Steven C Topik. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Coffee is a tree or bush that originated in Africa. It was first domesticated in Arabia, and massively consumed in Europe and North America. Later grown in Asia and Latin America, coffee, more than any other crop, has tied together the rich and the poor. Originally a luxury, coffee has become a necessity for consumer and producer alike and, in terms of value, is one of the leading internationally traded commodities today and probably has been the most important internationally traded agricultural product in history.

Coffee, however, has also been one of the most contradictory and controversial of crops. It has linked the religious and the secular, the archaic and the bourgeois, the proletarian and the intellectual, the enslaved and the free, the laborer and the dilettante. It has been accused of destroying societies, of perpetuating vice, and of undermining developing economies.


The first human consumption of coffee has been obscured by time. But legends abound, such as that of a ninth century A.D. Ethiopian goatherd who tasted the bitter berries that left his flock animated, or about Arab traders, and even Christian monks, who first recognized the virtues of coffee. Coffea arabica first appeared natively in Ethiopia, yet the berries went largely ignored before Arabs in Yemen used them to brew a drink. Although some Africans drank coffee made from fresh berries, others roasted it with melted butter, and in a few regions it was chewed without any preparation. However, no extensive local traditions of arabica berry usage developed (see Ukers 1948; Uribe 1954), and consequently, coffee became an exotic crop, growing far from its original home. Indeed, it was only in the twentieth century that African coffee production became substantial.

The mystical Shadhili Sufi, to the east of Ethiopia in Yemen, seem to have been among the first to embrace this wandering crop. They sought elixirs to produce visions granting access to the Godhead, and they also wished to remain awake during their long nighttime chanting rituals, in which they attempted to enter an ecstatic trance. Thus, from the beginning, coffee was employed as both a drug and a social drink. Early accounts, however, speak much more of its physical effects than its taste or efficacy in quenching thirst. A sheikh of the Sufi order who lived in the port town of Mocca in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century may have been the first to devise a technique for roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee beans.

It was in the mountains of northern Yemen that the arabica was first domesticated, and for two and a half centuries Yemen held a virtual world monopoly on coffee production. But it is interesting to note that in Yemen, many preferred to chew the beans or brew a tea with the husk of Coffea arabica, rather than use the beans, and to this day Yemenis do not drink much coffee. They prefer tea or chewing a shrub, khat, which not only fills coffee’s social role but occupies much of the land suitable for coffee cultivation.

By 1500, the beverage had become widespread on the Arabian peninsula (Hattox 1985;Wenner 1991), with the Sufi probably responsible for spreading coffee drinking to Cairo, Damascus, and Mecca. The drink had been integrated into Sufi rituals, and other Muslims also adopted it into their worship. In Cairo, coffee drinking was concentrated in the square by the mosque. By 1510, we have reports of people drinking coffee in Mecca’s Sacred Mosque itself.

The beverage became associated with Mohammed’s birthday and was commonly drunk at night during the monthlong fast of Ramadan. Indeed, various legends ascribed coffee’s origins to Mohammed, who, through the Archangel Gabriel, gave it to the world to replace the wine that Islam forbade. Certainly, Muslims were instrumental in spreading the beverage throughout the Islamic world as far as India and Indonesia, as the religious brought beans back from their pilgrimages to Mecca (Becker, Hoehfeld, and Kopp 1979).

Coffee was also intimately related to the growth of secular society. The Sufi were not full-time mystics, and as ordinary tradespeople during the day, they spread their taste for the drink to the business world. Its name probably comes from the Arabic qahwah—an epithet for “wine”—indicating a replacement of the forbidden alcoholic beverage. Indeed, although coffee grows wild in the region of Ethiopia known as Kaffa, the place is not the origin of its name, just as the coffee “bean” is not a bean but more like a cherry pit. Its name is a corruption of the Arabic for the arabica plant, bunn.

As already noted, the thick, dark, hot beverage became popular probably more because of its physical effects and the sociability it encouraged than because of its taste, although its reputed medicinal properties, said to cure mange, may have increased its appeal. But despite the fact that sugar had been grown in the Middle East for hundreds of years before coffee’s arrival, it was not added to the brew. Neither was milk, which was blamed for causing leprosy when combined with qahwah. In fact, cardamom was the only spice added with any frequency, although in some disreputable quarters, opium and hashish apparently were also stirred in. The fact that coffee grounds must have boiling water poured over them to impart their flavor probably added to the drink’s attractiveness. In an era before safe water supplies, boiling was the one sure method of insuring purity.

