Coffee: The Eccentric Saga of the World’s Most Traded Commodity

infiltration of enemy lines wearing a fashionable turban, caffeine-fuelled revolutions, allegations of widespread flaccidity and exploding peaches.
By Keith Hoffman


È Coffee trees were first harvested in Ethiopia.

he natural birthplace of coffee lies in a range of Ethiopian highlands about 1,500 to 2,000 meters above sea level. Thriving in shade provided by the Ethiopian forests, coffee trees, laden with gorgeous white flowers, red berries and a beloved compound called caffeine, still grow wild to about five meters in height. Soon after the first brewing of coffee in Ethiopia, the bean’s global trek began with a visit to Yemen, and then off to the wide world, likely via Vienna (see below), and other Western locales. There are two main types of coffee, Arabica (high quality, and the topic of discussion here), and Robusta (a much cheaper varietal with and higher caffeine content used in instant coffee and other affordable preparations). Arabica has profoundly influenced our entire world, and this is her tale. Over many decades, in a quest to take over the West, numerous Sultans from the Ottoman Empire viewed Vienna as a key strategic city, and were therefore fervently bent on seizing it. A repeating ebb and flow of murderous battles and unspeakable military atrocities culminated in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. A key player in the classic skirmish was a member of the Polish nobility, one Franciszek Kulczycki (also Kolschitzky in German). Franciszek clearly was a grand character, as he carried the envious, and concomitant, titles of soldier, diplomat, spy and merchant. In his youth, he became adept at both Turkish language and culture, and even worked as a Turkish translator. Remarkably, these skills later served him, Vienna and maybe the entirety of the Western world with a crucial military victory. During the 1683 battle, things began to go very poorly for the Austrians, and an Ottoman conquest almost certainly loomed as Vienna was dying, starving and on the brink of being totally besieged. The Austrians desperately needed to summon military aid, and fast. Franciszek, who at that juncture was a soldier of no particular accomplishment, volunteered on an almost unimaginably testicular mission. He requested to pose as an Ottoman solider and sneak through massive enemy lines to deliver the Austrian call for help to the King of Poland and the Holy Roman Emperor. He blended his way to and from among legions of sworn-enemy combatants and successfully summoned the Christian military might his fellow soldiers would have died without. His disguise consisted of dressing in Turkish garb and singing songs that had helped him learn the language as a child. The ensuing victory marked the historic end of the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe. Franciszek was deemed a hero of Vienna and gifts and money were showered upon him in gratitude. Therefore, one could argue that even you owe Franciszek a debt of appreciation for stopping the Western world’s assimilation by Ottomans.

Been dorking lately?

Due to my ongoing fascination with nerdlike behaviour across fields of inquiry, I was absolutely delighted to discover an announcement for an epic gathering for over-caffeinated geeks. “A Welcome to Wonderful Coffee 2008” will be held in late June in Copenhagen, and guarantees sleepless attendees that it will be “the premier European coffee gathering this year”. Exhibitions, workshops, and complicated and varied competitions abound, including, but not limited to World Barista Championship, World Cup Tasting Championship, World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship, and the World Latte Art Championship. Sounds like a party. Don’t miss the “Coffee Photography Competition”, as it’s sure to provide tense and gripping montages of edgy, strung-out espresso cups captured in thespian poses under the crush of grey matte finality. If you smoke, you may have to leave the production, fire one up, and weep about the cruelty of life. Finally, the following lectures are sure to rivet even the newbie coffee hound: “Advanced filter and grinding”, the “Science of milk for baristas”, and, my personal favourite entry, “Everything you need to know about porcelain”. Excitement is sure to runneth over. Additionally, all Western coffee drinkers may also be obliged to him for the form in which we take our coffee even today. You see, when the Turkish forces retreated, they left behind weapons, various provisions, armour and bag upon bag of unknown seeds. Many of the Austrian soldiers collected these treasures as victors are want to do. The bags of seeds, according to legend,

were thought to be some peculiar animal feed, deemed useless, and burned in great stacks. At that same moment, Franciszek strutted around the battlefield with the composure of a man who had just secured his place in history. However, something was about to muddle his moment in the sun. Somehow, through a warm wind, dripping with the odors of rotting flesh and fermenting human seepages associated with a 17th-century battlefield, the smoke from these “animal feed” fires wafted into his nose. The first inhale went without notice, but upon a second sniff, Franciszek instantly lost his poise and began hysterically running and shouting at his fellow soldiers. Once again, his childhood training in all things Turkish came into play. What he smelled was the aroma of roasting coffee beans, and he claimed the remaining bags as his own. No one else had any clue about what he was so excited about. In a foreshadowing of modern day marketing that many a sports star or celebrity has mimicked, he opened up a shop to cash in on his fame. Hordes flocked to see him, to hear his heroic tales of battle, and to try this bizarre brown drink he called “coffee”. His store was a hit. Franciszek, however, did not rest on all his recent laurels. Sometime, soon after his grand opening, he began filtering out spent grounds which were normally left in the served cups, and toying with additions of milk and sugar to his brews. The public roared for Franciszek once again. Accordingly, when you next start your day with a hot, brown elixir of wakefulness, thank

È The Arabica coffee bean has had a massive influence on the world. A world without coffee is hard to fathom.

