by Rick Green
A tantalizing aroma wafts upwards, enveloping the senses, drawing my gaze into the shimmering blackness. There was a time when I wouldn't have given my coffee a second thought beyond the first sip. Yet, it represents so much more, which you realize when pursuing the path of coffee.
Most think of coffee as just a cup of joe, but that's as true as saying wine is only red and white or beer is straw-colored fizz. A trip to Germany exposed me to other possibilities and launched a never-ending journey of discovery. Coffee is no longer just regular or decaf, light roast or dark. It's a portal to the world, a gateway to future possibilities.
Sound far-fetched? Consider that coffee is commonly associated with place — Java, Colombia, and Brazil are the most familiar. Antigua, Harar, Kilimanjaro, Mocha, Sumatra, and Tarrazu are others regularly served up by the specialty coffee market — Lonely Planet in a cup.
In fact, with coffee grown in over 70 countries, it's not difficult to take an around-the-world journey through your daily habit. Here's a sample of the possibilities and some background to inspire your own journeys.
Cradle of Coffee
The Horn of Africa is the origin of Homo sapiens. It's also the cradle of coffee. Legend credits its discovery to frisky goats shepherded by a boy named Kaldi. The reality was likely less colorful.
Arabica coffee originated in highlands of Buno and Kaffa.1 in southwestern Ethiopia. Coffee's earliest known use was by Oromo warriors for energy on their march to battle. They rolled crushed coffee cherries and animal fat into balls to produce their version of a modern-day PowerBar. Unfortunately for the Oromo, their prowess in battle was less than renowned. In spite of their caffeine boost, many found themselves in the slave market of Harar. This spread coffee to the town's environs, the cultivation of which eventually eclipsed the slave trade.
Today, you experience coffee history when you drink a cup of Ethiopian Harar. It's a descendant of the original bean, still produced as it was hundreds of years ago. Small village garden plots use traditional, dry-processing methods without the use of chemicals. The coffee is organic, but usually not certified because of the cost. That alone should persuade you to sip and contemplate, not gulp.
If you are drinking a single origin (not blended with other coffees), don't be surprised that the characteristics may change from cup to cup. Much of how these beans are processed is left up to Mother Nature. This will be reflected on your palate — ranging from a winey, fruity, light-bodied cup to complexly sweet, earthy, and heavier-bodied. The beans may be roasted darker to tame some of their wildness, but it shouldn't taste burnt.
Ethiopian Sidamo, on the other hand, is wet-processed in larger quantities. Therefore, there is greater uniformity and control over the results. This will give you a more consistent cup with a rich, balanced flavor profile that doesn't require darker roasting. Nevertheless, if you are used to drinking Latin American coffees of the Juan Valdez variety, the Ethiopians will be noticeably different.
Wine of Araby
A short hop across the Red Sea introduces us to the fabled coffee of Yemen. With a common genetic origin, you'll notice its similarities with Ethiopia's coffees. The full body, intense flavor and aroma come from slow growth at altitude, which concentrates these in a small, hard bean. You may also notice a chocolate undertone, which is responsible for the classic combination of chocolate and coffee being named after Mocha (al-Makha), Yemen's illustrious coffee port.
The highest-grown Mattari, Hirazi, and Ismaili coffees offer the greatest complexity. However, due to the Yemeni demand for qat, a mild narcotic, coffee cultivation has declined. Therefore, a single origin Yemen Mocha will be harder to come by and more expensive. Yemen Mocha Sanani, a blend of both highland and lower-grown coffees, is more common. It offers greater balance, but is not as complex or acidic as the others.
Yemeni coffees can also lack consistency. As with the Hararis, this is due to the small-scale, dry processing methods that have changed little over the centuries. The remoteness and poverty of the coffee growing region west of the capital, Sana'a, has inhibited the adoption of chemicals or mechanization. Instead, coffee is organically cultivated on irrigated, terraced plots precariously perched on jagged slopes shrouded in an aura of misty mystery.
It's uncertain how arabica coffee came to be transplanted to these highlands, but a healthy trade (including Oromo slaves) existed between Harar and Mocha in the first millennium. This may have exposed it to Arab traders who then brought it across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula for cultivation.
