Not many crops have high street shops dedicated solely too their trade. But then coffee, which in monetary terms is the second most important commodity in the world market behind petroleum, is no average crop, it is a giant global industry employing more than 20 million people.
Coffee is unusual as a crop in that it is not a single species. About ten different species of tropical and sub-tropical evergreen trees are cultivated to produce coffee, although just two of these are of international importance with the rest being grown solely for local consumption. These different species of coffee are closely related members of a widespread family of plants, which also includes species native to Britain. In temperate regions the coffee family tend to be small herbaceous plants, the best know example being cleavers or sticky willie. The family resemblance can be seen in the seeds of cleavers, once extracted from your socks these appear like two small coffee beans, and indeed during the Second World War they were used as a coffee substitute.
About three-quarters of the world coffee crop is comprised of arabica coffee, a species of small tree that was originally domesticated in the mountains of Ethiopia. At some stage in its evolution arabica coffee appears to have arisen from the other species of coffee by doubling the number of chromosomes in its cells and simultaneously changing its sex-life, this is a not uncommon phenomenon in the evolution of plants. Arabica coffee as a species of the mountains routinely reproduces by having sex with itself. It is a cold fact of life that sex with a partner tends to become increasingly difficult with altitude. In contrast the second important species of coffee, robusta, is a plant of lowland tropical Africa. Discovered growing wild in the Congo River basin only in 1898, the plants of robusta coffee only produce coffee beans if they have been pollinated by another tree. Robusta coffee trees are larger, more vigorous, high yielding and disease resistant than are arabica trees, but sadly the coffee they produce is considered of inferior quality.
Coffee beans take about eight months to develop. Each fruit, which contains a pair of coffee beans, ripens to a bright red cherry like appearance. These shiny red berries look just like the sort of things that parents warn their children not to eat, and as such coffee is one of those crops that you cannot help wondering, ‘how did anyone think of using it in the first place?’ According to Arabic legend the consumption of coffee can be attributed to an observant goatherd named Kaldi. One night Kaldi’s goats wondered off on their own, after an exhausting search the goatherd found his animals dancing friskily amongst a grove of wild coffee. Possessing a curious nature, it was not long before Kaldi was also dancing. His eccentric behaviour not surprisingly attracted the attention of the local imam, who also quickly acquired the coffee habit, which he discovered solved his problem of falling to sleep during prayers. From this beginning the use of coffee is said to have spread from monastery to monastery across the Arab world.
This story is consistent with other early records of coffee use, which suggest that originally the leaves and beans were chewed for medicinal reasons rather than being imbibed for culinary oness. This is further supported by the use of coffee as a stimulant, formally herbalists recommended giving coffee to persons suffering from poisoning. In extreme cases, such as the victim of a snakebite, it was recommended that the coffee be administered by injection directly into the rectum. This practice gives an entirely new meaning to the question – ‘how do you take your coffee?’
The use of coffee as a beverage developed in Arabia during the fifteenth century. The Ottoman Turks introduced it to Constantinople in 1453 where it became considered such an essential part of everyday life that women were legally entitled to divorce husbands who failed to provide an adequate daily quota of coffee. From Constantinople the drink spread into Western Europe. Although the papal advisors initially tried to ban the product because of its infidel connections, Pope Clement VIII appears to have been quick to appreciate the fund raising potential of the church coffee-morning and baptised coffee making it an acceptable Christian beverage.
The Arabs jealously guarded their control of coffee production, allowing only roasted beans to be exported to Christian Western Europe. However, eventually a Moslem pilgrim from India called Baba Budan breached the embargo. Legend has it that he kept seven coffee beans safely strapped to his belly until he returned home. The descendants of these seven beans were planted all over India. This subsequently allowed the British, French and Dutch to break the Arab monopoly by smuggling coffee to their various tropical colonies. However, the globalisation of coffee was not all plain sailing. In 1723 a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, failed to obtain the approval of the authorities in Paris to export coffee to the French Caribbean Island of Martinique. Undaunted, he stole some plants and smuggled them on board ship. During the voyage he reported being attached by a Dutch spy, who was intent on sabotaging the foundling French coffee industry and attempted to destroy the plants. Surviving the inevitable attacks by pirates and almost being shipwrecked during a violent storm, de Clieu’s log records that he was finally forced to share his limited water rations with his coffee seedlings. Eventually all but one plant succumbed, but this survived to found a dynasty of 19 million coffee trees in Martinique within 50 years.
The factors affecting the quality of coffee are similar to those, which influence wines, during cultivation, the variety, soil type and climate, later the stage the beans are picked at and the processing and roasting of the beans are important. Professional coffee tasters are like wine connoisseurs in having a language all of their own – pretentious twaddle. All that actually matters is whether or not you actually like the taste. There is a degree of brinkmanship in the growing of fine flavoured coffee. The best quality coffees are produced from arabica plants grown at altitude between 1300-2000 metres and picked by hand. Arabica coffees cultivated at altitude are refereed to as high grown milds, and are consumed almost exclusively as speciality coffees. The higher the altitude the plant is grown at the slower the berries mature, producing a smaller denser bean containing less moisture and more flavour. The risk associated with growing fine flavoured high altitude coffee is that of an occasional frost. A single cold period can be enough to damage the trees and retard growth for several years.
Today’s advertisements for coffee frequently portray an image of romance and seduction. The line ‘would you like to come in for a coffee?’ is usually loaded. The connection between coffee and the passionate liaison is however, nothing new. In 1727 the Emperor of Brazil was anxious that his country should break into the lucrative market in coffee. The colonial powers of France and Holland were equally keen on guarding their self-interests. Coffee plantations throughout the Guianas were heavily defended. Thus it was that Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta was sent under the cover of arbitrating in a boarder dispute between the French and Dutch colonies in Guiana, to purloin some coffee plants and return with them to Brazil. Legend has it that although he was successful in resolving the local political situation he had greater difficulties with his main task. Undaunted young Francisco resorted to using his deadly charm and suave sophistication on the wife of the Governor of French Guiana and a secret alliance of the under-cover variety resulted. As the lady said her fond farewells to her departing lover, she presented him with a bouquet of flowers, which contained springs of coffee in berry. From this romantic gesture the billion-dollar Brazilian coffee industry was born. A tale of seduction to match even the steamiest of coffee adverts.