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ALTernative Coffee


In the beginning, coffee was a shrub or tree growing in the mountainous forests of Ethiopia. As with many such trees, it bore cherrylike fruits, and just like cherries the fruits had pits. Archaeology seem to indicate that people have been eating coffee cherries for the last 4,000 years or so. The ripe red coffee cherries also had a fairly high sugar content, so people being what they are they fermented them to make a sort of wine. There is some evidence that this was a trade item in early Roman times. The first coffee drink was almost certainly alcoholic!

No one knows exactly when all this happened, but it's safe to say that it was a long time before the first bean was roasted. The coffee husk "Gisher" is still the basis of the brewed drink "Quawah" in Yemen. "Quawah" may also mean wine, and the word is supposed to come from Kaffa, a region of Ethiopia where coffee grows wild today.

The green coffee pits were not ignored, but ground up and mixed with fat as a travelling food and stimulant for warriors. The first reliable mention of coffee in Arabic literature comes from Rhazeq, around 900 a.d. The stimulant properties of the beans when eaten or boiled in water were known, but the flavour of the beverage left a lot to be desired. Grassy, minty, medicinal, quite bitter considering the sweetness of the fruit would be my assessment, based on tasting modern green coffees. When roasting of the beans began is not known, but spices were being roasted in the Middle East and Arabia long before the birth of Christ. Coffee would have easily been added to the list of roasted seeds.

Archaeological evidence in the form of iron roasting pans show that coffee was being roasted in Yemen (then just Arabia) from at least around 1000 a.d. onwards, but reliable accounts of coffee bean roasting begin around 1200 a.d. Large scale cultivation of coffee as a crop began in Yemen at much the same time, and thereafter coffee followed the spread of Islam across Arabia and North Africa. The world’s total supply was exported from the ancient Red Sea port of "Al Makha" or Mocha, although it is probable that both Yemeni and Ethiopian coffees were assembled there for further shipment.

There is still a certain amount of friction between Ethiopian and Yemeni brokers over who sells the "real" Mocha. Having tasted coffees from both sides of the Red Sea, I think they both do. What is certain is that no coffee grown outside these countries should use the name, although many do.

Trade with Venice, Islamic influence in Spain and the inroads of the Ottoman Empire into Europe resulted in the spread of coffee drinking, first to Vienna in the 1600's, then to the rest of Europe. Seeds smuggled out of Arabia were transplanted in India, from the King's Hothouse in France to South America via Reunion, from Holland to Indonesia and the rest of South East Asia. There is a venerable Coffee tree in the Singapore Zoo over 9 metres (40ft) high, still bearing heavily the last time I saw it. Since Arabia was the first point of distribution for coffee, Coffea Arabica was the name assigned to the original coffee species.

The trade in Arabica coffee has grown from the early days based in the port of Mocha (now silted over) to the point where it is now the world's second largest traded commodity. Coffee cultivation has always been labour intensive, so the history of its spread and cultivation in South America and East Africa and Asia has tended to follow along standard "Slave Labour" & "Colonial Exploitation" lines. However, aid projects tied into allowing coffee smallholders to become self sufficient, generally by giving them direct access to end-user markets as part of the Specialty coffee movement, are moving both farmers and consumers in a different and more sustainable direction.

The consumer history of coffee has tended to wander off in strange directions. The flavour and aroma have always been appreciated, but the rise of the U.S.A. as the world's largest coffee consumer was accompanied by a fall in the quality of the product supplied to the American public. The rapid increase in "Instant Coffee" consumption after WWII was matched by a drastic fall in the quality of the "real coffee" being sold to the public, to the point where the end taste of both was often indistinguishable.

In the 1970's and 80's a few people, scattered all over the world and almost always acting independently, began to reverse the trend with the introduction of "specialty" coffees. Small shops in Japan, Taiwan, Australia and of course the U.S.A. began selling coffee as if it were wine, emphasising its varietal origins and processing methods. One such small shop spawned thousands in its wake, the mighty Starbucks chain. They weren't the first, or even the best, but the tie up of good quality coffee with American marketing knowhow has so far proved unstoppable. Buying direct from the producer and controlling all aspects of processing and sales thereafter has generated mighty profits and continued expansion.

Coffee quality in Europe has never fallen as low as in the New World, with regional and cultural differences providing a broader spectrum of tastes and brewing methods. Roasting and blending have been much more appreciated than in the U.S.A. and the largest European coffee companies are still roasters for the wholesale and retail trade rather than brewed coffee sellers. American coffee chains will no doubt attempt to conquer European coffee markets in the 21st Century, but their success or failure remains to be seen.


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