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coffee beans

Coffee: bought, sold, brewed and banned for a millenium

Coffee is astonishingly popular, the third most-consumed drink in the world after water and tea, and the second most-traded (legal) commodity after oil. Here’s a wonderful ‘consideration’ of coffee, it’s history and place in society…

THEY PROBABLY DON’T realise it, but a number of world leaders might benefit from learning something of the history of coffee before speechifying on narcotics and the law. The “war on coffee” is far older than Nixon’s War on Drugs, but it proved equally ineffectual. For centuries, coffee was the subject of bans, controls and tariffs, religious proscription and noisy vilification. But it always crept back, smuggled through the ports, black marketed, cut with acorns or ground broad beans. Centuries of history only see it becoming cheaper and ever more available despite all attempts to control it.

Even coffee’s alleged discovery saw it immediately, briefly banned. In ninth-century Ethiopia, a young goatherd named Kaldi saw his animals eating the berries of a specific shrub, after which they seemed jittery and restless. He brought the berries to an imam who apparently sensed in them some latent druggy irreligion, and so threw them in the fire. However, the roasting beans gave off a delicious aroma and were hastily raked from the embers and brewed with hot water.

Thus appeared the first cup of coffee. The story is apocryphal and first appears in a French text of the mid-1600s, but it captures the tension at the heart of coffee between an attractive ingredient and a vague feeling that it was dangerous or undesirable.

Coffee travelled from Ethiopia to Yemen around the turn of the last millennium, and our own word for it comes from the Arabic “qahwah”. Mokha is a Yemeni port. Across the Islamic world, in Medina, Cairo, Mecca, Damascus and Baghdad, coffee houses opened and twitching customers yabbered about politics.

In Constantinople during the middle ages, Alexandre Dumas noted, coffee was so popular “the imams complained their mosques were empty while the coffee houses were always full”. The drink was banned in Mecca between 1511 and 1524, and when the Ottoman Sultan Murad III acceded to the throne in 1574, he swiftly assassinated his five bothers and pronounced coffee “mekreet” or undesirable. His 17th-century successor Mehmed IV banned coffee houses altogether, and when this prohibition was inevitably flouted he had the coffee house owners and their customers tied into sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus. Eventually, the authorities gave up resisting coffee, and the drink soon became part of a Turkish cliché for westerners.

By the end of the 1500s, a large number of European sailors had tasted coffee on trips to the east. Most of them didn’t care for it, but it soon developed a voguish appeal, and the first European coffee house opened in Venice in 1645. English shops followed a few years later: Oxford’s Grand Café and Pasqua Rosee’s establishment at Cornhill in the City of London have both been credited as the first coffee houses in England. By 1675 there were more than 3,000 in the country. Charles II sought to suppress them as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty” but these efforts predictably failed. Lloyd’s coffee house in the City eventually developed into the most important insurance market in the world. Prohibition also failed in pre-Revolutionary France, when boys were placed at strategic locations near cafés to warn customers the police were coming to raid.

The first coffee drunk in Europe would have followed the method still used in much of the middle east, where ground beans are boiled several times to produce an uncommonly bitter drink. In 1750 the French developed the drip pot, still used in barely modified form across American offices and homes. And in 1855 the first espresso arrived. To make an espresso, hot water is forced through the coffee grounds at high pressure, extracting a great deal of the beans’ natural oil and giving the drink a silky, emulsified texture, with a correspondingly lingering flavour. It seems likely its name is a pun on the “expression” or pressure applied, its speed of delivery and because it is made “expressly” for every customer.

Coffee has done well from industrialisation. Greater mechanisation in its production helped abolish slavery in Brazil, which still produces around a third of the world’s coffee, more than twice as much as the next country. The espresso is a brilliant industrial synthesis of technology and nature. The coffee snobs may not like it, but I’ve been a fan of Nespresso for some time: the machines make excellent coffee for all but the most obsessive drinkers, and there’s no clean-up…..

The Guardian: Read more

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