Coffee was once a little-known delicacy used to aid religious rituals. But once it had begun its global expansion, it became an unstoppable force.
It’s a rich dark liquid that flows across the world and greases the wheels of our economies. It’s one of the most traded commodities. And there are fears that, with a seemingly irrepressible demand, we may one day run dry.
No, I’m not talking about oil, but coffee. More than two billion “cups of joe” are drunk every day and for many, working life would feel impossible without it. As traditionally tea-drinking countries like China are seduced by coffee’s charms, it may soon become the world’s favourite drink.
What is driving this insatiable thirst, and how has the beverage come to conquer the world? Is it the abrasive but aromatic flavours, its psychoactive effects or its social currency? And how can its farmers overcome the challenges created by human-made climate change?
Coffee’s story starts in the lush highlands of Ethiopia, the natural homeland of the delicate Coffea arabica plant. Although they are called “coffee beans”, the plant is not a legume, and the fruits of the coffee tree look more like cherries when they are first picked. The seeds inside are extracted and dried before the process of roasting turns them into the hard, nutty nodules we feed into our grinders.
The Oromo people from this region are thought to have been the first to have noticed the stimulating effects of these “beans”, and coffee still remains an important element of their traditional cuisine. Exactly how and when it spread beyond Ethiopia is still the subject of many legends, but the available historic records suggest that the Sufis of Yemen were the first truly devoted drinkers outside Africa in the Middle Ages – where it was intimately connected with their mystic rituals.
“Never was a religious ceremony performed without coffee being drunk,” writes the food writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden. Its caffeine helped them to continue their practices late into the night, while the roasting of the bean was apparently taken as an analogy for the transcendence of the human soul.
Coffee houses soon spread across the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire, where they caught the attention of Western traders, who took the beguiling drink back to their home countries in the 17th Century. The early drinkers were firm believers in its medicinal properties. Roden quotes one newspaper advert in 1657 that described the drink as “having many excellent virtues, closes the orifice of the stomack, fortifies the heart within, helpeth dijestion, quickneth the spirits…”
These observations have been born out by recent studies, which suggest that coffee can offer some protection from certain common diseases. A recent review of the evidence by Susanna Larsson at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that each cup of coffee per day is associated with a 6% reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes. Laura Van Dongen at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, meanwhile, has found that regular coffee drinkers were at least 20% less likely to die from heart disease.
Besides providing this reportedly life-enhancing drink, the early European coffee houses also became popular meeting places for businessmen – and some even birthed the financial institutions we still turn to today. The insurance company Lloyds of London, for instance, emerged from the Lloyds Coffee Shop in the 18th Century, where sailors and merchants would meet to discuss their affairs.
European settlers would also come to introduce the plant to their colonies in Asia and South America: Portugal brought coffee to Brazil, France to Vietnam, and Spain to Colombia. The sale of coffee was intimately linked with the slave trade, which was not abolished until the 1850s in Colombia and the 1880s in Brazil.
Coffee still remains vital for these countries’ economies, and Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia are today the three biggest producers of the raw coffee bean, while the United States, Germany and France are the biggest importers.
Even with today’s agricultural technologies, coffee is a notoriously difficult crop to grow.
The plants that produce Arabica coffee beans – the most aromatic kind favoured by the majority of drinkers – are very sensitive to the climate: they thrive in a narrow temperature band of 15-24C and require plenty of rainfall. And just as the quality of wine depends on the terroir of grapes, the taste of each coffee blend will be shaped by the conditions in which the beans are grown.
The state of Minas Gerais in Brazil provides almost perfect conditions. At one of the state’s farms, called Daterra, chief agronomist João Reis explains how the seeds are first planted in bags filled with nutrient-rich manure and compost. The farm’s location – 1,000m above sea level – offers the perfect wet and cool climate for the seeds to germinate. Even so, the young leaves are made of such delicate tissue that they have to be kept under shade to avoid too much direct sunlight.
After six months, the small trees are ready to be planted – but they still require meticulous care to ensure they receive enough water. Once they reach maturity, the plants will begin to blossom with white flowers that will eventually fall away to reveal the cherries that contain the beans. Overall, it takes around two and a half years until the first crop can be harvested – meaning a long lag before the farmer can see a return on his or her investment. The plants are biennial, meaning that they will only produce a full yield every couple of years after that point.
The harvest only begins after a quality control manager has tasted the beans to ensure they are of optimum quality. Once they are taken from the trees, they are sorted, washed and graded and then laid out on a vast patio to dry. They are then vacuum-packed and loaded onto trucks, ready for transit.
Worldwide, the cultivation and production of coffee supports more than 120 million workers and their families, many of whom feel extremely passionate about their profession, including Suely Di Souza at the Daterra farm.
Her husband had been working on the farm for seven years before her, she says. “I looked through the window, while raising my children, and my dream was to be in the middle of the coffee beans.” When her daughter went to college, she finally took the opportunity to work there. With the other 300 workers on the farm, the job has provided a sense of community for De Souza Paiva that she would otherwise have been missing.
Cultivation is only one part of the story – before they can be drunk, the raw beans must be cooked. In countries such as Italy, with a long history of coffee culture dating to the 16th Century, the blending and roasting of the beans is considered an almost supernatural craft. “I’m like an alchemist because my process is magic,” says Leonardo Lelli, an artisan in Bologna.
Lelli says that during roasting, he pays attention to tiny changes from second to second. “I hear the cracks, and I watch the colour, and I smell the aromas, and only when it all feels right, I take out and cool the coffee.” And he tastes each batch before delivering it to his customers.
Italy’s coffee culture is also famous for its enviable espresso machines that extract more flavour from the grinds. Unlike a typical filter coffee, an espresso is brewed by forcing a lower volume of steaming water through the ground beans at high pressure. This results in a higher concentration drink, with the characteristic honey-coloured “crema” that floats at the top of the cup.
Espresso coffees can now be found in thousands of cities across the world. This is thanks, in part, to Howard Schultz, a manager at a little known coffee shop in Seattle, who fell in love with Italian espresso during a business trip to Milan. He would later buy out the owners and launch an aggressive expansion campaign that would lead his company – Starbucks – to become one of the most recognisable brands in the world.
It wasn’t just the flavour that had caught his attention, though: it was also the community that he saw within the coffee bars themselves. It represented a “third place” – between home and work – where people could enjoy a luxurious snack while they gather and gossip. Unlike a pub, say, the coffee bar was a suitable meeting place at any time of the day, for any age group.
“The Italians had created the theatre, romance, art and magic of experiencing espresso,” Schultz later said. “I was overwhelmed with a gut instinct that this is what we should be doing.” He wanted to recreate a similar kind of relaxing, hospitable environment in his own chain.
Whether or not Starbucks has succeeded in recreating the Italian experience is of course a matter of debate. But the popularity of artisanal coffee shops today certainly owes a lot to the recognition that coffee can be more than a simple caffeine kick. Today people care much more about the origins of the drink, its unique flavours, and the environment in which they drink it than ever before. And they see it as a way of connecting to others around them.
It is this celebration of the experience, rather than the beverage alone, that has driven coffee’s global success, says José Sette, the executive director of the International Coffee Organization. “Coffee is as popular as it is because it is a social currency,” he says. “It brings people together.”
This attitude, of course, dates right back to the start of coffee culture among the Sufis in the Middle East, where it remains central to many social rituals. “In this proverbially hospitable area, coffee is the symbol of hospitality,” wrote the cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden in her study of coffee. In the US and UK we may have forgotten those connections with our perfunctory consumption of instant coffee in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but we are now coming back full circle.
Today, even countries such as China – which have traditionally favoured tea – are now coming to appreciate coffee’s allure. As a sign of its growth, consider this: Starbucks opened their first store in Beijing 1999. Today, they open a new store in China every 15 hours.
Whereas most people had drunk instant coffee at home in the past, younger Chinese people are increasingly buying into its social appeal, as well as developing more refined tastes for artisan blends in speciality coffee shops. Sally Wu, the founder of Seesaw coffee, a chain of 22 speciality coffee shops, argues that the drink is now being appreciated in China like “fine wine”.
Between 1992 and 2017, there has been a 6% year-on-year growth in demand for coffee in Asia as a whole – which is around three times as fast as the rest of the world. “It’s a very exciting market,” says Sette. Even so, the demand in Asia is still very far behind that of more established coffee-drinking regions: in 2017, Japan was the largest consumer in Asia, drinking 4.5% of the world’s coffee, while South Korea, imported 2% and China and Hong Kong lagging at just 0.76% each. The USA, in contrast, imported 20%, and Germany 11%.
But there are obstacles to this growing thirst, the foremost being climate change. Remember that the Arabica plant is incredibly sensitive to heat and rainfall – meaning that rising global temperatures and more irregular weather spell trouble for its long-term survival.
One simulation by Oriana Ovalle-Rivera at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, for instance, predicts that Brazil will lose 25% of its suitable land for cultivating Arabica by 2050. At Daterra, the managers have already noticed that maintaining a high quality of bean, at a high yield, has become more challenging over the last 10 years, a fact that they put down to climate change.
Aaron Davis, a researcher at Kew Gardens, London, agrees that this is a serious problem. Since coffee plants are slow to develop, any unusual fluctuation in the climate could influence growth years later, he says. “So you only need a few or even one perturbation to have a have a big impact.”
Davis points out that in some countries, such as Ethiopia, areas at higher altitudes that were previously too chilly to grow the crop might become more suitable for coffee farms as temperatures shift. But that will cause huge disruptions. “It’ll be a situation that farmers growing coffee for generations won’t be growing coffee, and others will steadily find that they can,” he says. This is already happening in some areas, he says. “People are growing coffee at elevations where they weren’t growing and where it was grown, now not suitable… Coffee is moving.”
There may be other options. There are many species of coffee plant, besides Arabica – some of which are hardier. The most well-known, Coffea robusta, is already used for some drinks – including instant blends – though it is generally considered too bitter for most coffee aficionados. But other varieties may be more suitable. Using selective breeding, it may one day be possible to produce crops that are hardier than existing Arabica plants, but equally appealing in flavour. Farms like Daterra are already experimenting with different crops to try to achieve the best yield even in unstable climates.
For the millions of people currently involved in coffee’s cultivation and production, and indeed for any of us who enjoy a morning espresso to kickstart the day, let’s hope they succeed.