more like the pit of a cherry. (“Bean” is a corruption of the Arabic word for coffee, bunn.)
Coffee appeared naturally in various parts of Africa. Coffea arabica, the most common and valuable species, spread from Harrar (today in Ethiopia), where beans were harvested from wild trees. There it was sometimes served as a hospitality drink flavored with salt, butter, or spices, or used as an energy pill for hunters, who included it ground with balls of fat to provision their trips.
Coffee’s first appearance in history is disputed. Some scholars point to questionable passages in the Odyssey and the Bible as evidence of coffee’s great antiquity. Others cite references in Arabic texts from around the year 800 CE. As far as world history is concerned, we can safely put the beginnings of coffee as a commodity at the end of the fifteenth century, but in Yemen, not in Ethiopia.
The Shadhili Sufisect of Islam, based in Yemen, are generally accepted as the group who popularized a drink made from roasted and ground arabica coffee beans suffused in hot water. They certainly did not set out to stimulate world trade. On the contrary, they sought to flee the material world to reach spiritual fulfillment. The caffeine in coffee served to keep them awake in their religious chanting rituals, which they celebrated at night. But as worldly people with day jobs, they spread the popularity of the drink in the secular world as well.
By the middle of the fifteenth century coffee was so associated with Islam that the Coptic Christians of Ethiopia forbade it. But Muslims found coffee—and the coffeehouses that sprang up to serve it—enticing. It was particularly well suited to the observation of Ramadan, the month of obligatory fasting during daylight. Coffee and the coffeehouse created a public nighttime activity. Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca for the Hajj acquired the coffee-drinking custom and spread it as far to the east as Indonesia and India, west to western Africa, and north to Istanbul and the Balkans. Despite this growing market for coffee, until the end of the 1600s almost all coffee in world trade was grown in the small, irrigated gardens cut into Yemen’s steep hillsides. Production was small, (12,000 to 15,000 metric tons per year) and the price high, enhanced by Ottoman taxes and the cost of transporting by camel caravans or boats.
Coffee Drinking Spread to Europe and Its Colonies
Coffee drinking spread nonetheless. By the middle of the 1500s the centers of coffeehouse culture were Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus. Men from many walks of life enjoyed the drink and the cafes, which were centers of artistic, intellectual, political, and mercantile life (women only drank coffee in the home or at special baths).
European Christians adopted the habit of drinking coffee initially because it was associated with the splendor and wealth of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire was at its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Served in porcelain cups, newly arrived from China, and on plates made from Mexican silver, spiced with sugar from the Caribbean (Muslims had used cardamom rather than sugar) and joined with tobacco from the Americas, coffee was a mark of distinction for the rising masters of the world economy, who sipped it in luxurious salons.
Coffea arabica became a middle-class drink in England, where a Greek merchant was probably the first to open a coffeehouse in Oxford and then in London in the mid-1600s. The Puritan English became leading European consumers of coffee until tea overshadowed it in the 1700s. Northern Europeans adopted the coffee habit, and Amsterdam became the principal coffee market. This led the Dutch to seek to control production as well as commerce. Beginning in the 1690s, Yemen’s leadership position in production was gradually dislodged when the Dutch transplanted coffee to their colony in Java (today in Indonesia). The French began growing coffee in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion and the British in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the apogee of coffee colonialism. Almost all coffee was grown in Dutch, French, and British overseas colonies, with the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti), becoming the world’s largest producer, exporting some 40,000 metric tons in 1789.
European control of the trade led to an intensification of the use of African slaves to grow the crop. Although slavery had been known in Ethiopia and Yemen, coffee producers seem to have been peasants, as they were in Java. But in Java, and later in Ceylon, growers and workers were often coerced into coffee cultivation. In Reunion and then the Americas, which had already imported millions of African slaves to grow sugar, coffee became connected with human bondage.
The nineteenth century saw another great transformation of the world coffee market as two new players entered the arena: Brazil (a coffee-producing nation) and the United States (a coffee-consuming nation). Brazil turned to coffee production after a slave revolt on Saint Domingue almost ended the island’s coffee production. World prices skyrocketed. Brazil, independent after 1822, was the world’s primary coffee producer by the 1850s. Its vast fertile fields and the importation of over a million African slaves (slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888) allowed Brazilians to lower production costs and reduce the world price of coffee. By late in the nineteenth century, coffee became increasingly a mass beverage available to the working class in both the coffee-buying and coffee-growing countries. This trend was particularly noticeable in what became the world’s largest coffee market, the United States.