Probably the technology of coffee making—roasting and grinding the beans and boiling water—caused the beverage, more than almost any other commodity, to be associated with a site. The café was born in the Middle East, and in many cultures that subsequently adopted the beverage, the word for the site and the beverage became the same. R. Hattox (1985) suggests that early merchants, such as two Syrians who introduced coffee from Egypt to Istanbul in 1555, used the coffeehouse as a marketing device. To acquaint new consumers with the beverage, it had to be presented to them hot and correctly brewed. Consequently, these Syrian merchants and many others from the Levant who opened cafés found, in the process, an unoccupied niche in Middle Eastern society. Restaurants were almost unknown, and taverns were forbidden to Muslims. Hence, coffeehouses became one of the few secular public places in Muslim lands where men could congregate with other nonfamily members.

Cafés offered one of the only social possibilities for nightlife. They were an inexpensive place to offer friends entertainment and hospitality, playing an important role in the commodification of what previously had been largely private, domestic functions. Men read, listened to stories and music, watched puppet shows, played backgammon and chess, gambled, and sometimes solicited prostitutes. Such an ambience also led to conversations on forbidden subjects.

The cafés catered to a wide range of clients, sometimes mixing men of various classes. Although some cafés were little more than stalls in the marketplace, others were virtual pleasure palaces. Said the French traveler Philippe Dufour in 1685: “All the cafes of Damascus are beautiful—many fountains, nearby rivers, in tree-shaded spots with roses and other flowers” (Hattox 1985: 81). But because coffeehouses in Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, and Algiers quickly became centers of political intrigue and fleshly vice (Carlier 1990), government officials soon reacted, and as early as 1511, they burned bags of coffee in the streets of Mecca.

Although some medical authorities claimed that the arabica’s cold and dry humors created melancholy and, more seriously, transgressed the laws of Islam by intoxicating its users, these arguments never carried much weight. It was the politically subversive possibilities of the coffeehouse that most worried Middle Eastern rulers. Thus, the Turkish grand vizier was sufficiently concerned about the political effects of the 600 coffeehouses in Istanbul that he decreed that the punishment for operating a coffeehouse was cudgeling; for a second offense, the perpetrator was sewn into a leather bag and thrown into the Bosporus.

Even these draconian measures proved ineffectual, however, and Turkish coffee became famous as the generic name for a certain thick brew in which the grinds were mixed directly into boiling water in small increments, often 10 to 12 times. The Middle East and Southeast Asia were the world’s principal coffee drinking areas until roughly the middle of the eighteenth century. But ironically, today the Turks produce and consume virtually no coffee.

European Consumption

The increasing popularity of coffee in seventeenth-century Europe paralleled the emergence of commercial capitalism. The Middle Eastern bean, fostered by the ascetic Sufi to free themselves from worldly matters, evolved into a Western capitalist commodity. Coffee reached Europe via trade, diplomacy, war, and immigration. Venetian traders, with their command of Mediterranean commerce, introduced it into southern Europe. The Dutch, who superseded them in the Orient, were even more important in spreading the arabica.

At first, coffee was regarded in Europe as a medicinal drug that could cure sore eyes, dropsy, gout, and scurvy. Its social role and prestige, however, were considerably enhanced in 1665 and 1666 by the arrival in France of emissaries of the Ottoman sultan who poured the exotic liquor for their aristocratic European guests during extravagant soirees (Leclant 1979; Heise 1987).

According to Austrian lore, coffee first became a drink Europeans found palatable when bags of it were left behind by the Ottoman Turks after their 1683 siege of Vienna failed to break the Austrians’ spirit. These spoils of war not only uplifted Viennese spirits but also helped transform coffee from medicine into a leisure drink when the owner of the first Viennese coffeehouse, Georg Kolshitsky, thought to remove the sediment from Turkish coffee and add honey and milk. Elsewhere in Europe, Armenians, Greeks, Lebanese, and other Christian traders from the Levant spread knowledge of the beverage. Southern and central Europeans devised many of the most popular ways of brewing, roasting, and mixing coffee: Espresso, cappuccino, café au lait, and French and Vienna roasts are still familiar terms today.

