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18 december 2019
I've been a big fan of the Reaktion Edible series for eight years now, and the series has featured many excellent books. I don't think any of them matches the series subtitle "global history" as well as Jonathan Morris' Coffee, however. Morris provides a truly worldwide history of the beverage, integrating agriculture, economics, geopolitics, cuisine, and lifestyle.
I have been a coffee drinker since I was in my early teens, nearly a half-century now. It was not really an option. Morris cites studies showing that 98% of Americans, in the mid-20th century, drank coffee daily. My parents and grandparents did. Like many Americans, they drank it black and weak. Though I've come to love espresso, I still favor the weak black morning cup. I guess black coffee has always been the most stable element of my culinary life.
Weak and black, but not "Americano," that abominable concoction that tries to imitate American brew by watering down espresso. The burnt bitterness of espresso becomes hideous at Americano length; I don't see how people manage to get it down. Morris explains the phenomenon. French and Italian espresso is made from Robusta coffee, quite a different cultivar from Arabica, the basis of the American "cup of joe." Arabica tastes floral, fruity, slightly acidic; it varies by terroir and processing, much like wine. Robusta is just bitter, best when roasted to a near-char, to hide its disagreeable qualities, and on top of that often drowned by hot milk. Paradoxically, super-strong Robusta, in demitasse proportions, is delicious, though in a very different way. And conversely, a shot of Arabica "espresso" in the U.S., delivered in a paper cup, often tastes like the last cold swallow of a cup of morning joe.
Robusta is cheaper to produce than Arabica, and much higher in caffeine. Accordingly, the 21st century expansion of coffee globally has been driven by opening up new sources of, and markets for, Robusta. The previous great wave of coffee was fueled by Arabica cultivation in Brazil, in the 19th century, mostly destined for the U.S. market. Before that, coffee expanded into western Europe in the 18th century, driving the growth of slave plantations in the Caribbean and the "Max Havelaar" system of peonage in Indonesia. And before that, the history of coffee is brief and circumscribed. When the Ottoman Empire discovered the beverage in one of its distant corners (the shores of the Horn of Africa and the elbow of the Yemeni coast), and coffee was cleared as a drink appropriate for Muslims, the first great world coffee wave began – but that was only about 500 years ago. Compared to wine and beer, compared to tea, coffee is a newcomer, all the odder because it's an Old World plant, joining the global food-and-drink chain just when so many New World newcomers also came on the scene.
Morris charts how the fluctuations of coffee markets have enslaved and oppressed the people who pick coffee; how the expansion of coffee cultivation has built and wrecked economies; how coffee has intensified inequality, and led to precariousness and insecurity among the global working class. Not alone, of course, but in tandem with crops like sugar and bananas, coffee has helped build the power structures that characterize neocolonial states, especially in the Americas. It has often undermined such states and led to their collapse and reorganization. In extreme cases, coffee seems to have ravaged entire nations. Haiti, cultivated to supply France with coffee, oppressed its slave workforce so hellishly that they successfully rebelled – whereupon other states, fearful of slave (or free-worker) revolts, boycotted Haitian coffee, immiserating the country and permanently wrecking its coffee industry; the Haitian economy has never really recovered, as if recovering its slavery-era heights would be desirable.
The north-south dynamic of coffee, whereby a consumer and producer are locked in colonial and neo-colonial relations, is striking. Morris provides example after example: Turkey and Yemen; England and Jamaica; the Netherlands and Java; France and Haiti; the United States and Brazil (later Colombia); Italy and Ethiopia; and increasingly in the 21st century, the entire world and Vietnam, the latest giant among coffee producers. And all because of a basic botanical fact: coffee can only grow in the tropics (it cannot stand a freeze), but within the tropics, it needs cool temperatures and both rainy and dry seasons: certain tropical mountain climates, and thus labor-intensive cultivation (since the plants grow best on hillsides and the "cherries" don't ripen all at once, meaning that many coffee varieties, to this day, are picked by hand). Unlike many crops, coffee is tightly bound to geographical zones, and to specific labor dispensations.
American coffee consumption has been dropping since I was born. Yet though the longterm trend is ever downwards, it's actually up since the 1990s, when it seemed like coffee would soon become a thing of the past. Americans started to get their caffeine mostly from soda, and the morning pot of coffee, even when endorsed by Joe DiMaggio, no longer suited our more atomized lifestyles. Then, of course, came Starbucks, which reinvented the coffee shop – the haunt of hipsters since the days of Voltaire – for postmodern America. Except that for Voltaire and his ilk, the coffee shop was a place to hang out and gab; now, Morris notes, it's a place to tap into the wifi and disappear behind the screen of your laptop. But at least people are getting out into public and drinking something relatively harmless: and I've known people to flirt with baristas and eventually marry them.
The atomization of coffee culture became complete with the capsule machine, Keurig commanding the US market and Nespresso conquering Europe. Now, instead of the vile communal pot, everybody at work can have a different flavor of coffee while they destroy the environment one pod at a time. A third of Americans who drink coffee, says Morris, now use capsules even at home.
I don't. My partner and I set up a cheap drip machine the night before and stagger out to punch it into life as soon as we wake. I still take it black; she likes more hot milk than actual coffee. The cats seem to like the whole routine, as well. There may be bad things about the way it's produced and distributed, but just as a beverage, coffee is one of the few constant, unqualified good things in life.
Morris, Jonathan. Coffee: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2019.