The Story of Coffee

by Tamar Jacobs

Once upon a time, around the seventh century AD, in the southern highlands of Ethiopia, a hungry goat munched on the enticingly ruby-hued berries of a low, dense bush. When the goat's herder, Kaldi, noticed his goat bursting into an energetic skip soon after this snack, he popped one of the berries into his own mouth to see if he would have the same reaction. He did! Thus was born our relationship with the bean we know and love today, one of the most heavily traded commodities on the world market.

That's how coffee-legend has it, and even though the story of Kaldi's goat may be apocryphal, it's true that the Galla tribesmen of Ethiopia were the first to discover the wake-you-up-in-a-hurry effect of consuming the coffee "berries." Tribal warriors crushed them into balls of animal fat to sustain themselves during long battles.

Before Arab traders brought it back to their homeland, around 1000 AD, and boiled it to create the drink they called "quavah," (translation: "that which prevents sleep"), the coffee berry was pretty bland. Maybe the animal fat added something to the flavor of the raw berry!

"Coffee Arabica," the low shrub with glossy, emerald green leaves and white flowers, takes three to five years to mature to the point of producing berries. Ensconced within the berry itself are two seeds, nestled with their flat sides against each other, wrapped in a thin, sugary film that must be removed soon after harvesting to prevent fermentation. These seeds are the coffee beans. These raw beans, or "green coffee" have a long shelf life, but after they've been roasted, their chemistry changes.

Blasting in a roaster at heat hovering around 550 degrees, the starches and carbohydrates in the bean dissipate and unleash the simple sugars and flavor profiles that give roasted beans their heady, complex aromas. The longer the beans are roasted, the deeper and richer their hue. Seven minutes produces light bodied beans. Nine to twelve produces medium. After thirteen minutes of roasting, the beans will produce a dark, sweet brew, and fourteen minutes brings around the brownest bean of them all: the "espresso" roast.

The Moslem Ottoman Turks, who cultivated coffee, latched on to it with a vengeance, in part because it was a handy replacement for the alcohol that their religion forbade them to consume. At first coffee, was used solely to enhance religious practices but soon a dynamic culture began to emerge around the beverage. The world's first coffee house, Kiva Han, opened its doors in Constantinople in the mid thirteenth century. There, politicians and philosophers debated long into the night, which infuriated Orthodox Moslems who knew that these places also proffered forbidden music and gambling alongside the free flowing java.

After coffee had been smuggled into Europe via Venice in 1615, Christians kicked up a fuss about the "devil's drink" too. Pope Clemente VIII's histrionic advisors urged him to ban the dark, steamy drink hailing from Arabia, land of the infidels. In response, he claimed that he couldn't possibly issue an edict until tasting the beverage in question for himself. Following his papal sip, Clemente declared that it would be a sin to leave such a delicious beverage to the sinners! Coffee was baptized...

As coffee spilled all over the world, it was recognized as a valuable commodity and people who had it struggled to keep it to themselves. The Ottoman Turks vigilantly sterilized any seeds destined for export, so that they could be brewed, but not planted. In 1713 the Dutch, cocky, in a bragging mood as a result of establishing the first European coffee plantation in the East Indian colony of Java (hence coffee's longtime nickname), presented a coffee seedling to Louis XIV. Ten years later, a French naval officer stole a clipping from that plant and spirited it off to Martinique where it spread prolifically -most of the world's coffee bushes growing today can be traced back to that stolen plant. Coffee was a major colonial cash crop that made massive profits for large landowners who exploited slave labor.

Sadly, things haven't changed a whole lot in some ways. Though they may own their land, small farmers still struggle to keep their heads above water in a global market where the price of coffee fluctuates drastically, and middlemen and large corporations make disproportionate profits. In response to this, the Fair Trade movement gives small producers a more equitable role in the marketplace, guaranteeing the smaller farmers a fair price for their harvests.

Also look for the Smithsonian Institute's Bird Friendly Certified label. Large, "technified" farms, seeking maximum yield above all other considerations, tend to wipe out habitats for songbirds and other tropical species. Bird Friendly Certified farmers plant coffee shrubs under trees creating a natural habitat for migrating songbirds (like Charm City's beloved Baltimore Oriole). Coffee grown under a tree canopy is called "shade-grown." The use of shade trees provides natural mulch, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. These trees protect the coffee plants from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding, and aid in pest control. Organic matter from shade trees reduces erosion, contributes nutrients to the soil, and prevents metal toxicities. All-in-all, a much healthier way to cultivate coffee!

Fragrant pots of sustainably grown, Bird Friendly and Fair Trade coffee are brewing all over Baltimore. Bluebird Artisanal Coffee Roasters, a TransFair USA Licensed Partner, is a good place to start looking. Try their Guatemalan "Finca Ceylan," which gets its distinctive flavor from the volcanic region where it's grown. High Grounds on Eastern Avenue roasts Fair Trade and Bird Friendly coffees. Zeke's Coffee, a mainstay of Baltimore's Farmers' Markets, does as well. They also offer an extensive selection of loose-leaf teas alongside their signature coffees.

A long time has passed since the dance of Kaldi's goat, but his mythic glee after a bite of the berry speaks to the reason it has since flowed worldwide. Under the Fallsway at the Sunday Farmers' Market, with a cup of Zeke's warming our hands, it makes us feel like dancing too!

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