Yet it was the northern Europeans who became the greatest consumers. In England, coffee was closely tied to the academic community from the beginning: The country’s first coffeehouse seems to have been one opened in Oxford in 1637 by a Greek merchant. But soon London merchants were also imbibing the potion in coffeehouses, such as Jonathan’s and Garraway’s (which served for three-quarters of a century as England’s main stock exchanges), the Virginia, the Baltic (which doubled as the mercantile shipping exchange), and Lloyd’s Café (which became the world’s largest insurance company). In addition to serving as commercial houses and office buildings, coffeehouses became “penny universities” that disseminated the latest news, reading libraries, and the first men’s clubs.

Such social areas outside of the home and the court helped stimulate business but also outraged wives. They resented their husbands’ addiction to the dark, noisy coffeehouses and the black and nauseous liquid that allegedly caused impotence. Their complaint, which was echoed in other corners of Europe, was in striking contrast to the mullahs’ fears that coffee stimulated carnal desires. Charles II, concerned more with café patrons’ political discussions than their familial responsibilities, tried unsuccessfully to close down the coffeehouses. It would take the rise of the East India Company, the Indian colonies, and high taxes on coffee to convert Britain to a tea-consuming country (Ellis 1956; Bramah 1972).

On the Continent, cafés symbolized and served the beneficiaries of capitalist prosperity who constituted the new leisure class, although debates continued to rage over the brew’s medicinal properties. In the best scientific tradition, Sweden’s Gustav III reputedly commuted the death sentences of twin brothers convicted of murder on the condition that one be given only tea to drink and the other coffee. The tea drinker died first—at age 83—and Sweden became the world’s most ardent coffee-consuming nation, with its citizens drinking five cups per person per day by 1975. In 1992, most of the 10 leading coffee-consuming nations on a per capita basis were still in northern Europe: The 10 were (in order) Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, and Belgium (United States Department of Agriculture 1993).

The eighteenth-century mercantilist policies of tax-hungry kings posed another kind of threat to coffee drinkers. Frederick the Great, for example, was less open-minded than King Gustav and less concerned with his subjects’ health than with their political proclivities and the balance of trade. He consequently sought to prevent commoners from drinking the brew by making it a royal monopoly. Although he failed, the high import duties in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries restricted consumption to the relatively affluent in major cities. The same was true in France and Austria (Heise 1987) and in Switzerland, between 1756 and 1822, there were five different decrees prohibiting coffee importation.

Cafés prospered in the capitals, however. Their great popularity in Paris served to distinguish the elite from their social inferiors, who bought their coffee in the marketplace. The coffeehouse denizens constituted an elite of achievement, a bourgeois elite. Coffee’s great virtue, in contradistinction to alcohol, was that it stimulated the body while clearing the mind. Intellectuals now had discussions rather than orgies, and some coffeehouses, such as the Procope in Paris, served as centers of intellectual and artistic life where such men as Voltaire skewered aristocratic foibles.

The Café Heinrichhof in Vienna inspired Johannes Brahms and other great composers, as well as merchants who preferred the sound of money. Other coffeehouses (such as this author’s grandmother’s Café Mozart in Vienna) hosted cards and billiards and other such less-inspired diversions. The leisure of the coffee-house was serious business.

Coffeehouses were also intimately involved in the birth of civil society and the democratization of semi-feudal aristocracies. Thus, it was in Paris’s Café Foy that on July 13, 1789, Camille Desmoulins planned the assault on the Bastille that ushered in a new political age (Oliveira 1984). It is perhaps ironic that his action would also set into motion events that destroyed the coffee plantations of the world’s greatest coffee producer, the French colony of St. Domingue (today Haiti).

Coffeehouses continued to be associated with subversion in the nineteenth century. Preparations for the 1848 revolutions were made in the coffeehouses of Berlin, Budapest, and Venice. In France, one of the first responses to threatened revolt was to close down the cafés (Barrows 1991). Ulla Heise (1987) argues, however, that although émigrés continued to plot in cafés after 1850, the coffeehouses lost their revolutionary association. Revolution became more proletarian, and workers tended to frequent taverns, bars, and winehouses. S. Barrows, on the other hand, credits the declining political radicalism of the coffee-houses to the rise of newspapers, music halls, and other places for association.

