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Revolt-ing Coffee
Dark doesn't necessarily mean bitter or burnt. This is especially true of Cuban peaberry (caracol) — a rare natural anomaly that occurs when the cherry contains one small round bean instead of two flat-sided ones. This supposedly concentrates the essence of two beans into one. A skilled roaster can make a convincing argument of this, eliciting an earthy, dark chocolate flavor that requires no accompaniment to enjoy.

Coffee first came to the Americas in 1720. Like smallpox spread by the conquistadors, coffee cultivation quickly extended throughout the Western Hemisphere's fertile tropical belt. We may owe this botanical colonization to an intrepid French coffee addict named Gabriel de Clieu. Allegedly, he surreptitiously acquired two plants from King Louis XIV's personal supply in the Jardin des Plantes. Fending off a marauding Dutch saboteur, De Clieu successfully nursed one seedling through a dramatic trans-Atlantic crossing to the Caribbean island of Martinique. Fortune smiled and saw the plant flourish, ultimately impacting the fortunes of millions. De Clieu, however, died in poverty.

Don Jose Antonio Gelabert is credited with bringing the first coffee seeds to Cuba from Santo Domingo in 1748. But it wasn't until 1789 that coffee production really began to take off. French families fleeing the Haitian slave revolt carved out Cuba's first coffee plantations (cafeteles) from the densely forested slopes of the Sierra Maestra. By 1827 there were 2,067 plantations. Fifty years later, fighting during the Ten Years War for independence from Spain left them in ruins. The plantations were surrendered to the vagaries of the jungle.

Cuban coffee production revived in the late 1920s and 1930s, but has ridden a shallow roller coaster ever since. The Sierra Maestra has been more successful in producing revolutionaries than arabicas. Nevertheless, in recognition of coffee's significance in Cuba's development, UNESCO designated the remains of the 19th century cafeteles in southeastern Cuba a World Heritage Site.

Teutonic Tectonics
Coffee developed late in Guatemala, despite the exceptional growing conditions found in the "Land of the Eternal Spring." Jesuit priests first brought the coffee plant to Guatemala Antigua in 1773 for use as an ornamental in their gardens. It wasn't until 1800, however, that Don Juan Rubio y Gemir first cultivated coffee outside the city for commercial purposes. Selling to overseas markets, though, was limited by the difficulty sailing ships had in making the eastward trans-Atlantic journey. This was eventually overcome with the advent of clippers and steamships.

Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaDuring the latter half of the 18th century, the production of indigo and cochineal dyes dominated the country's export economy. Fortunes began to change when a plague of locusts devastated the indigo plantations in 1800. The government encouraged coffee as a substitute by offering cash prizes to the first four farmers who could harvest 20,000 pounds of coffee. The invention of synthetic dyes in 1856 then sent the cochineal industry into obsolescence.

Coffee subsequently rose to economic pre-eminence with the vigorous encouragement of Guatemala's government. Limited capital and a reluctant labor force, however, hindered development. A wave of German immigration in the last two decades of the 1800s, bolstered by generous government incentives, succeeded in bringing the necessary investment and technology for the industry's modernization. Equivalent social development, however, proved elusive. Europeans maintained their socio-political dominance, albeit on a foundation as stable as the country's volcanic landscape.

Despite Guatemala's turbulent history, the mountain basin surrounding the colonial city of Guatemala Antigua is acknowledged as producing one of the world's finest, most perfectly balanced coffees. Only two dozen coffee estates (fincas) have earned the designation "genuine Antigua."

A distinctive characteristic of this coffee is a smokiness that punctuates the rich body and flavor, which is untypical of Latin American coffees. Although I would expect this coffee, as a wet-processed extra hard bean, to do well as a light roast, I have only found it as a medium. Nevertheless, this is a coffee to be appreciated unblended.

Full Circle
Kenyan coffee pickerBy the beginning of the 20th century, although the English had now become a nation of tea drinkers, they still encouraged the development of a coffee industry in British East Africa. Despite coffee's origins in neighboring Ethiopia, it was only in 1901 when missionaries imported Bourbon seed from Réunion that cultivation began in Kenya and Uganda. This was followed by Jamaican Blue Mountain stock.

Coffee's journey had now come full circle. As we return to the beginning of our journey, our perspective has changed. We may see things differently, even encounter culture shock while attempting to return to our routine. Can we really ever be at home, then?

Perhaps home is more of an evolving state of mind than a physical place — the sum of our experience, knowledge, and relationships. Something as basic as a cup of coffee can change our perspective, be it from experiencing a different flavor or simply meeting someone new. There are many possibilities. The choice is yours.

Bon voyage!

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