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The Origins of Coffee : Columbia River edition : Friday, 24 February 2017 18:05 PDT : a service of The Public Press
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We need not to be let
alone. We need to be
really bothered once in a
while. How long is it
since you were really
bothered? About something
important, about
something real?
– Ray Bradbury



The Origins of Coffee

     by Patrick Morris

Coffee is grown in the Third World by subsistence farmers, shipped halfway across the planet, processed using non-renewable fuels, sold in small quantities in chi-chi boutiques at inflated prices. And yet, the specialty coffee business has show double digit growth for the past fifteen years. No other industry has so successfully shrouded itself in the garments of sustainability. Between "certified organic," "shade grown," and "Fair Trade" it's tough to find a mug of plain ol' "joe" anymo'. But who would want to?

I was standing in line at Starbucks the other day when I overheard a conversation between two men in front of me. They were calmly competing with each other about who enjoyed coffee more. "I think I probably drink four cups a day" one of the men said. "Sometimes I'll have three regular coffees and a double espresso before lunch rolls around" replied the other. When the gentlemen approached the cashier (otherwise known as the barista) they both ordered drinks that sounded like medical conditions and it wasn't clear if they even contained coffee. "I'll have a double iced venti banana mocha frappachino" said one of the men. "I'll have a grande caramel machiatto without whip" said the other.

I felt a little sheepish to order an offensively boring "medium coffee...black," but it got me thinking about the state of coffee we're in. Coffee has exploded into a $20 billion dollar industry. The Starbuck's in New York City where I got my cup of joe is one of 10,000 throughout the country and one of four on the block. America is now the world's largest consumer of coffee; we drink almost 400 million cups a day, and import $4 billion dollars worth of beans from countries all over the world.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed with the size of the industry (of course all my information came from about five seconds of Googling on my laptop using the Starbucks WiFi), it dawned on me - I knew what coffee WAS, but I had no idea of ITS ORIGINS. quiet zone
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I decided to do a little research to figure out the back story on this dark, hot beverage. (Translation: I decided to kill a little more time on my laptop, before going back to work.) What I discovered was a story of invention, smuggling, international trade, and dancing goats that WAY predates past Juan Valdez.

The story, more a fairy tale, takes place when things were dated as "a very long time ago". Kaldi, a young Ethiopian goatherd, lets his goats graze in the hills surrounding his village. One night the goats do not return home, and Kaldi becomes worried. He sets out to search for his herd, and as the morning sun rises, he finds them dancing around a dark-leafed shrub with red berries. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Kaldi joins the goats in eating the berries that have filled his goats with energy and glee. Sure enough, Kaldi is soon jumping with excitement, energized by the mysterious berries.
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As Kaldi dances with his goats, a wise and learned man passes by. He stops to ponder the scene. Apparently, even "a very long time ago," a boy dancing with goats was considered unusual. Kaldi tells him about the berries and the wise man experiments by roasting and boiling the berries, producing a beverage that keep college students, truck drivers, and computer nerds alert and dancing for centuries to come, thanks to Kaldi, his goats, and an inquisitive man.

The drink quickly spread to the Arabian lands and far beyond. Since wine was forbidden by the Moslem religion, coffee became an integral part of Arabian society. In fact, a man not providing his wife with coffee was grounds for divorce. Now that's taking your coffee seriously, but shouldn't it be the other way around?.

Venetian traders dealing with Arabian merchants quickly took a liking to the beverage and soon it appeared in apothecaries in Venice by prescription only. Not knowing what to make of the power in "the devil's cup" a group of Venetians brought it before Pope Clement VII. Not only did Clement not damn the cup as evil, but he baptized it. Now everyone could enjoy coffee sans guilt and sans prescription. Everyone was happy. Everyone except for the rebellious Venetian teens who drank the beverage to rebel against their parents.

In the middle 1600s a holy man from India, Baba Budan, came to Arabia on a pilgrimage. The Arabian people had been very protective about keeping seeds that could sprout new coffee plants within the Arabian borders, but Baba Budan managed to smuggle seven coffee beans to his home in India. Soon Dutch traders bought some of his plants and started shipping them to faraway colonies in Indonesia and Ceylon. Very quickly the coffee the Arabian people tried to keep within their borders was being grown and shipped all over the world.

During the mid 17th and early 18th century, coffee consumption spread throughout Europe. In London specialized coffeehouses became the rage. These coffeehouses weren't just a convenient place to grab a cup o' joe, they were hotbeds of conversation, commerce and commerce. They quickly became known as "Penny Universities," because for the price of a cup, one could sit for hours learning from the clientele. Each coffeehouse served a different segment of society. One might attract physicians, another actors, or musicians or lawyers or clergy. Since people couldn't check their email or surf the net, they had to talk to one and other. What an interesting concept!

While Kaldi and his dancing goats have slipped into the recesses of history, people are continually identifying themselves with their morning fuel, using their preference like a personal calling card. Even at $3.50 a cup, this is still an indulgence that the average person can afford.


Patrick Morris is a "medium ...black" kinda guy. He lives in New York City and buys from the same Starbucks each day.


Thanks to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for allowing us to use material from their website greenmountaincoffee.com . The company has recently been cited by Business Ethics Magazine as the #1 ranked company in America for their commitment to social and environmental responsibility.


Local Favorites

One of the best developments in the coffee business has been the emergence of local micro-roasters who offer high-quality, specialized products within limited market areas. These are perfect expressions of being "universally local." These are worth going out of your way for:


Out West

Local beaneries include:

Mellelo's and Evans Valley Coffee Roasters, Medford, Oregon. Offer a selection of Fair Trade and organic roasts.

The Good Bean Coffee Company, Jacksonville, Oregon. A local roaster with some organic options. Goodbean.net

Solar Roast in Bend, Oregon is an interesting company that roasts the beans in a parabolic sun oven. No fossil fuels whatsoever are used to produce their product. (Their first roaster was made from a satellite dish!) solarroast.com


Back East

(Why is it "out west" and "back east?")


Vermont Coffee Company

Coffee Roasted For Friends Vermont's only 100% Fair Trade and 100% Organic coffee roaster produces a big, bold dark roast. One of their custom blends was recently named Best Cup of Coffee in Manhattan by New York Magazine. Bristol, VT . vermontcoffeecompany.com


Mocha Joe's

A hometown favorite in Brattleboro, Vermont. Mocha Joe roasts their coffees in small batches at downtown facility. Their coffee is best consumed fresh and should be brewed within ten days of purchase. Mochajoes.com


Greenfield Coffee

Another source for the right stuff–organic, Fair Trade, shade grown, and delicious. greenfieldcoffee.com


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