As a tea-drinking colony under the British, the United States turned to coffee under the influence of the low price of Brazilian coffee and the immigration of millions of Europeans, for whom coffee was a status symbol. Per capita consumption grew in the nineteenth century from well under a pound in 1800 to thirteen pounds in 1900. World coffee imports grew fifteen-fold during the nineteenth century with the United States responsible for almost half the expansion of consumption. In terms of the value of international commerce, coffee trailed only grains and sugar as a world commodity in 1900.
Twentieth- and Twenty- First-Century Trends in Coffee Drinking
The cultivar Coffea arabica, which had been virtually the only source for the world coffee economy since its inception, was joined by Coffea robusta at the end of the nineteenth century. Native to equatorial Africa, robusta matured faster and, more importantly, was resistant to the leaf blight, hemileia vasatrix, which destroyed the coffee plantations of Java, Ceylon, and the Philippines in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The robusta permitted those countries to return to coffee cultivation and spurred more dramatic changes in the world coffee economy of the twentieth century. Late in the twentieth century new variants of the arabica and the robusta that were shorter, more resistant to disease and direct sunlight, and with higher yields were developed. They led to more intensive farming, with five to six times more bushes per hectare and greater investments in fertilizers, pesticides, and processing equipment on smaller, monocultural plots.
The processing and marketing sides also reflected the greater dependence on capital. In 1900 green (raw and unroasted) beans sold according to their port of provenance comprised the great majority of coffee traded. Importers sold them to wholesalers, who roasted and ground the beans themselves or sold the green beans to consumers, usually housewives, who did the final roasting, grinding, and brewing at home. Gradually packaged, industrially roasted and trademarked coffee took over the market. The vacuum-sealed can allowed local companies to become regional, and after World War II, national. The invention of decaffeinated coffee and instant coffee, which became popular after mid-century, increased the processors’ share of the final retail price. Chain stores and supermarkets further concentrated production among an ever smaller number of huge roasters and food conglomerates. In the last decades of the twentieth century, mergers and takeovers allowed a few gigantic diversified companies to dominate production in many parts of the world. Large investments in advertising and market power to secure shelf space in supermarkets allowed the concentration of the industry to continue.
Until after World War II the largest share of the final price of green coffee went to coffee growers and merchants. As processing and marketing technology grew, a greater share of the final price was pocketed by the processors. Calculations vary greatly, but whereas growing counties by one estimate earned about half of the final price in 1950, today they take in only 10 to 15 percent, though marketers of what is known as fair-trade coffee offer above-market prices to growers.
As early as 1906, growers began making efforts to protect their market share and to bolster prices on the world market, a trend that culminated in the 1961 International Coffee Agreement (ICA). The agreement was partially a result of Cold War fears that the 1959 revolution in Cuba would repeat itself in the poor and troubled coffee-growing countries of Latin America. For twenty-eight years the ICA negotiated quotas and prices with growers and buyers to insure that growers received a living wage. When the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War, fears of Communist revolutions waned, and the United States decided to push for global free trade. Coffee support prices were among the first victims as the United States withdrew from the ICO. A handful of major food conglomerates became the masters of the world coffee economy.
Latin America, especially Brazil, is still the leading supplier. But its dominance has been challenged since the 1960s by Colombia and Africa, especially the Cote d’Ivoire, though production has fallen of late because of internal unrest. Vietnam, grower of low-quality robusta, suddenly became the world’s second largest coffee producer, while Indonesia and India have once again become major producers. The 2010 World Coffee Conference in Guatemala focused on bringing large and small growers together to discuss trends in production, demand, and social and environmental sustainability. Because coffee-bean producing plants are notoriously sensitive, and small changes in temperature and precipitation can have big impacts on coffee quality and quantity, a warmer climate will encourage more coffee farmers to plant the heartier robusta varieties, which are caffeine-rich but bitter, instead of the mild, tasty arabica coffees preferred by people in the United States, the world’s largest coffee consumer.
The per capita use of coffee in the United States, however, has steadily declined since the 1960s as consumers increasingly imbibe caffeine in soft drinks. Brazil is today the world’s second-largest consumer, and Japan has become the world’s fifth largest. Chinese import of coffee doubled between 1997 and 2002, and it is still one the rise. Ironically, coffee, which originated in Africa and gained popularity in the Middle East five hundred years ago, is now seen in eastern Asia as a symbol of Western modernity.
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