It wasn't until about AD 1200 that we find the first recorded use of coffee as a drink specifically infused from ground, roasted coffee beans. Before, the beverage was prepared from green or roasted coffee tree leaves, husks from the coffee cherry, whole or crushed green beans. How the beans came to be roasted and then crushed probably came about by accident. Legends abound, but we'll unlikely know for certain.
A Sufi sect in Yemen began drinking this qahwa bunnīya to help them perform their nocturnal devotions. They gradually formalized the drinking of coffee as an initiation to their rituals. Through their pilgrimages this practice spread to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Damascus and, eventually, Constantinople (Istanbul). As conservative objections to coffee were overcome, its use widened to the general public. A trade evolved that exclusively supplied the demand with Yemeni coffee whose export was tightly controlled through Mocha.
1. Some believe Buna and Kaffa are the root of the words for coffee in different languages—buna, bunn, caffè, koffie, qahveh—but "coffee" most likely comes from the Arabic, qahwa.
The Malabar Coffee Bandit
While India is not widely known as a coffee producer, it may have been one of the first countries to break the closely guarded Arab coffee monopoly. Legend has it that around 1600 an Indian Muslim pilgrim, Hazrat Shah Jamer Allah Mazarabi (a.k.a. Baba Budan), clandestinely strapped seven green coffee beans to his belly and slipped them out of Mecca undetected. He then successfully planted them around his home in the Chandragiri (Baba Budan) Hills near Mysore on India's Malabar Coast.
While Baba Budan's beans may have been the genesis of India's current 300,000-ton-per-annum industry, it wasn't until 1840 that the British began growing coffee for export. Today, most of India's coffee is consumed domestically. But with the privatization of the coffee industry in 1998, we can expect greater availability abroad and improved quality.
One Indian coffee worth seeking is the unique Monsooned Malabar. This dry-processed arabica is purposefully exposed to the humidity of the southwestern monsoon for 12-16 weeks. This is to replicate the character of Java coffee in the days of sail when the green coffee beans came into contact with the sea air on the long ocean journey from the East Indies to Europe. "Monsooning" mellows the coffee's acidity, enhances the body, and adds a signature pungency that I find quite pleasant.
If you like the bolder taste profiles of African and Indonesian coffees, then you'll find the Monsooned Malabar intriguing. It wouldn't be a coffee I would serve to dinner guests, though, unless you knew their preferences or enjoy springing surprises on the unsuspecting. It may take a little time to grow on you.
Java, on the other hand, is synonymous with coffee. The island led the world in coffee production until a lethal rust fungus wiped out all but the highest-grown arabicas in the 1890s. The scourge had spread from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where decimation of the coffee plantations led to replanting with tea. This turned the British into tea drinkers. On Java, they replanted with rust-resistant robusta, which constitutes 90% of Indonesia's coffee production today.
The classic taste of Indonesian coffee, however, is from the arabica that was first successfully transplanted by the Dutch from Malabar to an estate near Batavia (Jakarta) on Java in 1699. In 1706, coffee beans and a coffee plant from the estate were sent to Amsterdam and propagated in the Hortus Botanicus — what Dr. James Douglas called "the universal coffee nursery." Thanks to Amsterdam's botanical garden, arabica survived the rust plague.
The classic Java taste is full bodied—even syrupy—with moderate acidity and a prolonged aftertaste that doesn't want you to take it for granted. When savoring the rich, earthy aroma, I imagine the fertile volcanic loam it must have grown in. Today, however, this description is more characteristic of the unwashed coffees from Indonesia's other islands—Sumatra, Sulawesi (Celebes), and Timor.
East Java estate arabicas, on the other hand, are wet-processed and dried on a larger scale, resulting in a much cleaner, lighter-bodied cup. This was the first Indonesian coffee I experienced in a light roast, so it would be a good starting point (before getting into the meatier Africans or Ethiopians) if you tend to avoid the dark roasts. Try comparing it with a Costa Rica Tarrazu or Mexican Pluma Altura and consider the differences in aroma, body, and taste.
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.
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.
During 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.
By 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.
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