‘Good to the Last Drop’
The Story of Coffee
“Tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen; pour myself a cup of ambition.” ~ Dolly Parton
Doesn’t reading those lyrics make you want to hear Dolly sing that song right now?
Visit YouTube or your favorite music site, and type “Dolly Parton 9 to 5.” You won’t require any coffee for a day or so because you’ll be as energized as if you had downed a venti cup of double ristretto with iced vanilla shot and organic chocolate brownie double espresso.
Believe it or not, that really is a coffee drink.
One billion people worldwide start their day just like Dolly. Like Ms. Parton, we stumble to the kitchen to push a little red plastic button. The coffee brewing process is underway, and we wait with our favorite coffee mug in hand. You know, the mug that says, “Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy. But the bible says ‘Love Your Enemy.’”
We know that coffee gives us a jolt of energy, thanks to caffeine, but what else do we really know about this be-loved drink that we depend on to clear the brain fog each morning? We’ll begin this discussion of the world’s favorite caffeinated beverage by returning in our time machine to the actual roots of coffee, both historical and legendary.
We step out of our time machine and onto the Ethiopian plateau sometime in the early years of the first millennia. We notice a wild plant growing all around us; a small tree, actually, ranging from 6 feet to 15 feet in height. The coffee plant has shiny evergreen leaves and fragrant white flowers. Its fruit is red and is called a cherry.
Each cherry contains a pair of green seeds called beans. The beans are roasted, ground, and added to hot water to make our cup of coffee.
These are the rudimentary facts about coffee, but coffee is much more complex than that, as we shall see. Coffee is a product that has literally changed the world in a myriad of ways – these we shall discuss in some detail.
Factoid: “Good to the Last Drop,” the slogan for Max-well House Coffee since 1915, was based upon a statement by Teddy Roosevelt while enjoying a cup of Maxwell House coffee in 1906.
Java, Joe, mud, brew, jitter juice, or whatever you call it, coffee is the largest commodity sought after worldwide, second only to crude oil. Coffee has power, influencing culture, economics and politics everywhere it is enjoyed.
We Americans were late getting on the coffee bandwagon. Blame it mainly on our longstanding relationship with tea, even long after London was already sporting more than 300 coffee shops.
According to historical records, Captain John Smith introduced coffee to James-town, the first permanent settlement in North America, in 1607. Unfortunately, Americans held fast to their teacups until 1773 when outrage by “taxation without representation” ignited the Boston Tea Party, in which the Sons of Liberty dumped an immense shipment of British Tea into the harbor.
Coffee soon filled the caffeine vacuum, and, before long, it was unpatriotic to drink tea.
The goat herder tale
Everything notable has an origin story, and coffee is no exception. The human who enjoyed that first-ever sip of coffee is attributed to several legends, none of which are verifiable. However, these tales are imaginative, romantic and fun to ponder during your next cup of ambition. Take, for example, the story of a goat herder named Kaldi.
Kaldi was a 9th-century goat herder in Ethiopia. One day he noticed his goats eating red berries from a tree – a coffee tree, as it happened. Afterward, the goats began frolicking around in the most vigorous way he had yet seen. And they continued their play through most of the night.
Assuming that the sudden surge of activity exhibited by his goats was brought on by consuming the fruit of the coffee tree, he added some cherries, beans and all, to boiling water. Soon after imbibing the bitter drink, Kaldi became energized too, and he noticed his thinking was as sharp as the blade of his knife. “Perhaps,” Kaldi thought, “the abbot at the monastery may find this newly discovered drink will help keep him awake during evening prayers.”
After finding that the black beverage did the trick, the abbot shared his newfound energy drink with the other monks. Soon the stimulating beverage would jump from the plateaus of Ethiopia across the Red Sea and to the shores of Yemen.
There is ample evidence that Yemen was where coffee was first domesticated and grown expressly for coffee.
That said, we can safely place Kaldi in the same bucket as Paul Bunyan regarding the origin story of coffee – a lovely story, but not the slightest bit of evidence to support it.
From Ethiopia, coffee spread quickly through the Middle East and throughout much of the world, with the notable exception of China.
For all the tea in China
I had my own experience dealing with the absence of coffee in China, which clearly demonstrates the addictive property of coffee – the chemical caffeine.
My quarters at the Beijing Language Institute, which I attended in 1988, were spartan. I lived in a cold bare concrete room about the size of a jail cell. Hot water to make tea, the only beverage available, came from a single tap located in a larger but equally frigid and bare concrete room.
The first week without coffee was, as I was warned, miserable. Oolong tea didn’t provide the caffeine jolt that I was used to. It was like giving up good bourbon for iced tea; the two are markedly different in taste and effect. Then there were the daily headaches and lethargy, but it only lasted about a week, and I got used to getting up at 6 a.m. but not fully waking up until nearly noon. It was like being 17 years old again without the acne and adolescent angst.
About six weeks into my stay in the People’s Republic of China, I found myself in a small mountain village in a remote part of the country. One afternoon while walking the cobblestone streets of Baiyen, an older man, Mr. Chang, invited me to his home for dinner with his family.
My Chinese culture training back in the States warned travelers not to decline a gift or food; doing so is a huge insult. The rural Chinese are offering you the very best they have, and they had very little at that time.
Following a sumptuous meal consisting of a half-dozen or so dishes I was asked if I liked coffee. I had not had so much as a taste of java for nearly two months, and my over-eager response was, “Yes, sir, I do love coffee.”
The closest Starbucks was in Seattle, some 5,400 miles away, so I wondered where my host had obtained his coffee. I had not seen any coffee since arriving in China. It turns out that my host had served in the Korean War in 1950. He left the dining room and returned with a U.S. military container of instant coffee.
(Starbucks only had six stores in 1985 and had just begun selling espresso. Now, there are 35,700 worldwide, even one in Lewisburg.)
Although Mr. Chang didn’t share the details about how he came into possession of C-rations, he may have taken them from an American soldier.
After proudly showing me the can, he went to the kitchen and returned a short while later with two tall glasses of steaming coffee. It was the most robust cup of coffee to ever pass over my lips; it was thick enough to stand a spoon up in. Mr. Chang, generous and hospitable as most rural Chinese, had served us the entire contents of the can in only two glasses.
I was wired for several days afterward and had little sleep; it was likely the same for Mr. Chang.
The Wine of Araby
Muslims regard drinking coffee as a religious ritual rather than imbibing alcoholic beverages. As coffee spread throughout the Middle East, it was referred to as “The wine of Araby.”
Coffee shops in Great Britain were often referred to as “penny universities.” For the price of one penny, one could drink coffee over stimulating and informative conversation. Coffee shops did not replace British pubs but offered a more cerebral experience that continues to this day.
In the next issue of For Your Consideration, we’ll dive deeper into the topic of the world’s most popular drink.
We will sample the world’s most expensive coffee at $600 per pound. And you will be shocked, not because of the hefty price, but by how the coffee beans are obtained.
One of the most common questions about coffee is the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee. We’ll answer this question and explain why you should care if you are a real fan of coffee.
By the time you finish part two of the story of coffee, you’ll be an expert on the subject. So, percolate on that until next time.