Coffee in America: A Weird Geographic Switcheroo

Mayan ChocolateWe always found it curious that today, South America is the leading coffee-producing region in the world, while most of our chocolate is cultivated in Africa.

“Why is this so curious?” you ask. For the simple fact that coffee is native to Africa and chocolate to South America. Driven by European colonialism and economic demand, these two caffeine-bearing plants have pulled a geographic switcheroo.

Just how this happened took a very long time and has far more to do than similarities in climate.

Xocolati, Coffee’s Mesoamerican Cousin

Chocolate is made from roasting beans of the cocoa plant and infusing the crushed beans with water. Sound familiar? The Maya first cultivated chocolate in the 6th century BCE, but they also fermented the beans and called the bitter drink xocolati, which means “bitter drink.”

The caffeine punch from chocolate is mild compared to coffee’s full body blow, but the mind-altering effects are still potent, especially when you consider that xocolati was entirely ceremonial: only the king and his guests were allowed to touch it, and only on special occasions. The no one ever developed a tolerance for chocolate, so the experience took on mythic proportions.

The Spanish learned about chocolate from the Aztecs around the same time they first brought enslaved Africans to their new colony in Cuba, and like coffee before it, chocolate—albeit with a lot of added sugar—was soon in huge demand among European tongues.


Like a slaughtered calf, all the places in the world where interesting and tasty foods come from were carved up and one time or another by European powers, powered by their overwhelming technology and murderous energy. Chaos ensued as a Frenchman named Gabriel de Clieu brought some living coffee plants to his plantation in Martinique in 1720.

Within 50 years, coffee cultivation had spread to Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil, where vast tracts of rainforest were transformed into coffee plantations, especially after independence in 1822. Brazil is one of the world’s leading coffee producers to this day.

Meanwhile, cocoa cultivation spread around the Tropics throughout the 19th century as Colonialism spread its tentacles into spicy islands and jungle books everywhere. The combination of slave labor and closed markets created dozens of Banana Republics, one-crop economies utterly dependent on the “Mother country.”

A Cuppa Joe and a Bagga Doughnuts

No doubt the giant market north of the Rio Grande contributed the most to making Brazil the world’s coffee giant for most of the 20th century. Even after slavery ended with independence in most of Latin America, the seemingly endless spaces made coffee a herd of cash cows.

How cocoa, which is very hard to grow commercially, became a dominant crop in Africa had more to do with colonialism than with endless acres of farmable land. Demand in Europe and America, for so long the world’s biggest markets, cemented this weird continental switch.

The effects of colonialism still affect the markets for coffee and chocolate—hard labor for very little profit, controlled prices and fixed markets that favor the buyer—and why we insist on only free trade coffee and chocolate.

The Italian Connection Expressly for You

Espresso In RomeWe used to cringe when someone ordered an “expresso.” That’s like saying you like to play “chest” while I’m checkmating you on the back rank. That’s like the student sentence that offered some “pacific examples” instead of “specific examples.” That’s like singing “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

But in fact the joke is on us: the Italian word espresso means both “pressed” and “express,” and Italians invented espresso in part to make coffee faster—café-espress. In the late 19th century, steam infusion was both an innovative coffee-making method and emblematic of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modernity.

Traditional brewing methods involved boiling the water and ground beans together in a large pot, which would then sit around for hours or even days. Brewing one small cup for a single person was impractical and could make you late for work.

The year 1884 was the apex of the Age of Steam, so finding a way to use such a miracle gas to brew coffee seemed logical. Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, applied for the earliest patent for an espresso machine, but other inventors improved on his idea.

By 1905, the espresso machine perfected the brewing problems of the earlier steam brewers, lowering the temperature at the point of contact to brew a tastier cup. And it was a huge hit with the Italian working class.

Clouds of Steam, So Déclassé

Soon, espresso, a concentrated cup of coffee made quickly and “expressly for you” in 45 seconds, was the default method for all coffee in Italy. But espresso was considered déclassé, the drink working class Italians drank standing up on the way to work.

Indeed, the coffee “stand” grew out of business necessity. The Italians taxes coffee at different rates, depending on how it was served and consumed. A cup of joe in a fancy sit-down restaurant was taxed at a higher rate than coffee consumed while standing up. So the original coffee stand had no chairs to avoid a luxury tax.

Back at the factory, Desiderio Pavoni’s espresso patent was mass produced at the stunning rate of one new espresso machine per day, and soon, steam-brewed coffee was making its way to France, Bohemia, and the rest of the world.

No Monks Were Used to Produce This Blog

The Italians preferred their espresso black, and the further down the Boot you went, the darker the roast. But the French like café au lait and figured out a way to use excess steam from the espresso machine to heat up milk or cream, creating cappuccino.

