Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

The Bean that Counts

Coffee has fostered so much of what is best and worst about our civilization and is Earth’s second most valuable legal export.

Consider what would happen tomorrow morning if we couldn’t get our jolt of java. Life might go on, but we would be lethargic and in major withdrawal.

Coffee is not only a Canadian’s favourite breakfast drink; it is the second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth, after oil. And it is the world’s most widely taken psychoactive drug. It has dominated the economies, politics and social structure of entire countries. Revolutions have been planned, romances sparked and novels written over this potent brew.

Coffee’s history is rife with controversy and paradox. Its propagation led to the spread of slavery, the subjugation of the Indians and the wholesale destruction of rain forests around the world. Yet, coffee provides a livelihood, of sorts, for more than 25 million farming families. And shade-grown coffee offers a valuable habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.

Today, coffee is at the forefront of a global grassroots movement for fair trade and sustainability. Consumers throughout the developed world happily shell out three bucks for a Starbucks latte, roughly equivalent to the daily wage of a labourer at a coffee plantation. Remarkably, the historical forces that have made this inequity possible may now be converging toward a more positive outcome for Third World coffee growers who have rarely received their fair share of coffee riches.

Hard-nosed marketing executives are beginning to realize that designer-coffee drinkers are willing to pay even more for the peace of mind that comes with knowing their coffee purchase benefits the lot of Third World growers along with the planet’s ecosystem. And when you stop to consider that these consumers now make up a quarter of the nearly $70-billion annual coffee market, it’s no wonder that coffee has risen to the forefront of fair-trade activism. Coffee has changed the world, and now this wildly popular bean is showing how it can actually improve our world.

But then, this dark medium has always fostered so much of what is best and worst about our civilization, ever since its discovery over 1,000 years ago, deep in the ancient forest of what has been called the cradle of civilization.

“No one really knows who first found coffee or exactly when,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, “but we do know it was in Ethiopia, where coffee still grows wild in the mountains.

“The Ethiopians,” Pendergrast continues, “tell a wonderful legend about a goat herder named Kaldi. According .to legend, at the end of the day, Kaldi would call his goats on his flute to follow him home. One day, they did not come. When he came upon them, they were bleating and darting about excitedly. He saw them chew the cherries from a tree and decided to try a few. Suddenly he felt energized, and started playing wonderful music on his flute.”

It is likely that Ethiopians (like Kaldi) chewed the cherries at first, or ground the beans with fat to make an energy bar. Later, they brewed the leaves with boiled water to make a weak drink. But it wasn’t until the 1500s that someone, perhaps accidentally, roasted the beans and discovered how good they smelled. Then they ground them and brewed a black potent beverage. Ah! Coffee.

Traders took beans to the Arabian port of Moka. There, the Sufis used the invigorating potion to put off their desire for sleep, so they were better able to perform their swirling devotions. The black brew soon spread from temple to temple as a holy ceremonial drink. Coffeehouses sprang up and became the social venues where men could drink and talk about politics, and prostitutes could sell their services. As coffeehouses became the gathering places of the poor, coffee gained a reputation as a troublemaking social brew.

When the Turks conquered the Arab world, they inherited the coffee culture. Women were forbidden in the coffeehouses, but in the sultan’s harem, they drank coffee in an atmosphere of languorous sensuality. Afterward, they would have their coffee grounds read to find out if they were satisfying the sultan and whom he loved best.

In 1683, the Turks launched a siege of Vienna. Unsuccessful, the Turks fled but left behind the bags of coffee. And so began coffee spread throughout the continent. But coffee arrived in Europe, with many negative connotations.

“It was almost as if there was advance warning: something bad is coming, which. everybody is going to like,” says Ian Bersten, author of Coffee, Sex and Health. “Turkish men went to coffeehouses without women so there was an association that coffee made you effeminate.”

When coffee eventually arrived in France in the late 1600s, the French were enamoured, but they didn’t know how to make it. An Italian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened the cafe Le Procope, introducing France to the French café.

“The first to expand the fashion were women, who considered it an aphrodisiac for men. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter,” says French historian Antony Rowley. “Woman defended it against wine, which was reputed to slow down male performance.”

The cafe society was born, and coffee soon replaced wine and beer as the beverage of choice. “Everyone drank-men, women, people in high society and in the lower class. They drank a lot. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a man drank an average of seven or eight litres of wine per day,” says Rowley.

The Italians soon began to enrich coffee culture. Their master creation was cappuccino, named for colour and the peak on the Capuchin monks’ cloaks. They also gave us espresso. Strong in taste and aroma, espresso is actually low in caffeine, because there is no time to extract it.

