Coffee, Harbinger of Storms

June 15, 2008

Coffee RevolutionPosted by Chris O’Brien

(This post is a work in progress that will probably appear in some form in the forthcoming book being written by the three people who publish this blog. I welcome your feedback and specifically seek information about other ‘revolutions’ associated with coffee.)

Unlike water, which is found (in varying quantities) everywhere, and wine and beer which are brewed from native plants anywhere, coffee cultivation originated uniquely in one place: the western highlands of Ethiopia. Since its earliest cultivation outside this birthplace, coffee has followed or caused political upheaval.

In his 1935 classic, Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, H.E. Jacob called coffee the “harbinger of storms.” Antony Wild titled his 2004 book on beans, Coffee: A Dark History.

Why such sinister views on a matter as mundane as a mug of joe? As you’ll see, the story of coffee is tainted with terror and transgression. Revolutions have indeed been sown by the coming of coffee. The powerful and the impoverished have each been stirred to arms over the commerce of coffee.

One version of the coffee origin myth in Yemen attributes its unwelcome arrival to an Ethiopian invasion in 525 CE. Since then, coffee has come to cover the globe through conquest and trade. In 1517, Khair Bey, viceroy of Mecca, claimed coffee drinking “led to riots” and forbade its consumption. In 1537, residents of Cairo were prohibited from enjoying coffee in places of public entertainment. Charles II of England considered the coffee houses of London “hot beds of sedition and a breeding ground for subversive movements” and ordered them closed in 1675.

The drink even played a role in the American Revolution. In 1789, just after his swearing in oath, the triumphant first President of the United States, George Washington, was received by well-wishers at the Merchants coffee house in New York. But Merchants was more than a convenient place for a reception, it was also known by some as “the birthplace of the Union,” due to the role it served during the Revolution as a gathering place for plotting patriots.

Just months later, on July 12, 1789, French rabble-rouser Camille Desmoulins climbed atop a café table and goaded a Parisian coffeehouse crowd into storming the Bastille, thus touching off the French Revolution.

In America, the 1950s-60s saw the Beat Generation congregate in coffee houses, leading an artistic and intellectual revolution that contributed to the eventual overhaul of gender roles and restrictions, and assisted in the overthrow of the legal system of racial segregation, among many other dramatic changes provoked by a caffeine-fueled culture.

Today, coffee is at the heart of an indigenous people’s revolution in Mexico. It also makes its way into the marketing of specialty roasters such as Just Coffee, a company that even incorporates the notion into their slogan: “Not just a market but a movement.” Roasters like Just Coffee are, in fact, part of a larger and growing movement advocating radical changes in the rules of the global coffee trade.