The History of Coffee:
"Queen Among the Beverages of Domestic Life"
EMG Coffee Notes
Our host, Simon Majumdar, may not be able to drink the stuff, but he knows that he is in a minority and that it is one of the most popular beverages in the world. It also has a history as dark, rich and sometimes as bitter as the liquid the ground coffee beans make when mixed with hot water. In this episode, Simon will follow the history of coffee from its origins in Ethiopia to the ubiquitous gourmet coffee stores of today.
Find out more about coffee's fascinating history and tune in now.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
The History of Coffee: "Queen Among the Beverages of Domestic Life"
So, April, how did the hipster burn his tongue?
I don’t know Simon. How?
He drank his coffee way before it was cool.
Hi Everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar. And welcome to a new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
Today’s episode is going to be a slightly odd one. Well, for me at least. It’s an episode about one of the most widely consumed drinks in the world. An episode about a rich and dark drink with a rich and often dark history. An episode about an industry that produces around 9.5 million tons of the raw materials for this drink every year. And, it’s an episode about a drink that I am personally unable to consume because of the allergic reaction it causes when I do.
However, I know that it’s a drink that a lot of you have very definite opinions about how it should be prepared and a drink without which so many people tell me they would struggle to get through the day.
So today, for all those lovers of a great cup o’ “Joe” on Eat My Globe, I’m going to be telling you the story of the history of coffee.
Some people say that, with the exception of good ol’ plain water, coffee is the most popular beverage on earth. However, some people also say that that honor belongs to tea. Now, where this confusion may come from is that while coffee is produced in much larger quantities than tea, you need much less tea to make a cup. So as British geographer David Grigg characterized the coffee versus tea consumption argument as:
“three cups of tea are drunk for every one of coffee.”
So, I’m not sure if that helps the argument and whether that means that tea, my own favorite drink, wins. I don’t know. But enough of the petty rivalry. Let’s get on to the history of coffee.
Around the world, as of April 2019, people have consumed over 160 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee every year. With the largest consumption by capita being in the Nordic nations including Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and particularly Finland, where the locals drink 12 kilograms – that’s around 26.5 pounds -- per year.
Coffee is now produced in over 50 countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Mexico, India, Honduras and the largest producer of all, Brazil. Coffee also ranks only behind oil as the most traded commodity on the planet.
The story of how this beverage made its way from Ethiopia – where coffee was first drunk – and Yemen – where coffee was first cultivated, to becoming such a ubiquitous drink is a really fascinating one. As indeed is the story of how it went from Ethiopia and Yemen to now being grown and traded across the globe. It’s also a story that will take us to some pretty dark places as we travel through colonialization, slavery, and the exploitation of developing nations.
So let’s start where I always like to begin on Eat My Globe by actually defining what it is we’re talking about.
Our friends at Merriam Webster define coffee as,
“A beverage made by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant.”
Percolation is when hot water is allowed to drip through ground coffee and then collected in a receptacle underneath. Infusion is when hot water and ground coffee are allowed to sit together until they reach a desired strength to be pour into a receptacle. And a decoction is when ground coffee and hot water are boiled together to produce a liquid. That’s the sort of coffee you might expect [inaudible] with Turkish coffee.
Now, the etymology of the word “coffee” itself, just shows how far it’s traveled to become one of today’s everyday drinks. The word “Coffee” in English is actually derived from the word “Koffie” in Dutch, which in turn comes from the word, “Khave,” in Turkish. This too is derived from the word, “Qawah,” in Arabic. This is an abbreviation of the words, “Qahhwat Al-bun,” which literally means “wine of the bean.” So there you go.
However, while the Arabic world may well have been responsible for helping to name the drink, there are also other claims about the origins of the word “coffee,” and we have to look to East Africa for its true beginnings.
Like so many of the food history stories we tell here on Eat My Globe, there’s a widely held myth to try and help explain the origins of the coffee bean and the discovery of how to transform those beans into coffee.
In this case, the credit is given to an eighth century Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who observed that his goats became more energetic when they ate the red berries from the trees under which they grazed. Now, intrigued, he took these berries to a nearby monastery for further examination. In one version, monks chewed the beans, and in another, they were so alarmed by the stimulating properties, that they threw them away on the fire, where the delicious roasting smell made them decide to give them another chance. It was a short step from there to infusing them in water, and hence we have the first cup of coffee.
