Coffee… We know how it was discovered (cheers, Kaldi), and we know how it travelled across the ocean and into the cups of royalty and regular folks alike. However, with great success comes great responsibility and we often forget how much actual ground work goes into growing the perfect coffee bean. So, with out further ado, it’s time for our third trip back in time to find out how we went from wild coffee plants to whole, cultivation nations.
When coffee originally started to grow in popularity it was mostly being traded from Ethiopia to Yemen, and for the first few decades in the 16th century cultivation was exclusive to Ethiopia. It was thought that beans were being harvested from wild plants and shipped across the Red Sea. A relatively small operation.
Power shifts and imperial control changes such as the advancement of the Ottoman Empire meant that the popularity in consumption was spreading quickly across the Islamic states.
In 1544, Yemen realised that growing their own coffee would be beneficial in more ways than one and this was initially the start of the cultivation and production industry we know today. Where there’s a demand, am I right?
The farmers would build homes stacked on top of each other in the mountains in order to save as much space as possible for farming. This dedication meant that Yemen quickly became the worlds main producer of coffee beans and remained so for about a century.
The country had a popular port of export called Mocha. This became one of the most powerful and important places in the old coffee world as it was the home for sale of all things coffee. Beans were shipped out of here and sold by merchants on a daily basis.
Yemen knew that they had a good situation going and, in typical human form, wanted to hold onto it. They did this by prohibiting the distribution of seeds and live seedlings. This meant that coffee production was restricted to Yemen and distribution was restricted to Mocha. A win-win situation for them and as you can imagine, this kept them at the top of the food chain for a good while.
It wasn’t until the British East India company was founded in 1600 to oversea the trading of luxury goods from Asia that coffee began making its way to Europe. Obviously, it was popular and it slowly started to become a highly demanded product.
Yemen still held the monopoly when it came to coffee cultivation, but this started to crumble at the end of the 17th century when a siege in Vienna meant the Ottomans fled and left behind a huge store of beans, seeds and seedlings which were imedietly sent around Europe and to the British colonies.
In 1699, the Dutch VOC, and equivalent to the British East India company set up a coffee plantation on the island of Java in Indonesia. As you can expect it didn’t take long before more European countries were trying to jump on the bandwagon. Soon countries like Jamaica, Cuba and Mexico were growing and producing coffee for the western world. By 1788 The French colonies, like Haiti, were responsible for 2/3rds of the the entire global coffee production.
The demand for beans kept growing, and in turn the workload grew too and labour systems varied from origin to origin. Some countries, like Yemen, relied on small hold farmers who were growing and selling directly to the merchants. Places like Brazil however, relied exclusively on plantation and slave labour. Using unfair work practices to ensure they were getting the maximum out of a cheap situation. On the island of Java, however, coffee beans were so important to the origin and their economic growth and stability that they were accepted as a form of currency and tax from peasants and the underprivileged. This ensured the region always had beans at their disposal.
Although very popular and in high demand, coffee was still considered a luxury product. You know, something that was exclusive and exciting! So, when the USA rejected tea consumption and took a stand for coffee consumption instead, the global narrative shifted. The coffee industry really started to take shape and become an important part of todays society. Some say it fuelled the industrial revolution… This means that nations in Asia, South America and Africa began to take on the role of cultivation while the western world were mostly consumers.
This system has relatively remained in place since then. Countries like Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia have become and remained powerhouses in the production of coffee and they take the crown when it comes to cultivation.
Although we, as an industry are no longer faced with the challenges of imperial powers and political turmoils there are things things like climate change and economic upheavals that leave us with a slight feeling of uncertainty. For cultivation is the very start of the journey that the coffee bean takes. Healthy soil, clean air and consistent conditions are all factors that contribute to the growth of quality coffee.
We started off with individuals picking the cherries from wild plants and sending them off on a boat to be consumed by the royal and the religious.
Now we have farms all over the world, co-ops and communities of farmers dedicated to perfecting their harvest. We have families and friends working to process and ship the beans at a rate that keeps the global consumption satisfied.
It’s an operation and a half, this coffee thing, and I think we can all nod in agreement and raise a cup to our farmers and origin workers. From green to bean and from bean to cup; it’s a joint effort.