If coffee in Europe was a part of the middle class’s struggle for democracy, coffee itself became increasingly democratized. Although taxes kept the price high, coffee became the breakfast beverage of choice for the Continent’s urban working class. To compensate for the high prices, the poor often drank coffee substitutes rather than the arabica (in Germany, Kaffee can refer to any number of beverages; the arabica or robusta is called Bohnenkaffee).

United States Consumption

As clanging factories gave birth to the industrial age, coffee came to represent labor as well as leisure. North American thirst was instrumental in making coffee a mass consumer product, a drug to prop up the drooping eyelids and awaken the flagging consciousness of an army of laborers. But this could occur only after they had abandoned tea. The citizens of the original 13 British colonies were tea drinkers, in part at least because British taxation and transport policies had made the arabica inaccessible to all but the rich. There were a few coffeehouses, such as Boston’s Green Dragon, which Daniel Webster called the “headquarters of the revolution,” and The Merchant’s Coffeehouse in New York, also associated with the independence movement. But the taverns—which doubled as courtrooms and public meeting halls—were by far the favorite drinking spots in colonial times, although even those were little frequented because of the rural (and in places puritanical) nature of settlements.

United States coffee consumption in 1783 was only one-eighteenth of a pound per capita a year. By the 1830s, however, North Americans had cast aside tea for coffee, and by midcentury they were each drinking more than five pounds a year. Although the 1765 Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party certainly dampened enthusiasm for tea, commerce and demography were probably more responsible for transforming the United States into the world’s greatest coffee market. Resistance to the British East India Company was bolstered by the proximity of the French coffee-producing colonies of St. Domingue (Haiti) and Martinique and, later, Portuguese Brazil.

After independence, Americans were free to trade with these colonies, supplying them with slaves and naval stores in exchange for coffee. Thus, New England merchants introduced coffee into North America in relatively large volume. The price of coffee fell from 18 shillings per pound in 1683 to 9 shillings in 1774 to just 1 shilling in 1783. Such lower prices naturally expanded demand, and government policy further aided the transformation as import taxes on the beans were first lowered and then abolished in 1832. Resumed during the Civil War, they were definitively abolished in 1872.

The absence of a coffeehouse culture in the United States meant that the beverage’s popularity was not associated with political subversion as it was in the Middle East and Europe, and its consumption could be encouraged with no political danger. The flood of northern European immigrants from coffee-drinking countries probably also contributed to the shift from tea. Soon coffee drinking became entrenched as a social institution, and annual per capita consumption ballooned from under one pound at independence to nine pounds by 1882.

Nonetheless, it took time for the coffee trade in the United States to become institutionalized. It was originally specialized and artisanal; U.S. importers became involved only after the green beans reached New York. There, they sold them to wholesalers who, in turn, peddled them to thousands of retailers. As in Europe, there was no brand identity early on, with each grocer selling his own blends. But to a much greater extent than Europeans with their cafés, nineteenth-century North Americans bought beans in bulk at the grocers and roasted them at home.

This habit gave the housewife discretion over coffee purchases. Unlike her British sisters, who denounced coffee because of coffeehouses, the North American wife was the one who bought coffee; and brewing a good cup of coffee was often a measure of wifely abilities as a “homemaker.” Consequently, in contrast to the customs in the Middle East or Europe, coffee merchandising in the United States became much more oriented to women than men. Arbuckle’s 1872 advertisement, the first handbill in color for coffee, shows two women by the kitchen stove, the first complaining “Oh, I have burnt my coffee again,” and the second counseling “Buy Arbuckle’s Roasted, as I do, and you will have no trouble” (Ukers 1935: 451).

In fact, because so much coffee was purchased at the grocery store, where product differentiation was accentuated (rather than at the café where there was much less variety and brand was not displayed), coffee brand identification first arose in the United States. This was achieved through great efforts to create brand loyalty, although instead of market segmentation and differentiation, there was a tendency toward homogenization.

Today, to attract women to its brands, General Foods, one of the largest coffee merchandisers in the world, brings together hundreds of women in focus groups each year and sends out thousands of questionnaires. The coffee market is still female-oriented in the United States, as is demonstrated by the tendency to employ women in televised coffee advertisements.