It was thought coffee made men weak when it came to sex, but there was a truly salacious explanation

Surprisingly, it was the British who became the big coffee drinkers. By 1700, there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. And every single coffeehouse had its specialty. The writers would go to one, the bankers would go to another, and the seafarers would go to still another. It was a ferment of intellect. They were called penny universities because, for a penny, you could get a cup of coffee and have fantastic conversations.

“People wanted to get away from the pubs,” says Edward Bramah, founder of the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, “because they could go into a coffeehouse and actually work through their business. The coffeehouses became the kingpin of the social and the commercial life of London.”

Women were not allowed inside the coffeehouses-unless they worked there. As in Paris, women of 17th century London associated coffee with sex. But they had a very different idea of the relationship.

“There was a notion that coffee made men very weak when it came to sex,” says Bersten. In a pamphlet called the Maiden’s Complaint, the female authors wrote, “When they come home, our gallants have nothing moist but their noses, nothing stiff but their joints and nothing standing but their ears.”

“In fact,” says Bersten,“the coffeehouses were full of prostitutes. When the husband arrived home and the wife would say, ‘How about it?’ he would answer, ‘Sorry, I just had a cup of coffee.’”

While women never did get into the coffeehouses in London, public tearooms began to open in the early 1700s, where women and children could go. Tea became not only more sociable and democratic, it was cheaper and simpler to make. And the British, not known for their culinary skills, had never really learned to make a good cup of coffee. By the end of the 1700s, England was a tea-drinking country.

As the British trade in tea grew, so did the continent’s taste for coffee. Europeans were consuming a hundred million pounds of coffee, and establishing large slave-run plantations to grow it.

“A young French lieutenant,” recounts Pendergrast, “smuggled a single coffee tree to Martinique and it spread to San Domingo, which is now Haiti. By 1790, half of the world’s coffee was grown on this one island, but under appalling conditions by slaves.” In 1791, they revolted.

Ironically, the slaves were inspired by the French Revolution two years before, planned in large part over coffee. From the French colonies, some fertile beans were smuggled into Brazil, which soon became the powerhouse of world coffee.

“Coffee created modern Brazil,” says historian Vera Lucia, “but at an enormous environmental cost. When the land was depleted, planters simply cleared new swaths of forest.” Today in Sao Paulo, only 10 percent of the original rain forest remains.

The human cost was even more devastating. Plantation owners brought in slaves by the shipload to do the intensive work of coffee cultivation. By 1816, there were more than one and half million slaves, a third of the population.

“At that time,” says Snui Li Juvee, a descendent of a Brazilian slave, “my father told me, a slave cost the same as 16 cows. Conditions were inhuman.

With Brazil producing lots of cheap coffee, North Americans could afford to drink it. The coffee dynasties began to take shape. John Arbunkle sold the first pre-roasted coffee in packages in 1864. Jim Folger made his fortune delivering his coffee to miners in the gold rush. Joel Cheek served his coffee at Nashville’s finest hotel, the Maxwell House, and Caleb Chase and James Sanborn, the first to use sealed cans in a vain attempt to prevent staling, sold a Mocha Java with little of either in the blend. Around the Great Depression, these family-run businesses were absorbed in corporate buyouts and fresh roasts gave way to inferior blends in a can.

Rather than improve quality, the big coffee companies tried selling coffee by advertising and by introducing new products such as Sanka-coffee without caffeine. Not coffee at all, many would argue.

While Americans were drinking inferior blends, many Canadians were dunking their doughnuts in a finer brew.

“Canadians love doughnuts,” says Sandy McAlpine, president of the Coffee Association of Canada. “We’re the biggest doughnut-consuming nation per capita in the world.”

Hockey great Tim Horton stickhandled his way from pucks to doughnuts, while in Quebec, Albert Louis Van Houtte pawned his wife’s diamond earrings to buy a roaster and make his own bon melange.

Coffee-producing nations, meanwhile, still struggling to free themselves of their colonial legacy, were at the mercy of another master, the boom-bust cycle. There would be too much coffee and the price would go down. People would stop growing so much, and the price would go up.

In the mid-1950s, Brazil was hit by bad weather and the price of coffee went up. “I can’t think that if the price of corn went up substantially that we would have Congressional hearings,” says Pendergrast, “but when the price of coffee spiked, we did.”

Testifying before the U.S. Congress, Colombian Andres Uribe made a remarkable speech: “When you’re talking about coffee, you’re not just talking about a commodity, you’re talking about the lives of millions of people. In Latin America, we have illiteracy to be eliminated, disease to be wiped out and a sound program of nutrition to be worked out. If we could secure a fair price, we could work a miracle. If not, you cast these millions to drift in a sea of poverty.”

