New Internationalist

How Coffee Conquered The World

Issue 271

[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 271

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Dark as hell, strong as death, sweet as love
Simply... how coffee conquered the world

From its origins in Africa and Arabia the rakish bean has come to occupy a prime position as the preferred beverage of consumer societies. Brigitte Scheffer recounts how it happened.


In the beginning was the bean...

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  • There is a region in Ethiopia called Kafa which, according to one legend, gave its name to the plant. Members of the Galla people in Ethiopia noticed that they got an energy boost when they ate the coffee cherry ground up with animal fat.

  • After the year 1000 Arab traders brought coffee back to their homeland and cultivated it for the first time on plantations. They also began to boil the beans, creating a drink which they called quahwa, literally 'that which prevents sleep'.

  • The world's first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in 1475 in Constantinople. Coffee houses become centres of political and religious debate, so much so that Sultan Amurat III had the coffee houses closed and their proprietors tortured. Coffee was declared mekreet, 'undesirable'. The vizier Mahomet Kolpili went further and had the coffee houses razed to the ground, their more conspicuous customers sewn into leather sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus.

Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee.

Sips and salons

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  • Coffee arrived in Europe in the seventeenth century with Italian traders. Pope Clement VIII initially urged his advisers to consider the favourite drink of the Ottoman Empire to be part of the infidel threat. After one sip, however, he decided to baptize it instead, making it an acceptable Christian beverage.

  • In 1683 Franz Kolshitsky, a former prisoner of the Turks, bought up all the coffee beans left behind at the siege of Vienna, when the Turks were beaten by the King of Poland. Kolshitsky opened up the first coffee house in Vienna and soon headed a chain of establishments throughout Central Europe. Word spread to Paris, where the Italian Francisco Procopio dei Celtelli opened the city's first salon - the Cafe Procope.

  • In England King Charles II raged against coffee houses as centres of sedition. They were meeting points for writers and businessmen. The Lloyds insurance business started in the back room of a coffee house in 1689.

  • Convinced of the poisonous effects of both tea and coffee, King Gustavus III of Sweden ordered the reprieve of two condemned criminals, provided one drank coffee and the other tea in vast quantities every day. The College of Physicians was to dissect them when they died and confirm the dangers of the drugs. But the criminals outlived both the judge and the physicians, while the king himself was assassinated.

The French philosopher Montesquieu complained: 'Were I the King, I would close the cafŽs, for the people who frequent those places heat their brains in a very tiresome manner.'

Brazil rules the cups

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  • With the expansion of European trading empires coffee was taken back to the tropical regions of Africa and on to the Caribbean, Latin America and South Asia to be grown on estates. In Brazil the development of improved transport systems, particularly railways, in and around Rio State and the importation of slave labour led to the growth of an industry that dominated world markets.

  • Until the end of the Second World War Brazil supplied between a half and three-quarters of the world coffee market. In the 1930s, in co-operation with Colombia and other Latin American countries, Brazil attempted to compel the coffee-importing countries to raise the price of coffee. But Britain and Holland had large-scale coffee plantations in East Africa and Indonesia respectively and this pioneer attempt to form a producer cartel failed. In 1938 the Nestle company introduced spray-dried coffee in Switzerland.

Coffee first reached Brazil when Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta returned from French Guiana with a bouquet from his lover in which were hidden cuttings and fertile coffee seeds.

Instant markets

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  • In the US demand for coffee grew sharply. The Boston Tea Party in 1773, where British tea was thrown into the sea, made drinking coffee rather than tea a patriotic duty. The industrial technologies of the late-nineteenth century transformed coffee beans - previously sold green and then cooked on the home stove - into factory-roasted and pre-packaged commodities for a mass market. The popular coffee blend Maxwell House was named after the hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, where it was first served in 1886.

  • At the beginning of the twentieth century Hills Bros in the US began packing roast coffee in vacuum tins, spelling the end of the ubiquitous local roasting shops and coffee mills. In 1901 the first soluble 'instant' coffee was invented by Japanese-American chemist Satori Kato of Chicago. Decaffeinated coffee was introduced to the US in 1923 by the German importer Ludwig Roselius. Coffee sales boomed during Prohibition.

    During the Second World War American soldiers were issued instant Maxwell House coffee in their ration kits.


The bean expands

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  • In post-war Europe and the US coffee consumption grew way beyond its pre-war levels. Manufactured by multinational companies like General Foods, Nestlé or Allied Lyons, and backed by expensive advertising campaigns, instant coffee soon came to occupy a large sector of the British and US markets. Advertisements promised to transform women from household drudges into ladies of leisure by simplifying the coffee-making process.

  • Profits from the coffee trade began to concentrate in the shipping, processing and retailing sector. The most labour-intensive, risky and unprofitable part of the operation - growing and processing the bean itself - was left to small-scale producers. The strongly-flavoured Robusta coffee grown in Africa proved particularly suited to instant coffees. Some 17 sub-Saharan countries become heavily dependent for their economic survival upon cash-crop exports of coffee.

    Coffee is the world's most 'democratic' plant - it takes root easily and cohabits well with its neighbours.


Small indulgences

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  • Discerning drinkers, however, remained resistant to instant coffee and opted for the real thing. Italians favoured cappuccino - named for the resemblance of its colour to the robes of the monks of the Capuchin order - and espresso. Turks and Arabs stayed faithful to endless tiny cups of very strong coffee flavoured with cardomom.

  • Meanwhile coffee-making paraphernalia proliferated in domestic kitchens. More recently, gourmet and organic blends have begun to make a come-back, heralding the return of the coffee-shop. When there's no cash for 'big' things like cars or houses, avid consumers spend extra money on 'small' luxuries like speciality coffees - a phenomenon known as the 'small-indulgence syndrome'. In the last 15 years the number of coffee bars in the US has leapt from 250 to over 5,000. Some sought-after beans, like Jamaican Blue Mountain, sell for three or four times the usual price.

'The treadmills in our tiny, straw-lined cages whir ever faster. I'm warning you, there's a capitalist conspiracy here. Workers of the world: stop sipping.'
Helen Cordes, Utne Reader, on the dangers of coffee used as a stimulant at work.

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Sources: History of Food Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (Blackwell 1992); Commodities Nick Rowling (Free Association Books, London 1987); Modern Africa (Basil Davidson Longman, London 1984); Utne Reader no 66.
Brigitte Scheffer is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and Latin America.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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