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Bitter Brew
By Kate Julian
A brief history of the economics of the world’s most popular, socially sanctioned psychoactive drug

In the summer of 2002, a half dozen desperately impoverished coffee farmers in Karnataka, India, committed suicide. That same season, the net income of the international coffeehouse chain Starbucks rose 20 percent, as the company opened three or four new stores each day, from Vienna to Tokyo to Mexico City.
     Coffee is the world’s most popular — and socially sanctioned — psychoactive drug. After petroleum, it is the most valuable global commodity based on the monetary value of its annual trade. Some 25 million people around the world work on coffee plantations, and roughly 27 million acres are given over to its cultivation.
In the 19th century, the French historian Jules Michelet gave coffee — and the café culture it fueled — much credit for Western enlightenment: “For this sparkling outburst of creative thought,” he wrote, “there is no doubt that the honor should be ascribed in part to the great event which created new customs and even changed the human temperament — the advent of coffee.” If this is so, the history of coffee also — if less rosily — charts the recent history of enlightened Europe, the US, and parts of Asia’s relationship with the developing world. Coffee is overwhelmingly consumed by the richest countries in the world, but it is grown by the poorest. It is a drug that has fueled economic engines both directly (by virtue of its tremendous value) and indirectly (by virtue of its stimulating effects). It is, to varying degrees, uniquely implicated in colonialism, slavery, and Cold War–era maneuvering in the Third World. More recently, a
PHOTO BY Simon des Rocher
disastrous drop in the price of coffee beans has created one of globalization’s most wrenching paradoxes: millions of coffee growers and laborers — like those in Karnataka — are losing badly, even as the corporations that sell coffee continue to prosper.
     As the legend goes, coffee’s psychoactive properties were discovered sometime before the 10th century by an Ethiopian goatherd who, having seen his charges prancing excitedly after eating the tree’s red berries, decided to try a few himself. By the 16th century, a drink made from an infusion of roasted, ground beans had spread from Ethiopia throughout the Islamic world. (The word coffee derives from the Arab word qahwa, or wine.) For a while, the burgeoning Ottoman Empire profited from its coffee trade, but efforts to guard the monopoly failed. Sometime around 1600, fertile coffee seeds were smuggled from Mecca to southern India.
Coffee was
the ideal product for
a would-be colonial power: tropical, nonperishable, and addictive.
From there, Dutch merchants took coffee from Aden to Ceylon, and on to Java.
     By the end of the 17th century, Europe was hooked. London alone had 2,000 coffeehouses.
     Coffee was the ideal product for a would-be colonial power: tropical, nonperishable, and addictive. It was also extremely labor-intensive. Coffee trees are hypersensitive to weather conditions, require steady pruning and weeding, and are well-loved by pests. Even after the berries are picked, they must be de-pulped, dried, sorted, graded, and, of course, roasted. Historically, this was the work of slaves. In late 18th-century French St. Domingue (now Haiti) alone, 30,000 slaves were imported from Africa each year to tend coffee crops. By 1791, the island supplied half the world’s coffee — that is, until 1793, when the slave population rose up and burned down the plantations.
     If, by the 20th century, the drink that fueled the industrialized world was no longer grown by slaves, most coffee laborers still lived lives of extreme poverty. Intense speculation in North American and European coffee exchanges combined with repeated crop failures to create a stubborn boom-bust cycle. As mid-century geopolitics grew tenser, and as more countries in Africa and Asia entered the coffee trade — competing with the leading producer, Brazil — coffee nations became pawns in the Cold War. Fearing that low coffee prices, by exacerbating poverty and unrest in the poorest countries, might drive these nations into the Soviet bloc, the United States did two things. First, it threw its support to non-Communist regimes in coffee-growing nations from Guatemala and El Salvador to Angola, many of whom were brutally repressive of coffee laborers. Second, it entered what amounted to an international coffee cartel
in the early 1960s. By creating a complicated system of export quotas and price controls, the quasi-cartel provided farmers and laborers with some degree of shelter from the market’s vicissitudes. But consumers remained suspicious — when a serious frost in Brazil destroyed crops in the 1970s and prices rose sharply, boycotts were launched in Europe and the US. Coffee smuggling became rampant, and bulk coffee shipments became a frequent target of theft.