Before brand loyalty, however, there came new technology to improve the quality and marketing of coffee. In the nineteenth century, because of fairly primitive transportation and packaging techniques, the quality of coffee once it reached a Cincinnati or an Omaha was fairly poor. Consequently, consumers in such areas had a different idea of how coffee should taste than consumers do today. Some brewed it with an egg to give the drink a rich yellow color. It was also popular to add the uncooked skin of a mild codfish to the pot. In the western states, coffee was put in a saucepan and simmered for two to three hours and reheated as necessary. Mass-consumed coffee was not necessarily good coffee, but the cowboy huddled around the campfire was not a demanding gourmet. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that importers were slow to improve the quality of the coffee they sold. Roasted coffee could not be widely marketed because it lost its taste, and ground roasted beans lost flavor much more quickly. The green bean, on the other hand, could be stored for months or years without harm.

The demand for improved and standardized coffee probably derived in large part from improved transportation, roasting, grinding, and brewing technologies. Although green beans traveled well, they were frequently damaged during long sea voyages aboard sailing ships. Merchant efforts to dye damaged beans with rust, or indigo, or beef blood, or to glaze them with eggs improved their appearance, but not their flavor. Nor did the practice of roasting impaired beans with cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, and onions help much. In addition, coffee grinders did not have sufficiently sharp blades to grind the beans finely, and using mortar and pestle was a laborious business. Consequently, grinds had to remain in contact with water longer to impart their flavor, which had the drawback of creating a bitter brew: Tannin, which causes the bitter taste, begins to be extracted from the grinds about 45 seconds after contact with hot water. And finally, coffeepots were primitive. Before the invention in 1800 of a kind of percolator with a built-in filter, most people simply threw grounds into water, much as with tea.

Many of these difficulties in brewing good coffee were resolved somewhat in the nineteenth century. Railroads sped coffee from the fields to ports where the rapid and relatively large steamships that replaced sailing ships spared the green beans ocean damage. Improved control was achieved over oven temperatures, allowing for more regular roasting by, for example, the spherical roaster invented by an Austrian, Max Bode, in 1851, and the pull-out roaster produced by a New Yorker, Jabez Burns, in 1864. Better grinders, producing finer and more even grounds, were also invented, and a welter of coffeepots were mass-produced. The first predictable pumping percolator, patented in France in 1827, became the most popular North American pot in the first half of the twentieth century. Drip pots were improved with the invention of the disposable filter in 1907 (the prototype, which was cut from an ink blotter, was a considerable improvement over the previous horsehair filters). These pots were more popular in Europe, as was the espresso pot, first designed in 1837. Such pots were true monuments to the industrial age with its drawbacks and its charms. Espresso pots sometimes exploded. But if they did not, they could do a host of other things (Bersten 1993). One pressure pot also boiled eggs. The Armstong Perc-O-Toaster toasted bread and baked waffles while it perked coffee (Panati 1987).

Improvements in technology led to standardization, and eventually, to a wholesaling oligopoly in the United States. Whereas the French concentrated on devising new pots to improve the quality of brewing for the refined palate, North Americans focused on roasting, packaging, and marketing to reach the mass market. The first packaged roasted coffee was “Osborn’s Celebrated Prepared Java Coffee,” which appeared in 1860. The first brand to enjoy a national market was “Arbuckle’s Ariosa,” beginning in 1873. Sales of packaged coffees, however, were slow to replace those of green coffee beans until 1900, when Edwin Norton invented vacuum packing, which allowed roasted, ground coffee to retain its flavor. In 1903, Hills Brothers was the first company to commercially employ the process (Ukers 1935; Uribe 1954).

The ability to preserve roasted coffee in vacuum packages allowed a few national brands to dominate the trade in the United States. (Europeans were much slower to buy canned coffee, preferring beans and cafés). North American firms began to integrate vertically, with the A & P grocery chain in the forefront, even to the extent of stationing buying agents in the interior of Brazil, as well as importing, roasting, packing, and retailing its own brand. Still, many smaller brands and wholesale grocers persisted. In 1923 there were 1,500 roasters and 4,000 wholesale coffee grocers in the United States (Ukers 1930).

