On ugliness and beauty in the coffee industry: thoughts from East Coast Coffee Madness 2017



This week’s East Coast Coffee Madness in Montreal was energizing. The speakers spoke engagingly about the current state the industry, from plantation to cup. I’m still processing some of the things I heard there, but there is one theme that really stood out — the intertwined issues of beauty and ugliness.

One of the speakers, Adam Pesce from Reunion Island Coffee, discussed beautiful images that we often see in cafés; the lavish photos of farms nestled in beautiful landscapes, or portraits of happy farmers cupping ripe red beans in their hands. The coffeelands of Latin America are indeed beautiful beyond belief. But as Pesce pointed out, this beauty is deceptive. He reminded the audience “we have made coffee look beautiful, but there are also ugly parts.” And these days, this is more true than ever. Farmers — even those who produce specialty coffee — are often struggling to break even, much less earn a good livelihood. And on top of “stubbornly low prices” that plague the industry, farmers are also grappling with climate change, which has disrupted coffee farming in many different ways. Other speakers at the conference described these and other forms of ugliness in all steps of the coffee industry.

On the other hand, if unquestioned beauty is a problem, unremitting ugliness can be toxic. This is something that I’m sure will resonate with almost everyone. At times, the news is almost unremittingly and uniformly grim. I am often dispirited by the volume of stories about catastrophe that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This ugliness is, of course real. But one of the other speakers, Hanna Neuschwander from World Coffee Research, offered a more constructive vision of beauty. Not one that masks the ugliness, but which motivates and mobilizes people to deal with the ugliness and make the world a better place.

Neuschwander reminded us that “beauty holds our attention.” She spoke about the work that World Coffee Research — is doing to develop new varieties of coffee that are resistant to major diseases and pests; breeders are also making efforts to develop varieties that are adaptable to climate change.” Without minimizing the ugliness of the current situation, she told a beautiful story (illustrated also by a lovely video that offered a measure of hope — something more than unremitting despair. And Pesce, too, spoke not just of ugliness, but also of concrete things that people in the coffee industry could do to improve sustainability in the coffee change. We heard beautiful stories from Janice Nadworny on beekeeping as a way to help impoverished farmers diversify their incomes, and from Laila Ghambari on how to address discrimination in the coffee industry.

The challenge we have to grapple with is how to speak about and confront the ugliness in various parts of the coffee industry. Too much ugliness — even if true — produces nothing but despair. Beauty, in the form of compelling stories like the ones presented at the meeting, offer us a measure of hope.

Request to Readers: Coffee and Divorce in the Ottoman Empire

On behalf of a fellow historian, I have a request for information for you. Apparently, some coffee histories claim that Ottoman women could file for divorce if their husbands did not provide enough coffee. This is a fascinating claim and, if true, could say a lot about the significance of coffee in the Ottoman Empire. But my colleague has not found any original Ottoman source to back up this claim. If anyone knows of a good primary or secondary source that could document this, please let me know. Thanks!

“The Moon of its Cup:” Coffee Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Yemen

I have a couple of goals for this blog. As the blog’s name suggests, I’m interested in talking about the multiple cultures of coffee, both production and consumption, past and present. I would also like to use the blog as a way to explore new writing on coffee, be it produced by academics, journalists, or aficionados.

It is easy (particularly for Westerners) to see coffee primarily as a crop that is produced in the global South and consumed in the global North (Europe, North America, Japan). This vision of global coffee production and consumption can obscure the long (and continuing) history of coffee consumption within the global South itself. Histories of coffee written in European languages often begin with a brief chapter on the discovery of coffee, and its consumption in Africa and the Middle East. But once the drink makes its way into Europe and North America, consumers in those places become the centre of the story, and consumers in other parts of the world largely disappear from it. But coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has continued to the present, and in many cases has grown significantly in the past few decades. We can talk more about this in other posts.

One of the challenges for Westerners interested in studying the history of coffee consumption in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is that many of the primary documents on coffee are not written in European languages. For this reason, translations of key primary texts on coffee are particularly welcome and help shed light on the traditions of coffee production and consumption for readers who do not speak the language. One document that has recently appeared in translation is Murtada az-Zabidi’s Epistle on Coffee, translated by Heather Marie Sweetser as part of an MA project in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University. It’s worth reading Sweetser’s introductory text, which makes some of the same points I discuss above.

Az-Zabidi’s document, whose full title is “A Masterpiece of the Fellows of the Age in Explaining the Legality of the Coffee in Yemen,” was published in 1758 (C.E.), as a defence of the legality of coffee according to Islamic law. Sweetser points out that coffee had “a place of uncertain legality under Islam… and had been alternately banned and blessed pending on the tastes of the ruling government” (3). These debates had been particularly vigorous when coffee first appeared in the Islamic world, but as Sweetser points out the date of this document suggests that the debate persisted long into the eighteenth century. For you chocolate fans out there, Christians had similar debates about the legality of chocolate, eloquently described in Sophie and Michael Coes’ True History of Chocolate.

az-Zabidi cites (and refutes) three main objections to coffee:

  1. “That coffee is intoxicating, inciting pleasure,” and therefore prohibited, to which he responds that “its ability to make one drunk is completely invalid,” by discussing in detail what, exactly, constituted drunkenness.
  2. “That coffee is cold and dry, harming the body.” This objection is based on the humoral medicine common in both the Islamic and Christian worlds of the time, which ascribed qualities of heat and coldness, wetness and dryness to foods and medicines. az-Zabidi refutes this while remaining in the humoral tradition, arguing that “coffee is bitter, and everything bitter is hot.” In any case, he continues “Islamic law does not prohibit having permissible things, even if they are harmful to an extent.”
  3. “That coffee is administered in councils like alcohol, and is like it in its being legally prohibited,” to which he responds that “it passing around as alcohol is passed around it not a reason for it to be made legally prohibited. This is because it returns to the intention, which is an affair of the heart.”

az-Zabidi’s epistle contains descriptions of the origins, uses, and properties of coffee. He quotes, among other sources, the Arab physician Dawud (Umar al-Darir al-Antaki), whose essay on coffee notes that “some people drink it with milk, and this is wrong. It may cause leprosy.” So, modern-day latte-lovers, be careful. Like early European documents on coffee, this one has relatively little to say about its taste. It suggests that people in the Middle East consumed coffee with things like sugar, pistachio butter, and ghee. The latter two modes of preparing coffee are certainly not common in the West I’d like to encourage my foodie friends to prepare some coffee this way and see what it tastes like. I may have to conduct this experiment myself at some point.

We get a few glimpses of what coffee’s taste meant when az-Zabidi quotes a poem,

A little coffee of the pot is highly valued, the moon of its cup appeared at dark night as beautiful

Oh what goodness! Like melted jet

It’s red, it captivates minds with the black of its eyes.

Like music in view and in fragrance

Melted aroma surrendered to it, and a magic stick of incense suckled its love like a child.

How lovely is a glass of coffee without bubbles on top.

These passionate words suggest that some early coffee consumers were as taken with the sensory experience of drinking it as they were with any of its medicinal properties.

This is just one glimpse into one particular coffee culture, and a particular moment in time. But it provides a tantalizing taste of the diverse coffee cultures, past and present, that we need to learn much more about.

When did people start to like the taste of coffee?

While most of my work is on the history of coffee cultivation, I’m finding that this is inevitably drawing me into questions of coffee consumption. Two issues that keeps coming up are taste and quality. While a lot of current writing on coffee (especially specialty coffee) treats taste and quality as if they are essentially innate, almost physiological properties, a look to the past suggests that they are much more complicated than that.

Let’s look back to the moment when Europeans first encountered coffee. What interested them about it? What, if anything, did they have to say about coffee’s taste? Given our contemporary obsession with taste and quality, we might assume that early Europeans would do the same. We would be wrong.

One typical seventeenth-century description of coffee, a coffee ad from 1652 has recently been circulating on the blogosphere. This is one of the earliest print ads for coffee in the English language. The text reads:

It supresseth Fumes exceedingly, and therefore good against the Head-ach, and will very much stop any Defluxion of Rheumas, that distil from the Head upon the Stomach, and so prevent and help Consumptions and the Cough of the Lungs.

It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout, and Scurvy.

It is known by experience to be better then any other Drying Drink for People in years, or Children that have any running humors upon them, as the Kings Evil. &c.

It is very good to prevent Mis-carryings in Child-bearing Women.

It is a most excellent Remedy against the Spleen, Hypocondriack Winds, or the like.

It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for Busines, if one have occasion to Watch, and therefore you are not to drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours.

This document is at least as interesting for what it does not say as for what it does say. Like many early documents on coffee, speaks extensively about coffee’s medicinal properties, and says nothing about its taste. It reads more like a modern ad for Red Bull than it does for Starbucks or Peets.

Other seventeenth-century writings on coffee also have little to say about taste. Sylvestre Dufour’s The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, (1685) which has an extensive overview of coffee, makes just two brief mentions of taste, quoting other travellers:

For the taste, in drinking thereof once or twice, one may easily accustom oneself to it, and it will no longer seem unpleasant; there be some that mix therewith Cloves and a few grains of Cardamome… others put thereto sugar, but this mixture which makes it more pleasant renders it less wholesome and profitable…

In short, coffee tastes unpleasant, but you can get used to it if you drink it often and if you mix it with other things. Another of the travellers Dufour quoted concurred:

Though this liquor (coffee) has not an agreeable taste, but rather bitter, yet it is much esteemed of by those people for the good effects they find therein.

Again, it doesn’t taste good, but it makes you feel good.

Another 1674, the classic Women’s Petition Against Coffee had much to say about coffee and sex, but little to say about taste. What it did say was not complimentary, describing coffee as “base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous Puddle-Watter.” This satirical political pamphlet is a political tract rather than a dispassionate food critique, but even so the pamphleteers referred to coffee as “bitter,” echoing the traveller’s opinions quoted by Dufour.

Taste, it would seem, ranked fairly low on the list of reasons Europeans became addicted to coffee. In fact, if these and other documents are to be believed, they seem to have become addicted to coffee almost in spite of its taste. They were more attracted by coffee’s many purported health benefits – medical, sexual, and otherwise. They were also attracted by the social space offered by the coffeehouse – a new institution imported along with the drink. Over the coming years and decades, Europeans did – both individually and collectively – develop a taste for coffee. But this taste was learned, not innate.