A very sweet story but one, of course, to be filed away with the story about the merchant who rode with a sheep’s stomach hide full of milk on a hot day to create cheese, and about that ancient person who accidentally left dough to soak in the rain for days and created beer. It’s also a story that did not appear until 1671 and was probably created as much to give religious approval to coffee as a beverage as to help source its origin.
Now, while it might be bunkum as a historical reference, the story does tell us a few things. One is that the area in which Kaldi, the goat herder, lived known as “Kaffa” may also be useful in the story of the name’s origins. It also shows us that coffee has been -- and in fact continues to be -- essential in Ethiopian culture to the extent where there is actually a saying,
“Buna Dabo Naw”
which literally means “Coffee is our bread.” “Buna” being the word for coffee in the Oromiya dialect. And forgive any pronunciation problems there. My Oromiya is not as good as it should be.
While we may now think of coffee, as the definition suggests, as a drink that is made from the roasted berries, it is believed that the original use for the berries was not as a beverage, but as an energy inducing snack. They were ground and mixed with clarified butter to form a paste that could be consumed on long journeys. Part of that tradition continues today in the region where clarified butter is sometimes added to coffee to provide extra energy. Does that remind you of a recent-ish diet trend called the “Bullet Proof Coffee”? In effect, the aim is the same as butter in the coffee is said to help the liver digest the coffee more efficiently and give you a longer replenishment of energy. So you see, the ancients knew what they were doing.
Anyway, these “snacks” were consumed by Ethiopian and Sudanese merchants as they traveled to Yemen to trade. It was a harsh and often dangerous journey and the berries helped keep them alert and energetic.
People from outside Ethiopia began to notice the perceived positive medical impact of the berries from the coffee tree and the first mention we find in writing of coffee comes from one of the great physicians and philosophers of the time, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria El Razi, or as he is often referred to now, “Rhazes.” He writes about coffee calling it “bunchum” and says that,
"bunchum (coffee) is hot and dry and very good for the stomach."
One particular Sufi, Ali Ibn Umar al-Shadhili is thought to have been particularly a fan of berries while in Ethiopia because of their medicinal properties. Upon his return to Mocha in Yemen – so yeah, there you go, that coffee and chocolate hybrid drink you order as Mocha at your coffee house is actually based on a name of a port town in southwestern Yemen -- well, Al-Shadhili promoted its use there. Now, he is now considered the “patron saint” of coffee and coffee imbibers. He is also considered the Wali (the Islamic equivalent of a saint) or “protector” of Mocha – the port town.
In 1454, Sheik Gemaleddin -- the Mufti of Aden -- visited Ethiopia and not only saw his compatriots drinking coffee there, but also benefitted personally from imbibing it when he was unwell. His approval of the beverage helped make it even more popular in Yemen, where it had already been made known by visiting merchants.
Indeed, by the 15th century or so, we see the people of Yemen beginning to create plantations of their own and to develop from the berries a drink made by grinding the beans and boiling them in water. They called this drink “Qawah” which meant, “That which prevents sleep,” and had formerly been a word used to describe wine. In fact, as this drink became more popular, it became known as
“Wine of Islam”
“Wine of Araby”
As in Yemen, coffee was at first produced to provide energy for the Sufi worshipers during long periods of prayer, and through them, it found its way to Mecca, now a city in Saudi Arabia, and the holiest center of the Islamic Faith, as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. It soon became very popular for the euphoric state it engendered for which coffee lovers created a term, “marqaha,” to describe the feeling.
One of the earliest Arab historians, Jaziri, said that coffee,
“was drunk in the Sacred Mosque itself, so that there was scarcely a dhikror observance of the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid) where coffee was not present.”
By the 16th century coffee began to move from just being a drink with the purpose of providing energy in worship to one that had a more social use and being imbibed for pure enjoyment of its uplifting effects. The first establishments specifically for serving coffee began to be opened. These were known as “Kaveh Kanes.” Kaveh is the word from which we derive our own word, Café. While they were places where people discussed religion, they were also places where people went to share stories and enjoy company. So successful did they become that they became known as,
“Schools of the Wise.”
Although coffee had not been around during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 C.E., during his life he had prohibited the use of strong liquors even in tiny amounts. So it was argued later that coffee had similar effects as alcohol, and should be subject to the same prohibitions.