The market power of a relatively small number of powerful wholesalers combined with U.S. government policy to create standardization. Since its inception, the wholesale market had been completely unregulated and subject to rampant speculation and fraud. Many traders mixed together a number of coffee qualities, adulterated the mix with chicory and grains, and then called it “Mocca” or “Java.” (The name “mocca” derived from Yemen’s main port and stood for authentic coffee, not a combination of chocolate and coffee as it does today.) In the 1860s, a typical 122-pound bag of “Java” coffee arrived from Jamaica with about 5 pounds of sticks and stones added to it.

The freewheeling coffee market began to change in 1874 when a submarine cable tied South America to New York and London by telegraph. Information about prices and demand and supply became internationally homogeneous. The establishment, in 1882, of the New York Coffee Exchange, which was instituted to prevent commercial corners from driving up prices (as had happened in 1880), institutionalized access to information, and Le Havre, Hamburg, and London followed with their own major coffee exchanges. Prices and grades thereby became more generalized, and coffee became more purely a commodity as well, in the sense that coffee shipments were now bought and sold on the market floor without the buyer actually seeing the lot in question.

Until the early twentieth century, professionals would judge a sample bean’s quality on its color, size, shape, and shine. Later, taste tests were instituted to check aroma, body, bitterness, and richness. Coffees became commodities possessing a bundle of specific, graded attributes. Indeed, with the advent of futures, buyers purchased coffee not yet blossoming on distant trees. By 1880, merchants were already buying an idea, rather than palpable beans: In that year there were 61 million bags bought and sold on the Hamburg futures market when the entire world harvest was less than 7 million bags!

Grinding did not become standardized until 1948 when the National Bureau of Standards of the Department of Commerce issued guidelines for three categories of grind—regular, drip, and fine—which most U.S. producers still follow. Much earlier, however, the Pure Food and Drug Act had decreed in 1907 that imported coffee be marked according to its port of exit. Thus “Santos” became a specific type of coffee, as did “Java” or “Mocca.” There were more than a hundred different types of coffee imported into the United States, representing the greatest variety in the world. Importers were now less able to adulterate and defraud buyers.

The buyers, in turn, became more conscious of the quality of their coffee as they were able to buy professionally and uniformly roasted beans. The almost 4 million pamphlets issued by the National Coffee Roasters’ Association at the beginning of the twentieth century in a campaign to educate housewives in proper brewing techniques apparently paid dividends. North American per capita consumption almost doubled between 1880 and 1920 to 16 pounds per capita. The growth of cities and factories accelerated the trend. No longer primarily the beverage of spiritual contemplation, commerce, or leisure, coffee became the alarm clock that marked industrial time. North American coffee imports swelled almost ninetyfold in the nineteenth century.

Temperance societies in the United States and Europe began to promote coffee and coffeehouses as the antidote to the alcoholism of the saloon, which was quite an ironic shift from the Islamic mullahs’ fear of the brew’s intoxicating effects. A sign in one Christian café read: “Coffee-house—God’s house; Brandy shop—Devil’s drop” (Heise 1987: 227). But there seems to have been no close relationship between coffee and alcohol. Coffee consumption did not suddenly increase in the United States with the onset of Prohibition, nor did consumption sharply drop with the relegalization of alcohol.

In another ironic twist, at the same time that the prohibitionists were singing coffee’s praises, makers of cereal-based beverages launched an expensive attack on coffee’s harmful properties. Coffee producers responded with an even more expensive defense of their drink. These mass-media campaigns encouraged the oligopolization of the market, and in 1933 just two companies, Standard Brands and General Foods, accounted for half of coffee’s $6 million outlay to advertise coffee on the radio.

Despite the “many bugaboos raised by the cereal sinners,” coffee became increasingly linked to sociability as ever more was drunk in public places (Ukers 1935: 477).The twentieth century saw the rise of the coffee shop and the cafeteria. Workers, especially white-collar workers needing to pause from their labor and socialize with their colleagues, took coffee breaks. Indeed, the beverage became embedded in popular speech.”Let’s have a cup of coffee” came to mean “let’s have a conversation.”

Restaurants began using coffee to attract customers by keeping the price low and offering unlimited refills. (Iced tea was the only other beverage to be given this privileged status until the recent inclusion of soft drinks). Grocery stores often employed coffee as a loss leader to bring in shoppers, and when in the middle 1970s prices rose steeply, many grocers absorbed the higher price rather than alienate their customers. Because of its strong connection with sociability, its tendency to addict consumers, the medicinal effect of its caffeine, and the small number of substitutes, coffee has come to be viewed as a necessity more than almost any other food or beverage (Lucier 1988; Oldenburg 1989).

