politics of coffee


In the 1700’s coffee found its way to the Americas by means of French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who transplanted a seedling to the Caribbean Island of Martinique. This one plant became the predecessor of over 19 million trees on the island within 50 years. It was from this humble beginning that the coffee plant found its way to the rest of the tropical regions of South and Central America and it is accepted as common truth that all coffee production plants in the Americas are descended from this one smuggled tree.

Coffee was introduced to North America by Captain John Smith who helped to found the colony of Virginia at Jamestown in 1607. Growing quickly in popularity, coffee, no doubt, helped fuel the revolution. In 1773, Americans revolted against King George’s Tea Tax and the newly formed Continental Congress declared coffee the official national beverage.

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Another account of coffee making its way west takes place in 1683 when the Turkish and Austrian armies were engaged in battle. During a siege on Vienna, bakers working at night heard the Turk’s tunneling operation and sounded the alarm.  Routed and in hasty retreat, the Turks left sacks of their coffee beans behind. Upon discovery of their bounty, the Austrians developed their own special blend of the magical new beans. They served their new coffee brew with special cakes created by the heroic bakers called ‘kipfel,’ or what we now know by its French name, as the ‘croissant.’ They were shaped to look like the crescent moon from the Turkish flag as a celebration of the retreat of the Turkish army.

Traders plying the numerous routes to the Orient were introduced to coffee through the hospitality of the local brewers and word of its beneficial powers spread. By the mid-1600s the beans had reached Austria, France, and Italy, much of it through the efforts of Viennese traders. The first coffeehouse opened in Italy in 1645, then England in 1652, Paris in 1672, and Berlin in 1721.

Around 1688 Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse on Tower Street in London and attracted merchants, ship owners, and maritime agents with postings of the latest shipping information. Publishing Lloyd’s News in 1696, he established London’s first daily newspaper. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse eventually became Lloyd’s of London, the world’s most renowned insurance market.

Once again, as coffee became wildly popular, the local religious leaders saw reason to fear its effects. Skepticism from the Vatican led Christians to view it as the “devil’s drink” and to call for its banishment. A wise Pope Vincent III decided to give coffee a taste before ruling on its suitability for his flock. He enjoyed the dark and decidedly dangerous drink so much that he baptized it, proclaiming “coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

Coffee houses spread quickly across Europe becoming centers for intellectual exchange. Many great minds of Europe used and continue to use this beverage, and forum, as a springboard to heightened thought and creativity.

….”Ah, how sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine! I must have coffee….” Johann Sebastian Bach, KAFFEE KANTATE, 1732.

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Coffee maintained its popularity despite the prohibitions, arrests, and even executions. Unable to stop the coffee drinkers, the rulers decided to profit from them. Coffee became legal again and was taxed heavily. However, in order to maintain their control over coffee, transportation of anything other than roasted or boiled beans was forbidden – these forms of the coffee bean not able to propagate new plants.

It took a 17th century Sufi holy man from India named Baba Budan to liberate the much loved beans. After a pilgrimage to Mecca where he was introduced to coffee, Baba smuggled some beans back to India where he started a farm in the mountains near Mysore. This nefarious act gained Baba reverence by both Muslims and Hindus. His shrine is located at Baba Budangiri, India.

And so it was, with the holiest of motives, that Baba Budan set sail for India with seven seeds of the Arabian qahwah tree girded tightly about his waist beneath his seamless white ritual garment.
-Sankar Iye, Forgotten Fakir and His Unforgettable Drink