The chronicles of coffee
This rich dark liquid flows across the world and greases the wheels of our economies, and is one of the most traded commodities today. A few experts fear that we may exhaust the resource due to the seemingly endless demand. No, this is not oil, it's coffee.
Coffee is so omni-present today that we have forgotten how unusual it actually is. The idea of coffee was confined to being a religious ritual aid just a few centuries ago, but with the global expansion it became an unstoppable force. What is driving this insatiable thirst for coffee and how has this beverage come to win the world? Is it the mordant yet aromatic flavours or its psychoactive effect? How have the farmers overcome the myriad of challenges to fulfil the global supply chain?
The story of coffee begins in the native highlands of Ethiopia, the homeland to the Coffea arabica plant. Most commonly referred to as ‘coffee beans’, these are not actually beans but fruits of coffee trees that look identical to cherries. The seeds inside are extracted, dried and roasted, which makes them hard, nutty nodules that we then move to grind.
The global expansion of coffee still remains ambiguous, but the historic records suggest that the Sufis of Yemen were the first truly devoted drinkers of coffee outside of Africa in the middle ages and this was intimately connected to their mystic rituals. According to historians, amongst these sufis, never was a religious activity performed without the consumption of coffee. The caffeine helps them continue their practice throughout the night, while the roasting of the beans is an analogy for the transcendence of the human soul.
This marked the initial expansion of the coffee houses through the ottoman empire and Middle east where they caught the attention of western traders, who took this enchanting drink back home. They strongly believed in it due to its medicinal properties. The observations about its medicinal properties have been borne out by recent studies, which show that coffee can offer some protection from certain common diseases. Besides providing a presumably life-enhancing drink, the European coffee places also became a famous meeting spot for businessmen- some even birthed the financial institutions and businesses we turn to today. The insurance company Lloyds from London, was based from the Lloyd's coffee shop , where sailors and merchants often met to discuss their affairs.
The European settlers passed this knowledge on to their colonies in Asia and South America: Portugal shared this with Brazil, France to Vietnam, and Spain with Colombia. The sale of coffee was intricately linked with the slave trade, which was not banned in Colombia and Brazil until the late 1800s.
Coffee still fuels the economy of these countries; Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia are the largest suppliers of this crop while the United States, Germany and France are the biggest importers. However even with the technology present today, coffee is a notoriously difficult crop to grow.
Just like the quality and taste of wine depends on the terroir of the grapes, the taste of each coffee blend will be shaped by the conditions in which the beans are grown. The plants that produce Arabica coffee beans - the most aromatic kind that is favored by the majority of the drinkers - are extremely sensitive to climate: they require a heavy rainfall as well as a temperature range of 15-24 degree celsius. These plants are also more susceptible to diseases and can only grow at a high altitude. These beans also take a period of two years to grow, which means farmers only yield a return on their investment after these two years.
Even after all the hurdles, worldwide over 120 million workers and their families are supported by the cultivation of coffee, most of whom are passionate about their work. However, most of the coffee farmers are underpaid , and have no stable income due to fluctuation in crop prices. There are multiple factors at play here, the productivity of farmers affects the income, the climate affects their income and moreover corporate greed and exploitation affects their income.
Cultivation is only a part of the process- coffee needs to be roasted before it is ready to be consumed. In most countries with a long-standing relationship with coffee, roasting is considered almost a supernatural craft. The barista has to pay attention to intricate details like the aroma, color and the sound of the beans while roasting them. The unique roasting methods of an Italian Espresso led to the formation of Starbucks, which eventually gave birth to the idea of coffee bars. This grew to become one of the popular hang out spots for people and unlike any other bar this was suitable for all ages.
While most of the people today visit artisanal coffee shops with the intention of it being just another meeting spot , there is a large proportion of people who care about the origin of the drinks and the unique flavor each drink has to offer. Coffee is termed to be a social currency for the world today and it is the celebration of this experience that attracts so many people.