Consumers paid little attention. In an attempt to increase coffee consumption, several Latin American countries formed the PanAmerican Coffee Bureau and discovered that consumers in North America didn’t know anything about who grew coffee, explains Nestor Osorio, executive director of the current London-based International Coffee Organization. “So, in Colombia in 1960, we created the image of Juan Valdez, a typical coffee grower with his mule and his bags of coffee.”

Then, in another attempt to increase consumption, the Pan American Coffee Bureau launched a media campaign, which introduced the term “coffee break” into the North American vocabulary.

In 1962, the United States entered what was known as the International Coffee Agreement, which limited coffee quotas. Coffee growers enjoyed the longest period of relative stability they had ever known. Eventually, the agreement fell apart, and the bottom dropped out of the market.

Then a war-weary nation burst onto the coffee market. In just a decade Vietnam’s production swelled by more than 1,000 per cent and the world’s worst commodity downturn became a full-blown global crisis. At the turn of the 21st century, coffee farmers were only marginally better off than their enslaved ancestors. Ironically, a new generation of dissident coffee lovers was becoming a new hope.

The specialty revolution began with people who just wanted a decent cup.

In Seattle, Gerry Baldwin and his partners opened a little coffee bean shop and named it after the coffee-drinking first mate in Moby Dick — Starbucks. Then in 1982, they hired a plastics salesman, Howard Schultz. A year later, they sent him to Milan.

A Latin American withness told the U.S. Congress that a fair price for coffee would enable the continent to work miracles

“The epiphany came for me when I went into an Italian coffee bar,” says Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks. “I realized that Starbucks had missed what I thought was the most significant opportunity. I raced back with wonder about recreating it in North America.”

Schultz soon bought out Starbucks and started opening three cafes a week.

In two decades, he turned Starbucks into a Fortune 500 company. There are now 8,500 Starbucks around the world.

Our love affair with coffee had definitely gone upscale. New coffee shops like Peet’s and The Second Cup transformed the cup of cheap swill into a $6 experience. Charging such high price requires buying quality beans — which is what brings specialty roasters today to the world’s best producers.

“To produce quality,” explains Luis Fernando Monge, a Costa Rican agronomist who works for the government co-operative, “we have costs that are higher than the international price, so we have to find better ways to sell our coffee. Programs like Fair Trade really help. The idea is to eliminate the middleman, who is getting richer because of the bad prices.”

“Imagine if your only source of income came once a year,” says Deborah James, a director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, “and you had no idea what it was going to be. Then a middleman offers you money up front for the harvest when it comes. Many of these farmers realized that by working together, they could bypass the middleman and get out of their cycle of poverty and debt.”

“For a person who wants to buy coffee that does some good,” says Pendergrast, “there are a number of options. Certainly fair trade is a good one. There are also organizations that support birdfriendly coffee or buying organic coffee pretty much guaranteed it’s good for the environment. If you buy specialty in general, the growers are probably getting decent money. But it’s a very small part of the world market.”

About two thirds of the market is dominated by just a few players. Folgers is owned by Procter and Gamble. Maxwell House, the second biggest label, is owned by the cigarette company Phillip Morris. Then there is Nestle arid Sarah Lee.

The major labels buy nearly half the world’s beans, while Starbucks buys less than two percent. But as the leading specialty company, Starbucks occupies a unique place as it tries to live up to its claim that coffee is more than a commodity.

Specialty roasters understand the role they play in supporting farmers and their families. As they find better ways to support their sources, many of the world’s industries are looking to them as a new economic model for a more equitable relationship between North and South.

“Agronomists in the 1960s learned that when a coffee plant was exposed to full sun and bathed in agro chemicals, they could triple the production,” explains Chris Willie of the Rainforest Alliance. “We want to show that coffee can go back toward sustainability. There are millions of bags more coffee than we consumers are willing to drink. What we want is more quality coffee. The farmers can grow less and get a higher price.”

“Unfortunately consumers still don’t know enough about the situation,” says James, “so we keep buying from terrible companies. Nobody gets up and says: ‘I’m going to get a cup of coffee and I want to make sure that I’m exploiting farmers and polluting the environment.’ Yet, unwittingly we are contributing when we buy coffee that is not sustainable.”

Activists worldwide are appealing to consumers to make choices that pressure big government and the big coffee companies to follow the sustainable path taken by the specialty revolution.

In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee and one of the finest coffee growing regions in the world, farmers have started the first Fair Trade cooperative. They hope that by forming this cooperative they can provide the basic needs for their families, and realize the dream of a better future for their children.

As their ancient beans finally reach the consumers who can delight in their morning coffee, the hope is that the quality of the bean, the quality of the environment in which it grows and the quality of the life of the farmer who grows it, can all just come together — in the perfect cup.

Irene Angelico is a Montreal-based writer and director of the three-hour documentary series, Black Coffee.

Originally published in The Bay Street Bull, April 2006

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