There ensued a great debate among religious leaders about whether coffee should be restricted, and whether those who made and sold coffee should be persecuted. The first coffee ban by religious leaders occurred in Mecca in 1511. It attempted to drive coffee drinkers from the mosques and to close down the coffee houses.
While the pious may have railed against the drinking of coffee, there were those who wrote in its favor. We begin to see poems being written about the joys of drinking coffee, such as this early one credited to Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir which reads,
“All Cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.
Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility.”
He definitely liked his coffee.
Writer Abd-al-Kadir also wrote a book in 1587 entitled, “Argument in Favor of the Legitimate Use of Coffee,” which is believed to reference an even earlier work by another author, so showing that this debate had been going on for some time.
More persecutions happened during the next decades, including another attempted ban in 1532 centered in Cairo, Egypt. But, despite these attempts, coffee remained popular. And, its appeal began to spread from the Arab world into Europe.
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The first mention of coffee to appear in European writings appears to be from German Leonhard Rauwolf, who began a journey from Marseille in 1573. When he reached Aleppo, in present day Syria, he wrote in his work, “Rauwolf’s Travels,”
“…they have a very good drink, by them called Chaube [coffee] that is almost as black as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly that of the stomach; of this they drink in the morning early in open places before everybody, without any fear or regard, out of China cups, as hot as they can; they put it often to their lips but drink but little at a time, and let it go round as they sit.”
In the early 17th century, traders from Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Arabic world also began to trade coffee with merchants at the major European port of Venice. Therefore, the Venetians are believed to be the first to start promoting its use in Western Europe. Prospero Alpini, a renowned botanist from Padua who had travelled to Egypt, wrote in his book, “The Plants of Egypt”
“The Arabians and the Egyptians make a sort of decoction of it, which they drink instead of wine; and it is sold in all their public houses, as wine is with us. They call this drink caova.”
The coffee soon began to appear in Europe’s medical treatises and used for medicinal purposes at a very high cost.
The first coffee house opened in Venice in 1683. The most famous coffee house, which was The Caffe Florian, which is still around today, opened in 1720.
While the popularity of coffee in Europe echo its successes in the Arabic world, so too did its properties of creating euphoria cause antagonism with those of a religious persuasion. In this case the Roman church. The most famous story being that the local clergy and Papal councilmen urged Pope Clement VIII to ban the drinking of coffee because it had been introduced by Muslims. Some even went so far as to dub it
“The bitter invention of Satan.”
Pope Clement however took a different view when he insisted on tasting it before passing judgement and his apocryphal response was
“Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”
Now, I don’t know whether this story is true. But, whatever the reality, it does show that the clerical antagonism towards coffee was a failure and did nothing to decrease its popularity in Venice and around the rest of Europe where its use began to spread. Although it should be remembered that this was still a rare and precious commodity, and remained a drink for the very wealthy only becoming more readily available to the wider consumer later.
In France, coffee was first introduced by one Soliman Aga, who was an ambassador to the court of King Louis XIV from Mohammed IV of the Ottoman Empire. He brought with him not only sacks of coffee, but also the equipment that the Turks used to make the beverage. And, in 1686, a Sicilian chef called Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened the “Café de Procope” in Paris, and sold lemonades and barley water, to which he soon added coffee.
It took time for coffee culture really to take hold in France. The famed writer, Madame de Sevigne, is reported to have declared in 1672,
“The are two things Frenchmen will never swallow -- coffee and Racine’s poetry.”
Now, I may not drink coffee, but I know she was definitely right about Racine’s poetry, which is truly dreadful stuff. Really awful stuff.
But, by the mid 18th century, there were over 600 cafes in Paris, and by the mid 19th century, there were over 3000.
In England, the first coffee house opened in the 17th Century. The first in London opened in St. Michel’s Alley, Cornhill in 1652 and was operated by a Turkish immigrant by the name of Pasqua Rosee. He was a great proponent of drinking coffee, which would have been very similar to the style of coffee made in Turkey, and published the first ad for coffee, which he entitled, “The Vertue of The Coffee Drink.” In it, he claims that coffee,
“will prevent drowsiness & make one fit for business.”
Something that I know all of you who drink coffee in the morning will attest to.
Soon, coffee houses became common place in London. And as well as serving the drink, they became places where businessmen could exchange gossip and have discussions about politics and religion among other things. Initially, no alcohol was served, and women were often excluded. This exclusion of women was not exclusive to coffee houses, and they were often banned from taverns too.