The growth of the vast U.S. market for coffee and the beverage’s privileged social function led to the expansion both vertically and horizontally of a few companies creating an oligopoly. Today three companies—General Foods, Proctor and Gamble, and Nestlé (which also dominates much of the international market)—are responsible for 80 percent of the U.S. coffee market. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to promote their brands, yet paradoxically, the price and profit levels of coffee remain low, despite the drink’s status as a necessity, even a drug, for which the taste is perhaps less important than the effect it produces and the price it commands.

In recent years, however, specialty coffee beans, sold mostly by small companies and cafés, have challenged the conventional wisdom that North American consumers are unwilling to pay a high price for good coffee. Gourmet coffees, offered by creators who stress their national origins, the roast employed, and sometimes the flavorings added, have collectively become the only sector of the U.S. coffee market that is growing. They tend to appeal to younger, more affluent buyers for whom gourmet coffee is more a status symbol or a declaration of one’s lifestyle than it is a necessity.

Yet even before the rise in the popularity of gourmet coffee, roasters had sought ways of expanding the mass market. After many attempts, the first commercially successful dried coffee was produced in 1906 by a North American chemist residing in Guatemala. But it attracted few drinkers until World War II when it was included in soldiers’ rations, and since that time the market for instant coffee has grown substantially. By the 1960s, as much as one-third of home-prepared coffee was instant soluble. Its ease of preparation helped expand consumption but undermined quality because instant coffee utilizes mostly robusta coffee, which is a faster-growing but more bitter species than the arabica. As with gourmet beans, since the 1980s there has been a trend toward adding other flavorings to soluble coffee to produce specialty drinks that resemble, to name a few, Irish coffee or cappuccino.

Another major innovation has been decaffeinated coffee. It was developed in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century by Ludwig Roselius, a sworn enemy of caffeine, which he blamed for his father’s death. In Roselius’s original process, green coffee was steamed and then soaked in a chlorinated organic solvent. Other processes have subsequently been developed, some involving the breeding of coffee trees with low caffeine yields. As coffee has come under attack for contributing to cardiac problems, decaffeinated consumption has soared.

The medical community is divided on the effects of coffee drinking. There are certainly beneficial effects, and the brew is sometimes prescribed in the treatment of barbiturate poisoning, migraines, chronic asthma, and autism in children. That heart ailments may be a negative effect is strongly debated, with each side marshaling impressive evidence. It seems clear that coffee’s physical effects vary greatly, depending on the consumer. One study has concluded that for about 14 percent of the population, caffeine dependence produces a physical addiction similar to an addiction to alcohol or cocaine.

Such controversy over the ill effects of coffee helped drive down per capita consumption in the United States from its peak of 3.2 cups per day in the 1960s to 1.8 cups in 1993. Still, health concerns alone cannot explain this retreat because consumption of two other beverages with caffeine—soft drinks and tea—has grown since 1970, with soft drinks more than doubling in per capita consumption to reach almost 40 percent of all beverages consumed. By contrast, milk consumption has declined and that of juices has remained flat (United States Department of Agriculture 1993). No doubt advertising and packaging have had a substantial impact, and it is the case that soft drinks and bottled water (another rapidly growing beverage) require no preparation.

Numerous coffee companies rose to the challenge to compete directly with soft drinks by creating new products, such as prebrewed coffee, bottled iced coffee, and iced cappuccino. This seemed to be the logical terminus of a century-long process in which the activities of roasting, grinding, and brewing, formerly done in the home, became industrialized.

Yet there is a countertrend as well in the growing gourmet market. The swelling army of connoisseurs who want to make American coffee “a national honor,” to borrow the words of coffee expert W. Ukers written decades ago (1935; 570), rather than a “national disgrace” are buying a great variety of specialty roasted beans and grinding them at home. Specialty coffeepots and espresso makers also constitute a booming market.