Mr. Kulczycki, for he might have not only saved the West, but he may have also ushered in the Age of Cappuccino. RevolutionaRy Coffee The caffeine in coffee, as we all have experienced, can make us more talkative, more reflective and, for many, more assertive. These effects,

when initiated in a public place, and in concert with others, can lead to a rapid and meaningful exchange of ideas. In France, the first coffeehouses were said to be such hotbeds of cerebral exchange. In fact, the dissemination of the world’s first organised newspaper was believed to have taken root in such houses. Many still claim that it was the massive

facts of note

Nicotine in tobacco and caffeine in coffee beans were designed by nature as poisons meant to ward off attacking insects. Humans’ intense love of both these toxins proves, once again, that ‘side effects’ are not all bad. crash, and therefore, subsequent Great Depression in America.

An anonymous and exceedingly hurried man in a country known for impatient people (Italy) is credited with the invention of espresso, as he sarcastically suggested to a barista that he did not have time to wait for his coffee. “Can’t you speed it up with pressure or something, buddy?” may have indeed changed coffee consumption for millions of people everywhere.

A properly-made espresso can contain orders of magnitude more complex than wine; a shocking 1,500 different smell and taste components are possible.

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There is no espresso bean. Espresso can be made from a variety of coffee beans. Baristas can tell exactly when milk is ready for adding to coffee by the deeper pitch of sound as they heat it. In 1929 the acute and worldwide drop in coffee prices is believed by many to have been a significant trigger for the 1929 stock market

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In the US alone, $10 billion is spent every year on quality coffee.

‘Starbucks’ is named after the coffee-drinking first mate in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Both the concept of a ‘coffee break’ and ‘Juan Valdez’ were marketing ploys to increase coffee consumption. The former was the brainchild of a US/Latin American government group, while the latter was a fictional character designed to bring awareness of the beans’ origins to a woefully coffee-ignorant 1960s American public.

and prolonged consumption of coffee itself, in such settings, that triggered the collective realisations and resolve that defined the French Revolution. In England, a certain Mr. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse served sailors, various merchants and insurance underwriters of the day. Over time, the latter group must have been drinking and talking the loudest as Edward’s coffeehouse became the insurance powerhouse, Lloyd’s of London. In America, the seeds of revolution may also have been a roasted brown colour. Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers were said to be constantly drinking coffee. In fact, right after the Boston Tea Party, it was a wellestablished, and sometimes brutally enforced, patriotic duty to thoroughly reject tea. Coffee’s hold on America was borne. How to Brew a Hot, Steamy and SexiSt diSpute Not all citizens seemed to approve of this magical brain stimulant, however. In a suspicious display of public relations, groups of women allegedly spontaneously gathered in vast rooms of estrogen unrest and drafted fiery diatribes against coffee. Was this the cleverest of all marketing gimmicks by those still economically tied to the sale of tea, or was this a legitimate public hullabaloo? We may never know, but the tort and retort are delightfully rich and full-bodied. The Women’s Proclamation reads: “Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops and spend their money all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.” Ouch. The document continues

How does a perfect cup taste?

È A grinder transforms beans into coffee granules.

with various claims, the most scandalous of which was the accusation of carnal non-performance. The “excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee, which riffling nature of her choicest treasures, and drying up the radical moisture, has so eunucht our husbands, and crippled our more kind gallants, that they are become as impotent as age, and as unfruitful as those deserts where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” Fighting words for sure. The ladies did not stop there, and in fact went on to belittle the very idea that their husbands were in possession

I have found no better description of the ultimate coffee experience, than from one the most respected coffee authorities on the globe. George Howell sums it up: “Like that perfect peach that explodes in your mouth. It has that roundness, but all that acidity is there too, and it is perfectly cradled by everything else and the flavours in it. To me, that is worth anything you can think of.” Clearly the man has developed a keen appreciation and deep love of the bean. Given that many of us drink coffee every day, I would suggest attempting to try and capture some of George’s passion. It just might make every morning that much richer for you. of the mental capacity necessary to carry out meaningful debate in the first place. “Where they are sure to meet enow lazy pragmatical companions, that resort here to prattle of news, that they neither understand, nor are concerned in; and after an hour’s impertinent chat, begin to consider a bottle of claret would do excellent well before dinner; whereupon to the Bush they all march again together, till every one of them is drunk as a drum, and then back again to the coffee-house to drink themselves sober.” The entire male citizenry had just been accused of hollow chattering, empty discourse, and pestilent limpness. Clearly a reply must come. While shorter in length, the masculine reply claimed that coffee, to the contrary, helped them with the “thunderous executions” assumedly demanded by lascivious 17th-century women everywhere. The men further declared that coffee repelled gaseous unpleasantries, and let them finally speak in a serene environment with their peers. “Coffee rather assists us by drying up those crude flatulent humours, which otherwise would make us only flash in the pan, without doing that thundering execution which your expectations exact. You may well permit us to talk abroud, for at home we have scarce time to utter a word for the insufferable din of your active tongues.” Touché indeed.

È The introduction of coffee has a profound effect on societies around the globe.