Many of today’s institutions that we know in London had their beginnings in London coffee houses, such as the London Stock Exchange -- which began in Jonathan’s Coffee House in 1698 -- and the insurance company, Lloyd’s of London, which began in Lloyd’s Coffee house in 1688.
By 1663, there were 82 coffee houses in London. While they proved to be popular with men of all stations, there was already some disquiet about the impact these new establishments were having.
In 1674, a pamphlet was published called, “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee.” In its pages it railed against,
“The newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee.”
It’s not certain if the pamphlet was actually written by women, or if it was more of a satire on the women’s views of coffee, but it claimed that the drinking of coffee was such a, quote, “effeminate pastime,” end quote, that it served to make its imbibers infertile.
Hmmmm… Tea never does that.
In humorous response, another pamphlet was published called, “The Men’s Answer to The Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” which argued that coffee was actually good for a marriage as it led to the “drying up” of a man’s flatulence.
So, women, remember that.
King Charles II, frightened perhaps of the potential dissension that might be fermented, attempted to have the coffee houses banned on December the 29th, 1675 issuing a proclamation that argued….
It’s a long quote so forgive me but I wanted to give you the whole thing.
“Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of Coffee Houses of late years set up and kept within this kingdom, the dominion of Wales, and town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many tradesmen and others, do herein mispend much of their time, which might and probably would be employed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such houses . . . diverse false, malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath thought fit and necessary, that the said Coffee Houses be (for the future) Put down, and suppressed, and doth . . . strictly charge and command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Public Coffee House, or to utter or sell by retail, in his, her or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils . . . (all licenses to be revoked).”
The law was supposed to come into fruition on the 10th of January 1676, but such was the public outcry from lovers of coffee -- including some of the King’s own ministers -- that the law was abolished on January the 8th before it even came to be.
Drinking coffee continued to rise in England, and by 1739, London had over 500 established coffee houses. The popularity of the coffee houses began to fade towards the end of the 18th century. In part, coffee became more accessible in the home and, in part, in the early stages of the British love of tea, which began to cement itself as the nation’s favorite drink. Hurrah!
But, the influence of the coffee house in England did continue after many of the establishments themselves disappeared in that many of the coffee houses provided the framework for many of the exclusive gentlemen’s clubs that were to become such a part of late 19th century London society.
Around the same time that European countries increased their demands for coffee, they also began to look for ways to cultivate them in their colonial territories.
In 1616, a Dutch merchant, Pieter Van Den Broeke, who had also encountered coffee in Yemen, stole a number of the treasured and protected crop and brought them back to Amsterdam, where they flourished in the botanical gardens. It was not until later in the century, when the demand for coffee became even more intense, that the Dutch began to plant these coffee trees in their territory of Batavia, which is modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia. Interestingly, Batavia or Jakarta is the capital of the island of Java. So if you’ve ever wondered why coffee is sometimes called “Java,” now you know.
Back to our story.
The planting was hugely successful and by the beginning of the 18th century, Amsterdam had become the global capital for coffee sales, primarily on the basis of the beans that were being brought to Europe from the successful planting in Jakarta.
Other nations followed suit. In 1723, a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, brought coffee seedlings to the West Indies island of Martinique. These were taken from a coffee plant that had been given to Louis XIV by the Burgomaster or Mayor of Amsterdam and had been successfully grown in the Jardin Des Plantes in Paris. The story being that
a “lady of quality,”
with whom he was acquainted persuaded the Royal Physician to cut a sample for him for Clieu to take on his travels.
In 1727, the Portuguese government appointed one of its colonels, Francisco de Melo Palheta, to broker a growing border tension between the Dutch and the French in Guiana. At the time, the French had been growing coffee in French Guiana. Palheta initiated an affair with the wife of the French Guiana’s governor with the goal of stealing coffee seedlings for Portugal. Hmmm…. The governor’s wife, under the guise of thanking Palheta for brokering the border dispute, gave him a bouquet of flowers that included coffee seedlings. He brought the plants to Brazil, then a Portuguese colony, where by 1840, it had produced 40% of the coffee in the world.
Brazil produces almost 2.6 million tons of coffee beans and is the top producing country of coffee in the world.