We used to have visions of little hooded Capuchin monks sleepily making cappuccinos before matins. But monks had nothing to do with the invention of cappuccino. The color of the drink where the coffee meets the foam resembled the color of the monks’ famous hoods, so the name stuck like foam on the side of your white cup.

A French drink with an Italian sounding name is par on this caffeinated golf course, where years later a Seattle-based coffee company would commandeer Italian words to describe the sizes of their espresso-based drinks.

We just ask for a medium expresso and smile.

Coffee and New Orleans: a 400 Year Affair

A New Orleans tradition.

A New Orleans tradition.

NEW ORLEANS – The Cafe du Monde is a time capsule and one of America’s monuments to coffee. It’s always crowded, always open, and the floor and tables are perpetually sticky or wet. No one comes here for white-cloth table service. The menu is basic green and white, printed on stickers affixed to the battered chrome napkin dispensers:


Coffee (au lait or black)

Orange Juice (fresh squeezed)

Cold Milk (white or chocolate)

Your order comes with a spoon and a 6-oz. water in an old-school diner glass. Your waiter appears to be from Vietnam or maybe the Philippines, and the warmed evening air is alarmingly close for early April.

The busker on the nearby sidewalk launches into “The Sunny Side of the Street” for the fourth time, his saxophone gleaming in the lingering dusk. A river of people flow by in both directions, mostly tourists or conventioneers.

Beignets come in threes, covered in powdered sugar. These squares of fried dough do not have a shelf life and should be eaten hot, but be careful not to inhale as you bite into one. Although inhaling powdered sugar is physically harmless, your cool will be forever forgotten by your companions.

The coffee you are served is thick and hot, cut with chicory and boiled milks that gives it the color of the river swirling on the other side of the levee just a few yards away. Chicory is the root of the endive plant and devilishly compliments dark roasted coffee so well a lot of people once thought of it as a substitute.

Napoleon, for one, wanted to ween the French from hard-to-get Turkish coffee by giving them chicory instead. Like many of the Emperor’s schemes, it didn’t work. But for most of the 19th century, American coffee was cut with chicory, so much so that finding pure coffee in North America was a tall order of buffalo chips.

At Cafe du Monde here in the French Quarter, coffee and chicory served au lait is the norm since 1862. But North America really met coffee for the first time in New Orleans, where for more than a century, the aroma of dark roast coffee coming from numerous commercial roasters along the riverfront permeated the French Quarter every morning.

The little cafe today is always packed with tourists. But to us, the definition of an institution is a place where even locals go.

There Is No God of Java

Coffee and ReligionWe remember that first taste of coffee like a brightly colored billboard. Well, maybe the taste took a bit of getting used to for most teenaged tongues, but the effects on our minds were mind blowing – thoughts swirling around so fast and clear we felt some secret of the universe was being revealed to us. What was this drink?

For some of us, we were hooked, like religious converts, grinning acolytes, devout apostles of an adult cult. Because most people first experience coffee during those identity forming years, it’s easy to understand how one could develop an almost religious fever over the magical brew.

A lot of mystery surrounds coffee, for sure, but not much in the way of organized religion. This is not surprising given coffee’s late rise in history. Even its use in hunter-gatherer societies is foggy, so as far as anyone knows, coffee was never used in religious rites.

One of only a few early legends about coffee involves an unknown Abyssinian tribe who used roasted coffee beans as a kind of super trail mix. They would roast wild coffee beans, then roll up the pulverized beans into baseball-sized globs of grease. One greasy coffee ball was said to keep a warrior nourished for a day.

Kaffeina Is a Punk Rocker

Some would claim the Romans worshiped a goddess of coffee whom they named Kaffeina, but this story has tons of problems. Supposedly, some time in the 3rd or 4th century, a Roman follower of Kaffeina discovered his goats acting strangely after eating some mysterious red berries. Investigating, he made the first coffee and gave credit to his goddess Kaffeina.

Sounds fantastic! Because it is totally made up! The Romans knew not of the pleasures of coffee. The Kaffeina story is actually a retelling of the Kaldi legend, even down to the mad goats. Any true god of coffee would have to have emerged after coffee was discovered in the Middle Ages.

Ishtar Is a True Star

The closest thing we have to a coffee god is Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian goddess of fertility. Ishtar’s story is similar to other fertility goddesses from the area. Like Persephone, Ishtar descends into the Underworld to bring about each new spring. Like Aphrodite, she is a monstrous mistress.

In Mesopotamian paganism, Ishtar was a supergoddess responsible in this way for life itself. As such, she was associated with bountiful harvests and anything good that comes from the earth. Later, as coffee spread out from Arabia, Ishtar went along for the ride.

So today, Ishtar is the god most closely linked to coffee, some even calling her the Goddess of Coffee. In fact, one coffee company still uses Ishtar’s image in their corporate logo.