     At the end of the Cold War, the United States abruptly withdrew from the coffee “cartel,” the organization fell apart, and coffee prices plummeted. For the last several years, the price paid to producers for coffee has remained well below one US dollar a pound. In real terms, this is a quarter of what is was in 1960, and lower still than it was during the 1970s and 1980s. In the absence of price controls, the percentage of the coffee market’s overall value going to producer
Encouraged by international institutions poor countries entered the coffee-growing business, only to find the market glutted five years later when the trees reached maturity. countries has fallen from 30 percent to less than 10 percent.
     Making matters worse, the global market has been flooded with new beans in recent years. Encouraged by international institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and big business interests, poor countries entered the coffee-growing business, only to find the market glutted five years later when the trees reached maturity. In the most dramatic shift, Vietnam rose from nowhere to briefly become the world’s largest coffee producer in the 1990s.
     What’s perhaps most troubling about coffee in the age of globalization is that the industry itself isn’t in crisis: indeed, the “big four” international coffee roasters — Nestlé, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee — continue to make enormous profits. Although these companies guard their numbers closely, it’s widely estimated that their coffee profits fall in the 20-to-30-percent range — far above the
profit margin for any other food or beverage.
     A movement for socially responsible “fair trade” coffee has made strides in recent years. Coffee marketed as “fair trade” is bought from small grower cooperatives at a minimum price of $1.26 per pound — about twice the commodity’s going rate. But although such powerhouses as Procter & Gamble and Starbucks have begun selling fair-trade coffee, it remains a niche market, accounting for an average of two percent of coffee consumed in developed markets.
     Meanwhile, desperate farmers in some countries are turning elsewhere. The conditions that make Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia well suited to coffee also nurture another popular crop: coca. And so some growers have given up on coffee, putting their faith in cocaine instead. In Ethiopia, where it all began, farmers are instead growing khat, an addictive, semi-narcotic leaf, chemically similar to an amphetamine.
It’s considered a casual, social drug, one that — perhaps this sounds familiar — invigorates and makes conversation flow more easily.  
Nueva Viscaya, Philippines
PHOTO BY Kat Palasi
Atok, Philippines
PHOTO BY Kat Palasi
Cairo
PHOTO BY Claudia Wiens
Milan
PHOTO BY F38F
Milan
PHOTO BY F38F
Bangalore, India
PHOTO BY Alok Johri
Bangalore, India
PHOTO BY Alok Johri
Bangalore, India
PHOTO BY Alok Johri
Bangalore, India
PHOTO BY Alok Johri
Bangalore, India
PHOTO BY Alok Johri
Manila, Philippines
PHOTO BY Kat Palasi
Cairo
PHOTO BY Claudia Wiens
An Afternoon
Coffee

by Valeria Parrella
Coffee-making is alchemy:
part water, part fire, part tradition,
and all the best intentions


I close my grandmother’s Neapolitan coffeemaker — her napoletana — with a twist. I keep it around for good days and for the worst days, both of which can stand slowing down. My grandmother doesn’t use it anymore. I do when I’m looking for the pleasure of its slowness.
     It’s the moka coffeepot, not the napoletana, that reigns supreme in Naples. A moka is easy to twist open and closed, as long as you keep the gasket clean by scraping it with the handle of a teaspoon. Just a little bit of water fills it up. The coffee brews in no time, unless the flame on the stove is downwind. Moka is a robust coffee, half a demitasse a person, that you drink standing up.
     And yet my grandmother is always talking about this napoletana; she’s been talking about it ever since she stopped using it. At first I was almost disgusted by the old coffeemaker — it seemed so folkloristic, like something out of the theater of Eduardo De Filippo. I had rejected it as somehow untrue, but now I spend a lot of time with it.
     The napoletana is made of two equal cylinders with a filter in the middle. It starts out upside down on the burner, and when the water boils, you turn off the heat and flip the whole contraption over. The boiling water drips through the filter, making coffee.
     Coffee like this takes time. It takes patience — the patience to listen, and the patience to sit through the trials and errors. This coffee seems more Arabian than Italian, the coffee of the Mediterranean, not of Middle Europe. Once the infusion is finished, the leftover grinds are dry and odorless;
the napoletana is made of two equal cylinders with a filter in the middle. It starts out upside down on the burner, and when the water boils, you turn off the heat and flip the whole contraption over. The boiling water drips through the filter, making coffee.
