If you ask anyone what’s the first thing they do when they wake up, odds are they’ll say they get a cup of coffee.
It all started with Kaldi, the simple Ethiopian shepherd who, upon witnessing the lively antics of his goats after they had consumed coffee leaves, shared the experience with the local abbot. The abbot in turn tried the berries, and after feeling a renewed vigor for prayer, instructed the resident monks to begin cultivating the plant.
Other versions insist it was not the leaves, but the berries that were eaten, by an exhausted and flagging Kaldi on the last leg of his journey home. Having mistook the coffee berries for a sugary one in his fatigue, he was so amazed by his sudden revival that he got down on his knees and prayed in gratitude. He was then instructed to share the serendipitous find with the monastery, so they could cultivate the bush and support themselves.
There are dozens of versions of the legend, and in truth, little is known about Kaldi, or if he ever existed, but one thing is certain: coffee is business, and business is good. Since the first records of coffee cultivation in 9th century Ethiopia, coffee has been a mainstay commodity, superseded only by oil. As its use spread from its East African roots outward into Arabia, the Middle East, & Asia, it quickly developed international exposure and a cult-like following.
The bustling trade between Italy and Africa brought it ashore to Medieval Europe, where it was welcomed, albeit only after a brief uproar with the catholic church, who tried to ban the drink which they deemed detrimental to christian values. Pope Clement VIII, having tasted the drink, quickly reversed the decision and coffee was on its way to being a European tradition. Britain too joined the party, when Queen Elizabeth I opened trade routes with the Mediterranean; a strategic move that not only brought coffee, but other rich commodities as well.
Like Europe, there was an early attempt to ban the coffee; its popularity reached such heights that wives took to the streets with petitions. Insisting the new, gentlemen-only coffee houses were depriving them of their good husbands, they found an unlikely ally in pub owners, who were convinced these newfangled coffee houses would diminish their own profits. Eventually coffee won pride of place, with a little help of the medical community, who extolled the beneficial virtues coffee was purported to have on one’s health.
Today coffee is an American way of life as well. We drink it in the morning to wake up, in the afternoon for some added pep, and after dinner as conversational treat. We love it so much that we’ve created a hundred different ways to flavor it, and processes to reduce the amount of caffeine it contains so that even those who are sensitive to it can still enjoy a cup of java. It is truly an international, multicultural beverage, with devotees in every corner of the world, but even more amazing is the subculture that coffee itself has created.
From the onset of its consumption by humans, coffee carried spiritual connotations; it peppered prayers, rituals, and sacrificial altars as a gift to the Gods. Used as a substitute for wine in denominations that prohibit alcohol, and by others, it’s utilized for the euphoric effects of the caffeine, who believe it to be a medium with which to commune with the divine. It carries a unique significance in each region it appeared.
A vital part of social interaction, it has brought people together in many ways, and has a strong association with intellectuals and free thinkers. In many South American countries, political sit downs aren’t complete without coffee; artists have long gathered in Parisians street cafes, refined Venice espresso stands, and back-alley American coffee joints that served as a mecca for the beat generation.
Today coffee is viewed in a much broader sense, but with no less devotion. Whether you’re a purist who insists on the best, unadulterated Arabica beans, or a Starbucks devotee whose personal favorite has a complicated code of ingredients and preparations, coffee is easily found and widely marketed. Dunkin’ Donuts has created an empire of coffee lovers so committed to their blend that they eventually stepped out from behind the donut counter, and into the aisles of grocery stores all across the country.
It’s in every kitchen cupboard and has spawned a niche for coffee makers and accessories. Without a doubt, coffee has become one of the world’s best cash crops, providing income sources for many third world countries, where the plants thrive in the warmer climates. Social awareness has brought to light issues like fair trade, child labor laws, and small, interest-free government loans for impoverished families to start their own farms. Coffee of the month clubs and preferred customer programs are plentiful; selling mugs for reduced-price refills has been a way to profit further, while eliminating some of the pollution and waste of traditional Styrofoam cups.
When the Civil War broke out in America, cutting off access to coffee trade, chicory was used to stretch out the remaining coffee available. So important to our daily lives, we again utilized chicory during WWII, when coffee was rationed.
There are even specialized industries, like those who produce Kopi Luwak (also known as civet coffee). Considered a delicacy, it is considered one of the most expensive types of coffee, costing as much as $350.00 per pound. The coffee gets its name from civet cats, an Asian mammal who consumes the coffee berries; the civet’s digestive enzymes break down the constituent thought to cause bitterness in coffee. The civet then expels the berries, which are collected by farmers and sold to manufactures who process them into an end product that some people consider the best in the world. An entire cottage industry of civet-farming has cropped up just for this purpose, demonstrating the demand for all things coffee.
Few people give much thought to their morning cup of joe, unless it’s to decide which kind they want, or what to put in it. So the next time you’re in line, trying to decide which flavor to get, or what brand to buy, stop for a minute and think about where it’s from. It has a long tradition of bringing people together, and if you’re still reading this, it’s still doing its job. With its long and colorful history, one thing is for certain: coffee is here to stay.