Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Coffee: A Dark History

Antony Wild isn't kidding. The history of coffee is indeed as "dark," as his subtitle puts it, as the cup of Colombian that sits on my desk as these words are written. Himself a coffee lover and an expert on the subject -- he worked for more than a decade as the buyer for a prestigious British specialty-coffee company -- Wild is nonetheless no sentimentalist when it comes to the human and natural toll the bean has extracted -- "poverty, violence, exploitation, environmental devastation, political oppression, and corruption" -- nor to the threats that caffeine poses to the health of those who consume it. As he writes, with the wry touch that makes his book a pleasure:

"Nature has so ordered things that the highest levels of caffeine are to be found in the most important part of its plant, its seed. This is because caffeine is nothing more than a natural insecticide, and the high caffeine levels protect the seed from unwanted attention. Hapless insects who ingest too much find that their nervous systems go into overdrive. By the miracle of international trade, the same symptoms can be observed in office workers the world over."

However harmful caffeine may be -- a question on which the jury is still out, though Wild argues that "science produced by the coffee industry" glosses over and/or distorts its effects -- the buzz it produces has had a significant influence on human history. So Wild argues, and his case is persuasive. He is unable to trace coffee's beginnings to a precise point -- it is commonly understood to have originated in Ethiopia, and "it would appear that the Sufis were the first to adopt coffee drinking," in Yemen in the late 15th century -- but once he reaches the 16th century and the rise of coffeehouses in the Ottoman Empire, things start to fall into place.

The role of the coffeehouse, he argues, simply cannot be underestimated. In the Arab world it "was, other than the reviled tavern, the only place to meet friends outside the home, discuss politics and literature, play backgammon or chess and perhaps gamble," and thus it became "an integral part of the imperial system, providing a forum for the coming together and dissemination of news and ideas." When coffee arrived in Europe in the next century, the same development occurred. People who "had been accustomed to swilling considerable quantities of weak beer throughout the day," and were thus inclined to be phlegmatic and woozy, now were energized by caffeine, setting off "a revolution in . . . political, economic, and cultural life." Wild writes:

"It is almost impossible to distinguish the cultural effects of the coffee house from the physical effects of the coffee served in it. The environment of the 'Penny University' undoubtedly encouraged a degree of association between men who might otherwise never have met, but would they have formed societies without the intellectually stimulating nature of the beverage? It has been argued that, until the arrival of coffee, the population of Europe had existed in a constant state of mild intoxication, since the quality of water was such that many people drank the weak beers of the time morning, noon, and night. By switching to coffee, they were not only reducing the muddle-headedness resulting from alcohol consumption, but also ingesting a powerful new drug. Indeed, it could be said that the introduction of coffee to England led to a . . . 'brain explosion.' "

The list of British institutions that had their origins in coffeehouses is indeed impressive. It includes Lloyds of London, the Stock Exchange, the East India Company and the Royal Society, "which was to become the most illustrious scientific institution of the age." This was "the key contribution of coffee house culture to Britain," with remarkable ramifications: "That these societies consolidated into institutions that were no longer based in coffee houses reflects their evolutionary success and the adaptability of the coffee house culture, which could inspire the creation of august commercial institutions . . . , a magazine such as the Spectator , the first use of the ballot box, the Royal Society, Freemasonry, and the police force."

This creature whom Wild calls "Coffee House Man: energetic, self-motivated, political, practical, reformist, well-connected, cultured, and philanthropic," changed much more than England. Revolutions in the American colonies and then in France traced much of their origins to coffeehouse palavering; indeed, wherever coffee was and is drunk its influence has been nothing short of spectacular. Caffeine -- whether in coffee or tea or in the "so-called 'energy' [soft] drinks which were heavily caffeinated" -- is the fuel that drives the world, as one need look no farther than the nearest coffee line at an office cafeteria to see.

Like so much else in human life, in other words, coffee giveth and coffee taketh away. Its sensory pleasures are undeniable (though not easily found in a world where most coffee is mediocre or worse), and its energizing powers are formidable. So, too, is its place in the international economy. The World Bank "estimates that a staggering 500 million people globally are involved directly or indirectly in the coffee trade," only a tiny number of whom are getting wealthy in the process. Mostly coffee is grown, harvested and processed by subsistence laborers and farmers, producing coffee "at the lowest possible cost for markets in the developed world." Wild, who views this "colonialism" with what can only be called anger, minces few words:

"Instead of living by the old maxim that 'Trade follows the flag,' powerful corporations have realized that it is easier to dispense with the burdensome responsibilities of actual colonization, and use modern transnational organizations such as the [World Trade Organization], the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund] to impose their will from the boardrooms of Manhattan, Paris, and Berlin. For the impoverished farmer whose national politics bend to the needs of these transnational institutions and the corporations they serve, the notion of democracy is a spurious validation of the yoke under which they are forced to work."