PHOTO BY Davies + Starr
there’s nothing to them. They represent everything that the stuttering, impatient moka is incapable of releasing from coffee.
     My grandmother and I sit across from each other, demitasses in hand — cups we’ll fill more than once as the afternoon goes by. My grandmother takes a little taste with the tip of her spoon. Now that she has diabetes, she always wants more sugar; now that she has diabetes, I put less in. She tells me that during the war it was impossible to find coffee in the city and that Mussolini encouraged Italians to fill their coffeemakers with sorrel instead.
     She tells me that a napoletana like this one would get all clogged up because it couldn’t take the double blend of ground sorrel, and meanwhile Grandfather would be off telling her all about some kind of miraculous accomplishment of the Italian military.
     “Margherita, the coffee!” he’d say, and Grandmother would appear, a rosy liquid in one hand and the clogged napoletana in the other.
     “Not even the coffeemaker will go along with this,” she explained.
     I like to imagine that the dictatorship might have fallen like that, over coffee, but the dictatorship didn’t fall.
     In my body, coffee is the law of the land.
     It’s a matter not of taste but of endurance. When I go abroad, I don’t stand on ceremony. It’s useless to order an espresso. I prefer to entrust myself to American coffee. I guzzle it down until my hands start shaking, until the caffeine receptors tell me I’ve had enough.
     Before meeting Bernard, I’d never thought of coffee as a drug. We were both on a foreign exchange program. I offered him some coffee, he passed me his mug, and I
In my body, coffee is
the law of
the land.
began to pour and then continued to pour because he didn’t move his mug away. He thought I was supposed to fill the cup to the top — as if it were barley, tea, or milk. I didn’t dare refuse him, and maybe I didn’t know his language well enough to engage in any kind of discussion about it. That’s how I ended up just watching while he finished off my Brazilian-Neapolitan-blend coffee and headed off to load another moka.
     In about seven or eight minutes, he started to feel ill, sweating and shaking all over. Fifteen minutes later, his heart rate was clocked at 140 beats per minute at the campus infirmary.
     “Coffee is a narcotic substance,” the doctor said to me, as if I had attempted to kill Bernard with my excessive politeness. You’ll have to explain that to my grandmother, I thought to myself.
     At the time, she’d start off her mornings by drinking
an entire pot of coffee, and then she would have more after lunch, and more in the middle of the afternoon; she kept on drinking, right up to the coffee she drank before going to bed.
     “It’s good for my digestion,” she’d say, and she weighed at least 45 pounds less than Bernard.
     But the difference doesn’t lie in which continent you’re on. Let’s say that at some point during the day, you know you want coffee and you know whether you want it from a bar or to make it yourself. Even in Naples, you can drink awful coffee — and you’re more likely to find it at the bar than at home. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether the espresso machine is one of those old-fashioned models with a lever or one with a button — as some might claim — because bad coffee, just like good coffee, is the product of an imprecise alchemy: the blend, how hard the water is, how much time has passed since the machine was turned on that
A moka is easy to twist open and closed, as long as you keep the gasket clean by scraping it with the handle of a teaspoon. Just a little bit of water fills it up. The coffee brews in no time, unless the flame on the stove is downwind. Moka is a robust coffee, half a demitasse a person, that you drink standing up.
PHOTO BY Davies + Starr
morning, the number of cups made in the machine before your coffee. A lot depends, in my opinion, on the genius of the barman. I have seen people stake out the entrance to a bar, waiting for the next shift so they can be assured their coffee’s been made by a barman they trust.
     In any case, it is possible to get terrible coffee in Naples, while in other parts of Italy, unpredictably, it can be excellent. The worst coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome, the best in Trieste.
     Now I’m leaving. My grandmother walks me to the door and says, perhaps as a reminder or perhaps in complete innocence, that sometimes she pours herself the whole pot, two cups worth — without thinking about it she sweetens the coffee directly in the moka, and then only after having poured it does she realize her mistake — and pours half of it back.
     She chalks it up to old age, more a sign of
distraction than of loneliness.
     I don’t know. The same thing happens to me.  













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