James Bond ain’t got nothing on these guys. So that’s a lot of espionage going on to get that cup of coffee into your hands every morning.
The British also grew coffee in India, Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, and in their other territories. However, Britain was one of the few places where demand for coffee actually decreased in the 19th century rather than expanded. They were hampered, in part, by – as I mentioned – the decreasing demand for coffee in Britain compared to tea. And, in part, by the fact that one of their best options for growing coffee, Ceylon, suffered an attack of “Coffee Leaf Rust” brought on by a fungus known as “Hemileia Vastatrix.”
This cultivation of coffee, and indeed other crops, also brought with it a great deal of exploitation of the land and the people in colonial territories. The Dutch put in place a system for cultivation known as “Cultuurstelsel” or cultivation system, which required farmers who had land to pay taxes on coffee and other crops or required those with no land to provide free labour on government land for 66 days. This led to a huge amount of poverty among the inhabitants of coffee growing territories and the reduction of many landless people to indentured servitude or, indeed, slavery where they often worked far more than 66 days. It’s a situation that even now has not been fully resolved, and I shall talk about that more before the end of the podcast.
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In 2018 to 2019, Americans drank 26.5 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee. And, America has led the world’s consumption of coffee for almost 200 years.
The undoubted American passion for coffee took a long time to brew – see what I did there?
It is likely that one of the first introductions of coffee to the colonies came when John Smith, founder of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, introduced the drink to his companions. Their preference, however, was for cider -- they planted orchards for apples to make cider almost as soon as they landed -- beer, tea, wines and liquors.
In 1640, the Dutch may have began to import coffee to the colonies of New Amsterdam – now known as New York – but we have no definite proof they did so.
The British also began to import coffee to their colonies in New York as early as 1664. In 1670, the first license was issued for the selling of coffee to a woman named Dorothy Jones.
Coffee’s fortunes rose in the colonies, and they began to see the opening of many coffee houses, based on the model of those in London, including two in Boston by the 1690s. However, it was still a relatively difficult commodity to obtain, as it was not cultivated in the colonies and had to be imported from the Dutch and English plantations in the West Indies, Java, Ceylon and Brazil. And, its popularity still ranked considerably below that of tea. Things began to change towards the end of the 18th century, for a number of reasons.
The one most mentioned is related to the conflicts between the Colonists and the British over tea taxation. A conflict that, in 1773, led to the famous “Boston Tea Party.” Thereafter, drinking tea became considered unpatriotic and coffee began to be considered more appropriate. John Adams shared this anecdote with his wife, Abigail, in 1774.
“When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. ‘Madam’ said I to Mrs. Huston, ‘is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?’‘No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but I’le make you Coffee.’ Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”
There were also a number of other reasons to explain the increased popularity of coffee in America, which included more affordability caused by increased production, better methods of production leading to a more tasty beverage, and even increased demand for “appropriate” stimulating beverages during the industrial revolution.
Coffee also found an important use in the military. President Andrew Jackson added it to the military rations in 1832. And, during the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, it is plausible that the Union Army won because they drank real coffee while, as the successful Union blockades of southern ports, particularly New Orleans, meant that the Confederacy could not import coffee (and other goods) and therefore had to come up with coffee substitutes. General Benjamin Butler even considered coffee to be an essential ingredient for every soldier and came up with this strategy which he shared with other generals:
“If your men get their coffee early in the morning, they can hold.”
Indeed, in 1864, the US Government bought 40 million pounds of coffee beans, which allowed it to grant each soldier their monthly ration of 3 pounds. Perhaps the greatest irony of this is that much of the coffee was being purchased from Ceylon, Java, Costa Rica and Brazil came from countries that relied on slave labor to produce it.
American pioneers who moved west made sure that they included hundreds of pounds of coffee during their journey of thousands of miles over difficult terrain. Although, it should be noted that one large group of pioneers, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, or “Mormons” swore off coffee (as well as tea and alcohol) as instructed by their prophet Joseph Smith in his “Words of Wisdom” where in a section entitled, “Doctrines and Covenant 89:9”
“Hot drinks are not for the body or belly”
However, for the rest of the United States, coffee was a success. In 1872, it was declared by Robert Hewitt Jr in his book, “Coffee: It’s History, Cultivation and Use,” that coffee was,
“‘queen’ among the beverages of domestic life.”
