Saturday, 14 May 2016 21:04

What Is It With Coffee?

Written by Written by Lorne VanSinclair, originally published in the Orillia Packet & Times

149 coffee grinderCollectors tend to collect stuff that they feel is important but may be trivial to others. What can be more important or trivial than your morning coffee? It’s a daily ritual, we even define our Canadian culture around a coffee shop started by a hockey player but for many it’s a drive-thru experience with a take-out cup, not something we think about a lot.

Coffee lovers think about coffee a lot. They savour it.

If you check the dialogue on any coffee web site that allows comments you will find passionate debate about all aspects of coffee. Is drip better than pressed? Should you use paper filters or stainless steel? Are unbleached filters better than bleached? Is fine grind better that course? Of course these monumental questions have no definitive answers so the debates will go on as long as humans are able to talk to each other.

Coffee lovers also savour its history and vintage coffee memorabilia is a hot (no pun intended) area of collecting.

Coffee beans are second only to oil as the most valuable commodity in the world but it’s more than that; coffee and coffee houses helped shape our culture in a big way.

In the western world, the history of coffee starts in the early 1600s when it was introduced to Europe by travelers who discovered the drink in Turkey. Coffee had been a staple there since 1555 because of Turkey’s connection with Yemen, both being in the Ottoman Empire which was ruled by a Turkish Sultan. Yemen is thought to be the first place in the world that had a drink made from coffee beans, which originated in Ethiopia, but the Turks claim to be the first to roast and grind the beans.

They went through all this trouble because the caffeine in the bitter Yemini drink made them feel good but the roasting process made it much more palatable. Coffee was considered a medicinal drink and close to a religious experience; monks drank coffee to keep them awake during long hours of evening prayer, some Sufi Muslim sects passed a bowl of coffee around at funerals for the same reason. However many religious leaders were uncomfortable with the stimulating effect so coffee was banned many times in many places but that never stopped its popularity.

When coffee was first appearing in Italy around 1615 many clerics were suspicious of this Muslim drink. Pope Clement VIII was asked to ban it but before doing so he decided to drink some. He loved it, gave coffee his blessing and cleared the way for coffee drinking to spread all over Europe.

Drinking coffee was always a very social affair. Even though it is easy and cheap to make a good cup of coffee at home coffee’s popularity was spread by coffee houses, or cafes, where people would meet, listen to music and engage in lively conversation.

One of the first coffee houses in England was opened by Oxford University in 1650. By 1660 coffee houses were an integral part of urban, English society (as they were everywhere else in Europe). Most business transactions were consummated in coffee houses. They were dubbed “penny universities” because for the price of a cup of coffee, a penny, one could engage in deep conversation with some of the most brilliant men in the country. And it was a men’s club, women were banned in most coffee houses, Germany being a rare exception. Despite that, a large part of our business, scientific, political and religious discourse during one of the most important parts of our history, the Enlightenment, was literally fuelled by coffee in coffee houses.

Gradually coffee began to be the favoured morning drink, replacing beer and wine. For some reason people found themselves to be more productive if they started their day with coffee instead of beer.

Coffee beans were mostly grown in the Arab peninsula, seeds and saplings were closely guarded and can only grow in a tropical climate but the Dutch, who were the first to see the commercial potential in growing coffee, managed to obtain some and planted them on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. The Java plantations became huge and very successful and soon the Dutch, British and others were establishing massive plantations all over the Caribbean and South America, especially Brazil.

Amazingly, all the plants are the progeny of one seedling that had been presented to King Louis XIV of France by the Mayor of Amsterdam in 1714.

Millions of acres of rainforest were cleared for coffee plantations, tens of thousands of slaves were brought over from Africa to work them, even children were pressed into service. Coffee production became a very profitable but nasty business.

The British East India Company was active in this trade as well as with the other new drink just being discovered in Europe, tea. It was the British company’s attempts to control all trade in tea and the British government’s determination to tax tea being shipped to the colonies that lead to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. It was then that Americans declared that tea drinking was un-patriotic and coffee would be the favoured hot beverage in the new Republic.

Some historians believe that coffee was introduced in Canada as early as 1550 which is why Canadians have always been enthusiastic coffee drinkers.

149 krakow coffee shopWhile the coffee bean had become a commodity actual coffee production was still a local affair, coffee houses and even home consumers bought raw beans and roasted them on site. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that large coffee roasting companies began to appear in the United States, Folgers being one of the first. Maxwell House, named after the Nashville Hotel it was served in, came along in 1886 but it was in 1900 that Hills Bros. came up with the invention that changed everything forever; vacuum packaging. That innovation allowed companies to roast, grind and package coffee ready to use.

People were starting to be in a hurry, the brewing process was too slow even for the coffee house, that’s why espresso machines were developed, to speed up the process. In 1909 an American inventor named George Washington made the first mass-produced instant coffee.

Thus started what is now called the first wave of commercial coffee making where convenience was paramount, taste came second. The second wave was the Starbucks phenomenon in the 1970s. Two coffee enthusiasts who insisted on grinding their beans on site established the Starbucks brand but it was taken over in the early years by someone who wanted more efficient methods, so while Starbucks raised awareness of good coffee and coffee houses, it didn’t really deliver.

The third wave is the artisanal movement that only got going within the last 20 years. Coffee is treated like wine (or beer, or cheese) which is meant to be enjoyed slowly and with an appreciation of its individual ancestry.  

Maybe that is why coffee grinders are one of the most popular collectables. Coffee geeks may argue about a lot of things but they all agree that the beans should be freshly roasted and only ground just before they are brewed, preferably with a grinder that doesn’t use a blade.

If you go to a drive thru to pick up your morning cup of java and gulp the thing back while you’re going to work, you are not drinking coffee; you are just ingesting caffeine and sugar.

Take some time, visit a local coffee house, sip your fresh coffee, maybe read a newspaper or have a conversation. That’s having a coffee. We could all use a little bit more of that.