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.

All-Mixed-Up-a-lonialism

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.

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.

Legends of the First Cup: The Obscure Origins of Coffee

KaldiCoffee is the world’s most popular drug, but how it originated and who brewed the first cup is one of history’s greatest mysteries. Given the impact coffee has had on human civilization, you’d expect more would be known about where it came from. Another curiosity about coffee is how late in history it was discovered. But when you consider the facts, the obscure origins of coffee are understandable.

Coffee is made by a counter-intuitive 3-step process: roasting, crushing, and boiling in water. The only natural habitat of the coffee shrub is in the remote mountains of Ethiopia. The red berries themselves are far too bitter to eat, and unlike tea, require a lot of preparation before they become palpable. You have to roast the berries, crush them with a mortar, and then infuse the crushed beans in hot water. Only then do you get a black, bitter sludge that may smell great but is certainly an acquired taste for many.

So who first put 1 plus 1 plus 1 together to make coffee? Certainly the farmers and goat herders of Ethiopia knew of the psycho-active effects of the red berries. Some Ethiopian clans used the berries to give their warriors an extra boost for battle. But goat herders don’t write histories.

Kaldi, a 9th-century Ethiopian herder, is often credited as the legendary inventor of coffee. He supposedly saw the effect coffee had on his goats and tried it for himself. When the local Islamic monks heard about the effects of the berries, they threw them on a fire in disapproval. But then, we’re supposed to believe that the odor of roasting coffee beans caused those monks to abandon their religious objections on the spot and become java junkies. That really doesn’t make much sense.

Further making the Kaldi story suspect is that it does not appear in writing until 1671, long after the story is supposed to have happened and long after coffee had swept through Europe. Another similar legend replaces Kaldi with a Sufi mystic—same details, different characters, and still no clue as to how you go from bitter red berry to aromatic brown liquid.

Maybe Desperation and Time to Play with Obscure Food Created the Modern World

One tale makes the most sense, but still has no way of being proven. In this story, Omar, the aide of a sheik, is exiled to a remote desert cave where he could find little else to eat but the too-bitter-to-eat berries growing on a nearby coffee bush. He tried roasting the berries, which only slightly improved them but they were now too hard to eat. So he tried boiling them to soften them up but discovered the leftover water invigorated him more than eating the berries. Returning from exile, he brought the secret of coffee with him.

What makes this story the most believable is that Omar, or whoever first discovered the crude brewing process, must have had a lot of time and few choices. To a person living in an ancient agricultural and herding society, the red coffee beans presented a natural red flag, their bitterness. The human palate is mostly tuned to sweetness. Indeed, sweetness is a natural sign that something is safe to eat while bitterness and bright color is a sign that something could be dangerous to eat.

And the mountains of Ethiopia aren’t exactly a trading or cultural crossroad, so it’s understandable that the coffee plant would be unknown to civilization until the 15th century. Coffee, like other dietary staples like beer and cheese, appears to have been invented by accident. So maybe we’re all benefiting to some obscure kitchen disaster that happened at a campsite or monastery somewhere around the Horn of Africa in the last 500 years.

Next time, we’ll explain how coffee created the modern world.

The Daily Scoop Answers: What Is Organic Coffee?

Cafe Altura Organic Coffee

Ever wonder just what is organic coffee anyway? Here’s the scoop.

What’s in That Cup?

In short, organic coffee comes is coffee grown without pesticides. But to really understand what makes some coffee organic, it’s important to first note what makes non-organic coffee, well, non-organic. Most of the chemical pesticides used in coffee production are used to ward off common pests and diseases from crops.

The good news for coffee drinkers is that the roasting process dilutes or eliminates most of the harmful effects of these chemicals. However, that doesn’t take the risk away from the farmers who are exposed directly to these harsh chemicals – but more about that later.

Here are just a few of the worst chemicals that are used in the coffee-growing world:

  • Methyl parathion: The most toxic pesticide of all, methyl parathion is banned in many countries and is highly toxic to humans, birds, fish, and mammals. Despite being banned in many countries, it is still highly (mis)used.
  • Endosulfan: Used to ward off the coffee cherry borer, Endosulfan is toxic to most animals and takes years to break down in soil. It attacks the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and reproductive organs.
  • Chlorpyrifos: Used against common coffee pests, Chlorpyrifos has been banned in the U.S. for household use because it has caused human death and birth defects. Needless to say, it’s quite detrimental to delicate ecosystems.

The Good News

There are ways to combat pests without using harsh chemicals, and if fact, many coffee growers use them. That’s where organic comes in. Organic coffee is coffee grown without the use of synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. If coffee is labeled “organic,” at least 95 percent of the beans must have been grown under organic conditions. Most organic coffee farms are small and farmer owned—which means smaller crops and easier management of pests.

Many organic coffee growers keep pests and diseases away by using natural fertilizers such as poultry manure and bocashy, a mix of coffee plant pulp, manure, molasses, leavening, and other seemingly random ingredients. Another common tactic for keeping pests away is the use of the parasitic wasp, a beneficial insect that eats the larvae of coffee-plant-eating pests.

What to Look For in the Grocery Aisle

When buying organic coffee, look for the USDA Organic seal, which will certify that the coffee contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients and has been certified as organic by a certification agency accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To get you started, here are a few of our favorite organic coffee beans:

A good cup of joe that’s also good for the growers and the environment—count us in!