No matter where one looks, the coffee picture is not pretty. When it was introduced to the Western Hemisphere in the 18th century, the common feature in all the countries where it flourished -- Jamaica, Cuba, Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico -- was "that they had large existing slave populations that enabled coffee growing to be established with startling rapidity." The huge plantations of Brazil were "founded on the continuation of slavery long after it had been banned in Europe." In 1880, one member of Parliament said, "Brazil is coffee, and coffee is the negro." Eight years later, Brazil finally banned slavery, but the conditions under which the ostensibly freed laborers worked barely changed.

Coffee is now huge in Vietnam, "the second largest producer of coffee worldwide" after Brazil, which is -- at least for the moment -- good for Vietnam, but according to Wild its "massive increase [in production] has been blamed for the global collapse of coffee prices." There are also "unsubstantiated but persistent rumours concerning possible dioxin contamination of the coffee crop, a legacy of the widespread spraying of Agent Orange by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Vietnam is the country where coffee's dark history has come home to roost with a vengeance."

Et cetera. Like sugar (see Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History ), cotton and many other agricultural products that are grown to serve the global market, coffee has a long history of exploitation and abuse of resources both human and natural. The indignation with which Antony Wild tells its story is well founded, and so too is the sorrow: "Coffee used to be a business in which, despite its manifest drawbacks, a man could think himself honourably employed. In common with many other businessmen, the coffee man as often as not now finds himself effectively a receiver of stolen goods and an enslaver of the Third World. The more conscientious may scratch their heads and wonder how on earth this came about. Most keep their conscience prisoner."

- Washington Post

Friday, November 18, 2005

Sans Caffeine

All I do is sit
with my head in my hands,
unable to think. And I stare
out the window at myself,
as I squat on the curb
like a blind beggar, holding out
my empty cup
to the agitated
passers-by: those who have had
their fix of morning coffee.

I keep falling asleep
in the middle of my work,
with fitful dreams
that are not
Wish-fulfilling Gems.

How many days
will I languish here,
like a marionette
hung up by its strings
in the dead master’s attic?
Perhaps the wind
will blow in through
these shattered glass panes--
enough to make me dance
and swing in mid-air;
enough to dispel
these wistful
and abortive

By Lee Evans.

Cupped by INdeed Coffee.

De-caf or Regular?

"Caffeinated coffee may have an undeserved bad rap, suggests a new study that shows the decaffeinated variety may have harmful heart effects. The study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association, showed that people who drank decaf had higher levels of a protein linked to heart disease risk compared with those who drank caffeinated coffee or no coffee." This is a highly unfounded claim, and very new to the playing field of coffee related health defects. The study concluded that, "After three months, there were no significant changes among the three groups in levels of blood insulin, glucose, and blood pressure, which are major risk factors for heart disease." Cupped by Inside. Article here.

Cappuccino: Mood and Market

"Whether it’s a corretto coffee thrown back like a shot of alcohol, a cappuccino coffee and croissant for breakfast, or an iced coffee to cool off from the hot midday sun, in Italy there is a coffee drink specific for every time and mood." Italian's know their cino's. "When you buy coffee online, it is both practical and economical. By purchasing direct from wholesalers, not only are you assured fresh coffee, but you also avoid paying retail overhead. Why buy retail if you can buy coffee direct and save money?" Cupped by Inside the Bean.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fair Trade Starbucks?

Starbucks has issued a pledge to sell free trade coffee. Bloggers have responded with a call to actualization. "Starbucks will make Fair Trade coffee for you, any day of the week, in any of the 23 countries it is licensed to sell Fair Trade including: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the U.K. and the U.S." Although the claim sounds nice, acquiring free trade coffee at Starbucks has proven difficult. That's why UK blogger City Hippie and US blogger Green LA Girl have issued the Starbucks Challenge. Instruction from City Hippie: 1)Simply visit your local Starbucks and ask: "Could I get a cup of fair trade coffee?" 2) Tell us what happened next. Was it hard or easy to get a cup? Watch out for posts by us and others on this blog. Post answers to http://del.icio.us/starbuckschallenge. I'm all for free trade; if we need to hold Starbucks hands to get them to back their own word, then by all means HOLD! HOLD!

Fresh Pot:
LA Girl endorses Grinding the Bean's participation.

Bean n' Bun

"Women who drink eight or more cups of coffee daily while pregnant are at risk for spontaneous abortion and stillbirth, Danish researchers report. In their study, they found that fetal death was twice as likely among heavy coffee drinkers relative to pregnant women who did not drink coffee." Pregnant and eight cups! Who are these women? Cupped by Yahoo. Balance flavor here.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

BK KO's McD's

Burger King knocks out McDonalds by punching out the first fast food premium coffee blend. Today, Burger King officially launches BK Joe, brewed from 100% arabica beans, and sold in decaf, regular and "turbo strength." BK Joe will replace Burger King's old coffee which Chief Executive Greg Brenneman said, "Wasn't any good." Last I heard, the lesser of two evils wasn't the best marketing slogan but to Brenneman's credit he added that, "It's not Starbucks, it's not that frou frou stuff." Spotted here.