‘Diabolical Hell Brew’. ‘Black Wine’. ‘The Devils’ Brew’. The arrival of coffee, dark, silky, with its intoxicating aroma and invigorating properties sent the clergy of 17th century Europe into a panic. Labeled ‘Satan’s latest trap’, a cup of coffee became the centre of a religious controversy until finally, an appeal went up to Pope Clement VIII who, after tasting the inky liquid, declared that it was perfectly safe for drinking.
The extraordinary powers of the beans from the plant Coffea Arabica had already been discovered by the people of the Ethiopian highlands, where it grew wild, centuries before the craze for ‘the devil’s brew’ swept Europe. Always surrounded by an air of a mystery, more than just a whiff of myth and religious belief clung to the bean in its place of origin, with deep connotations of sorcery and witchcraft. The roasting of green coffee beans is still, reportedly, a ritual used in tribal exorcisms in Ethiopia. Coffee would travel around the world, sometimes carried by religion and saints, at others, banned and blocked by clerics, who feared the attraction and power the brew appeared to have over people, only to resurface and thrive, until today, it is consumed at a rate of a staggering 400 billion cups a year, the second largest export in the world after oil.
Early versions of coffee consumption were a far cry from the expensive single origin brews and sophisticated blends we crave today – the berries were originally chewed whole, with a covering of fat, by nomadic tribesmen and by about the 10th century, a crude decoction was being made from the entire bean, and drunk. Qahwa, which referred to wine, gave its name to the drink that captured the imagination of the world. Coffee gathered legends as it travelled, first to Yemen, with the large numbers of slaves captured and taken there by the Arabs. The plant thrived in the highlands and, as coffee spread across the Arab world, the story of Kaldi, the goatherd, who discovered the possibilities of caffeine accidentally, when he noticed his animals becoming very skittish after eating the berries, became a familiar one. Kaldi is supposed to have eaten some himself, and felt refreshed and energetic. The story followed in the wake of the travelling bean, turning up in different versions in different countries.
Secrecy, monopolistic restrictions and deceit marked coffee’s early days as an export. Al- Makkah, or Mocha, as it came to be known, the prosperous Red Sea port where coffee first made an appearance, traded in everything exotic – rhino horn, spices, slaves – and before long, coffee grown in the Yemeni highlands was being loaded onto ships for export across the Eastern world. Like the spice trade, the movement of coffee was entirely in the hands of the Arabs, who ensured that every bean that left the port of Mocha was inspected, and scalded, so that it would not germinate. But Mocha was also home to the Sufi sect founded by the saint al-Shadhili and, by the 15th century, Sufi dervishes had incorporated the brew as part of their religious rituals, the caffeine keeping them alert and energized through their night- long ceremonies. With the dervishes, coffee would travel to Mecca, and right across the Muslim world. In the Arab world, qahwa khaleejiai, flavoured with cardamom and saffron, became a symbol of hospitality, friendship and respect, served with a date, instead of a sweetener, as it still is to this day.
The first coffee houses, which were set up in Mecca in the late 15th century, set off a craze for the ancestors of the modern café. These lively centres where men – because it was exclusively a man’s world –would socialize, play chess, sing, dance and listen to music, besides conducting business, became immensely popular. Inevitably, in the absence of wives, other entertainment sprang up, which would in time have coffee houses banned as dens of vice, only to have them re-open again. All attempts to ban the drink failed, and a religious debate took place amongst the Imams, over the intoxicating nature of the beverage. They finally decided that, it since it was not specifically banned, it was permissible to drink it.
The Ottoman Turks, who overran the Arab world, were soon smitten by the charms of coffee houses. They refined the recipe for brewing coffee by lacing it with saffron, spices, opium and aphrodisiacs. It was drunk ‘black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love’, as Turkish tradition approved.
The Arabs persisted with their stringent security measures, but they had reckoned without Baba Budan, a Sufi sage from Chickmagalur, in Karnataka. It was a case of the most ingenious botanical theft, when Baba Budan, on his way back from a pilgrimage from Mecca, sailed to India via Mocha, with seven coffee beans strapped around his middle. He planted them around the hills, now named after him, where the plant thrived abundantly. The tradition of the redoubtable South Indian filter coffee can be traced back directly to seven beans and a Sufi sage. The progeny of the kidnapped beans form Arabia spread to Mysore, and another area synonymous with coffee, Coorg. It was already growing there when the British arrived in the 19th century. When the coffee plantations in Sri Lanka failed, droves of Scots, Irish and English planters made their way up to the hills of Coorg, and stripped thousands of acres of forest to plant coffee – the first European owned estate, Mercara Estate, opened in 1854. Although the Robusta bean, which grew in tropical Africa would eventually reach the rest of the world, the delicate, more sophisticated Arabica would retain its supremacy into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, coffee had been trickling into Europe in a haphazard sort of way, via Cairo. The Venetians, who first got wind of the brew, initially sold it for its medicinal benefits. Similarly, in Paris and London, coffee attracted the attention of apothecaries, rather than the general public, since the preferred drink at the time was copious amounts of alcohol, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It would take a second theft from Mocha, to transport the coffee bean across the world, changing the political, economic and cultural histories of nations. In 1616, the captain of a Dutch ship trading at Mocha helped himself to some ripe coffee beans from the unlucky Arabs, which he smuggled out and planted at the Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam. The Dutch were the first colonial power to realize the potential of the bean and quickly introduced plantations in Sri Lanka, Malabar and then Java. The French, meanwhile, were still making up their minds about coffee. It was the arrival of the Turkish Ambassador, Suleiman Aga, to the court of Louis XIV, in the 17th century that charmed the French into drinking it. Suleiman Aga invited the French aristocracy to participate in coffee drinking ceremonies of such dazzling extravagance – ” On bended knee, the black slaves of the Ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes served the choicest Mocha coffee in tiny cups of eggshell porcelain, hot, strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver” –that all of Paris went crazy over the romance of the ceremony, rather than coffee itself. ‘The wine of Arabia’ would meet with a better reception in Vienna, when the retreating Turkish army would leave behind bags of coffee. After some initial confusion, when they were mistaken for camel fodder, a Polish officer in the Austrian army, General Kolschtisky would lay claim to the bags and open the Blue Bottle, Vienna’s first coffee house, a story which is as interesting as it is unreliable in its authenticity.
