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The Avid Gardener: The power of the coffee plant in shaping history

by on August 31, 2017 9:42 AM

“The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” --Sir James Mackintosh

As with all traditions, the drinking of coffee has undergone enormous changes over the past 30 years, when few choices were available. There was either drip coffee made from already-ground beans that were in a vacuum-sealed can, or the nasty coffee crystals used with boiling water to make instant when on the run. It was a real treat to get a cup of coffee made from freshly ground beans, and often that was only in a fine restaurant. Decaf was not readily available.

Fast forward to 2017, with coffee selections ranging from Caffe Americano to macchiato and numerous others, all served by trained baristas in corner coffee cafes around the world. Not to mention the myriad choices for home brewers. In my household, we presently have a choice of drip, French press, espresso or K-cup-produced brews, depending on our time, mood and need for that extra shot of caffeine.

This wildly popular worldwide drink has an intriguing and complex history that begins with its discovery in Ethiopia. According to an ancient legend recounted by Bill Laws in his book “Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History,” a ninth-century goatherd named Kaldi discovered coffee when he noticed that his goats had been chewing red “cherries from the coffee plant, causing them to do a little caffeinated dance of joy.” He, in turn, was so invigorated by the taste of the cherries himself that he took them to his friends at a monastery, where the monks cultivated the tree and brewed the drink that helped them stay awake during prayers.

It is believed, however, that it was not until the middle of the 15th century that knowledge of the coffee tree or drink became more widespread. This happened in Arabia, based on the accounts of Ahmed al-Ghaffar, writing in Yemen.

The consumption of coffee from there spread to the remaining Middle East, Persia, Turkey and North Africa by the 16th century, and finally on to Italy, the rest of Europe, Indonesia and the Americas. It is thought that Marco Polo helped its spread by bringing it back to Venice.

Today, according to Wikipedia, the top 10 green coffee producers include Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru and Uganda, though a total of 49 countries (and one state) that make up what is known as the Bean Belt — a strip stretching between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — are all producers.

According to Sherrie Weynand in her posting “Coffee — The Nectar of the Gods,” the impact on the global economy is a coffee industry that, citing 2015 figures, consists of a $42 billion market, with U.S. consumers spending $74.2 billion on coffee. It is responsible for 1,694,710 U.S. jobs and nearly $28 billion in taxes.

Weynand goes on to the describe the three types of beans:

■ Coffea arabica comprises 59 percent of the world’s coffee production and the finest quality coffee with a “hint of chocolate-caramel flavor and just a touch of bitterness,” grown at the higher elevations.

■ Coffea robusta is grown on relatively flat plantations at lower elevations “with a stronger taste often described as tasting like burnt wood” and a much higher caffeine content,

■ And, there are blended beans from various places with “different qualities.”

These coffee plants, which are evergreen shrubs, need rich, fertile soil, along with mild temperatures, lots of rain and partial sun.
The coffee berries and their seeds — which we refer to as beans — undergo many processes before becoming the brew we know so well. They are handpicked, processed, sorted, fermented, washed, dried and roasted.

One very expensive coffee known as Kopi Luwak uses the Asian palm civet to eat the coffee berries, which are then extracted from its feces. These coffee beans can sell for up to $160 per pound and $30 per brewed cup. It’s said that the action of the digestive enzymes breaking down the bean proteins creates a “rich slightly smoky aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate.”

Coffee use, as well as production, has had a “transforming effect on history,” according to Laws. Aside from the significant impact coffee production had on many nations and economies, it helped drive the fashion for coffee houses which became “places of artistic creativity” as well as “the place to do business.”

The first of these houses was said to have been set up by a Turkish merchant. In 1683, one opened in Venice. The ideas for Lloyd’s of London, the London Stock Exchange, plans for the U.S. national banking system and the 1773 Boston Tea Party were all spawned in coffee houses. The Declaration of Independence was first read in public at Philadelphia’s Merchant’s Coffee House. Drinking coffee became a matter of patriotism after the unfair taxation of English tea.

Closer to modern day, these meeting places continue to act as offices away from home. For example, a mother on welfare benefits, Joanne Murray (her real name), found a place to work on her manuscript of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” at The Elephant House, a coffee house in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Environmental issues concerning the growing of coffee and its sensitive ecosystem have come to the forefront in modern times, as well as ongoing questions about its effect on health. These are both important considerations for future generations to debate.
Whether in the form of a latte, cappuccino, Irish coffee or just plain decaf, coffee is here to stay. From a berry sunning itself on a slope in Columbia to the brew in the cup, this plant is certain to have far-reaching effects for ages to come.


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