By the turn of the 20th Century, the United States consumed 12.09 pounds per capita of all the coffee produced in the world – bested only by Sweden at 15.25 pounds per capita, Cuba at 13.79 pounds per capita and Denmark at 13.19 pounds per capita.
This love of coffee continued through the century. During the great depression, which started in 1929 and lasted through to 1939, the offer of a hot cup of coffee to a person who was down on their luck was part of the menu of some soup kitchens. And even notorious gangster, Al Capone, ran a soup kitchen in Chicago where he offered those in line,
“Free Soup Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.”
Like during the Civil War, coffee was an essential part of the rations for US military during both WWI and WWII, where the creation of the first commercially successful “Instant” coffee proved very popular with the troops on the move.
These instant coffees proved hugely successful during the 1950s. However, it was in the late 1980s that we see the decline in instant coffee sales and perhaps the beginning of what some might see as the new modern era of coffee drinking as people began to require more from their coffee than just a hot liquid to wake them up on their way to work.
The first Starbucks -- which was the name taken from a character in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick -- opened in Seattle in 1971. The three owners, Jerry Baldwin, Zev Seigl and Gordon Bowker, were inspired to sell premium coffees by coffee entrepreneur Alfred Peet, who had been selling coffee from his own store in Berkeley, California.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that Starbucks was a huge hit. You can barely walk down a street in the US, or indeed few places on earth without seeing one of their stores. I’m told that, from 2005 to 2018, it had nearly 30,000 stores worldwide. I once even saw one in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. This one was thankfully short-lived and closed after an outcry from locals.
I know there is much debate amongst you all about the quality of coffee on offer from Starbucks and other chains. However, as I mentioned at the very beginning of the episode, this is not a conversation that I can take part in because I can’t drink the stuff. That being said, what it does show us however, is that the drinking of premium quality coffee and paying premium price for coffee is more than a trend and definitely here to stay. This trend highlights how these companies source their coffee beans and their relationships that they have with their suppliers.
I mentioned a few moments ago about the first attempts of colonial powers to grow coffee in their occupied territories. These were attempts based on forced labor or slavery and were always financially inequitable to those who produced compared to those who retailed coffee.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of many, that income gap may actually have increased rather than decreased. In the 1970s, the ratio between what a farmer received and what a retailer received was, according to the U.N., around 1 in 3 in favor of the retailer. Now, it’s around 1 in 10 in favor of the retailer, and where a farmer might receive one to two dollars for every pound of coffee beans while the retailer gets to charge $20.
As well as which, workers can often earn even less -- around 2% of the retail price. And, in some countries, workers are put in the situation where the children of workers are removed from school and forced to work so that families can earn enough money to survive. In Honduras, for example, the US Department of Labor states that there are nearly 158,000 child laborers, many of whom pick beans. And, in Brazil, for example, hundreds of coffee workers are rescued from indentured servitude and slavery every year.
Added to which, these new luxury coffees also have a non-human impact on the environment -- both on the land that is being used to grow coffee to meet the increasing demand, and even on animals. You may well have heard about a coffee known as “Kopi Luwak.” This is a coffee which is produced by feeding the beans to animals called “Civets” and then harvesting them when they are excreted in the belief that the digestion by the animals makes better coffee. While this may seem gross to some, these coffees sell for hugely premium prices and has led to many animals being caged and force fed to increase production.
That might seem like a rather depressing way to end this episode of the podcast. However, none of this is meant to stop you enjoying your morning cup of coffee, rather to exhort you all to do some research on the coffees that you buy every day, be it for home use or at any one of the gourmet coffee stores you might like to visit. Make sure you check on their relationships with their growers and ask about their ethical statements on the environment. And, if they don’t come up to muster, speak with your wallet and shop elsewhere. No one can ask any more of you than that.
Okay, well that’s enough of a rant from me. But, I hope you enjoyed this podcast so that next time you drink your coffee, you might think about a goatherder in Ethiopia, the port of Mocha in Yemen, the island of Java in Indonesia, the origins of the London Stock Exchange, and President John Adams and his resolve to wean himself off his tea cravings. Now, this is the point where I normally tell you that I’m going to go off and sample the food I have been talking about for the last half an hour. Except I can’t in this case ‘cause it’ll probably kill me. So, you guys go and enjoy your coffee, and I’m off for a good old cup of tea. I’ll see you next week.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There’s also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: October 14, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.