The history of coffee is full of fortuitous incidents and determined individuals, beginning with Baba Budan. But a Frenchman, Gabriel de Clieu would be immortalized in songs, poems and stories for the role he played in the spread of coffee. De Clieu was either given, or stole, a couple of coffee plants from Louis XIV, with which he sailed for Martinique. His ship was attacked by pirates, they ran into a storm, a jealous Dutchman tried to tear off the branches of a plant, and finally, when the ship ran short of water, de Clieu shared his ration with the coffee plant! His pains paid rich dividends – the plant was ultimately the source of coffee cultivation in the Carribean, and South America.
By this time, the bean from Africa had made some incredible journeys, but the most momentous one, in the hands of a Portuguese officer was yet to come. In 1727, the Portuguese in Brazil, desperate for a share in the lucrative coffee trade, dispatched Lt.Col. Francisco de Male Palheta to French Guyana. The coffee plantations of the day were guarded like fortresses, so Palheta chose an ingenious way of acquiring coffee seeds – he seduced the wife of the French Governor, who slipped a few ripe berries into a farewell bouquet presented to her lover. The world’s largest coffee empire grew from an amorous liaison between a canny Portuguese officer and a besotted Frenchwoman!
All this while the art of drinking coffee was evolving. No more chewing raw berries in fat, or pounding the charred remains of the bean into a coarse heap, boiling and drinking it, grounds and all. A filter was invented, sugar and whipped cream added – a refinement credited to the Viennese. In the 19th century, the Italians produced an espresso machine. The importance of careful roasting, to draw out the character of the bean was discovered, where the bean undergoes colour change, moisture loss, a drop in sucrose and a rise in caffeine levels. Coffee obsessed connoisseurs built up an entire lexicon of coffee terminology. Soils and vintages began to be appreciated, as grades, colour and size of beans were seen to vary from region to region. Coffee classification, in terms directly reminiscent of wine drinking – acidity, aroma, body, flavour and balance became current. Distinguishing flavours – spicy, mellow –were sought after, while muddy and bitter notes were avoided. Premium coffees began to go through several blind tastings before they reached the consumer, and the highly prized single origins, like Jamaican Blue Mountain, which travelled in oak barrels, were born.
Coffee has always had something of a split personality. The beauty and delicacy of its jasmine like blossoms, with their intoxicating fragrance; the dark green leaves, a perfect foil for the ripe, red berries; the dark, satiny nectar, its incomparable aroma and complex depth of flavors drunk by generations of artists and intellectuals in salons around the world, is a dark drink in more ways than one. The great wealth and power generated by coffee, particularly in the West Indies and South America, was created on the back of some of the worst practices of slavery recorded in human history. Millions of slaves from West Africa were captured and shipped across to work on plantations owned by the French, British, Dutch and Portuguese. Violent rebellions broke out frequently, only to be brutally suppressed. In the film ‘Black Coffee’ a modern descendent of a slave brought to Brazil recounts how, in the songs sung by his ancestors, the red of the ripe coffee cherry came to stand for the blood of the black man, and the black of the roasted bean, the black skin that made the plantation owner rich. It took decades to address this injustice.
No longer an exotic luxury, coffee is the everyday drink of millions, but it continues to generate controversy. Fluctuating prices, periodic over production by coffee giants like Brazil means that the small farmer always comes off worst. Mass production also means poor quality, restrictive barriers and serious degradation of the environment. Worldwide campaigns for fair trade are aimed at trying to bring about awareness, and educating people to choose better, so that the farmer gets a fair deal. Coffee is a potent force of history, politics and economics that impacts the lives of millions of people – it has created new cultures centered around its cultivation and consumption. Is it the devil’s brew, or the cup of gold? Whether we drink it or grow it, love it or hate it, we cannot ignore it.
Dark Pleasures appeared in Food Lovers Magazine, Feb-Mar 2012 Issue.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi