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.

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