Coffee Drinking in the World

In other parts of the world, the popularity of coffee is at least being sustained or is on the increase. Coffee-producing countries have increased their share of consumption from less than 10 percent of production at the end of the nineteenth century to about one-quarter by the end of the twentieth century. Among coffee growers, Costa Ricans have the greatest taste for their own beans, and Brazilians are second. But even in these nations, per capita consumption is well under one-half that of northern European countries. Africans, except for Ethiopians, consume almost none of the beans they produce. Coffee is still very much a commodity consumed in rich countries and produced by poor ones, and per capita consumption is closely correlated to the wealth of consuming nations. It is also negatively correlated to an ability to grow arabica bushes or to historic ties to the trade (United States Department of Agriculture 1993). Few of the countries earliest involved in coffee’s history—Yemen, Turkey, Indonesia, Haiti, or Martinique—are significant consumers, and in Europe, those with the oldest ties to the coffee trade—Greece, Portugal, Italy, and the United Kingdom—are among the lowest consumers. On the other hand, countries in Asia with no historic connection with the arabica—Japan, Korea, and Singapore—are rapidly increasing per capita coffee drinking as incomes climb. In 1992, Japan was the fourth largest coffee importer in the world. In mainland China, the arabica is making inroads not as a proletarian beverage but as a bourgeois one.

Worldwide, the human race drank about 380 billion cups of coffee in 19911 or about 76 cups for each man, woman, and child on the planet. Clearly, the exotic drink that Yemenis first tasted nearly 600 years ago has assumed a position of some considerable global importance.

Production in Arabia

Despite the fact that Coffea arabica grew wild in Ethiopia and Coffea robusta appeared naturally in the Congo, Yemen had a virtual world monopoly on production for about half of coffee’s 600 years of lifetime as a commodity. Stern measures were taken to prevent the smuggling out of coffee plants, and although this move was not entirely successful—there are reports of coffee growing on India’s Malabar coast and perhaps Ceylon in the sixteenth century—Yemen’s grip remained firm until the middle of the eighteenth century. In the early part of that century, Yemen may have been producing some 20 million pounds a year (Raymond 1973-4; Becker et al. 1979).

The beans were grown in small, irrigated mountain gardens in various small, broken areas of northern Yemen, then transported by camel either to port or across the deserts (Daum 1988).The entire crop was consumed in the Middle East and Southwest Asia until the middle of the seventeenth century, and even thereafter, the East remained the main market for another hundred years.

Europeans initially purchased Yemen’s coffee through Arabian traders. The Dutch and British East India Companies eventually established factors in Mocca, but they still exercised no control over production and had to make purchases with gold and silver because the Arabs much preferred Asian trade goods to European products. Another drawback was that such wealth attracted pirates, often based in Madagascar. Not satisfied with this precarious trade in a product whose value was growing vertiginously, the Europeans smuggled out coffee plants to begin production elsewhere. This decision ultimately spread the Arabian bean to more than 100 countries on 4 continents. Yemen soon became an inconsequential coffee producer, and the thriving coffee port of Mocca, which probably had more than 30,000 inhabitants at its height, dwindled to 400 stragglers living amidst its ruins in 1901.

Production in Asia

More than any other commodity, coffee was produced in poor colonies and countries for the enjoyment of those in rich countries. But, as we have seen, the Europeans who created coffee colonies (the Dutch, British, French, and Portuguese) were not the ones who consumed the most coffee on a per capita basis. Coffee was not only an export crop but a reexport crop.

In 1690, the Dutch introduced the coffee bush to Java, where their colonial might was soon employed to force peasants to labor on coffee plantations. Others were compelled to grow trees on village lands and give over shares or to sell at fixed low prices to government agents. Although clearly a coercive system, it relied on traditional local power relations and peasant agriculture to extract profit. Technology was primitive and yields low. But costs, for the Dutch, were even lower; so profits were high. The Javanese, however, experienced little capital accumulation or economic development (Kok 1864; Geertz 1971). A different kind of labor system was employed on the tiny island of Bourbon (renamed Reunion), lying southwest of Madagascar, where French colonists forced African slaves to grow coffee. In the eighteenth century, the island became one of the world’s largest coffee producers.

Throughout Asia, coffee growing was a colonial enterprise as it continues to be in Papua New Guinea (Stewart 1992). Dutch and British East Indian colonies were among the world’s leading producers until the last part of the nineteenth century when a fungus devastated coffee fields. And disease has plagued coffee growers the world over because “coffee is one of the tropical plants most susceptible to diseases and insect attacks which may destroy whole plantations” (International Institute of Agriculture 1947: 22).

Many East Indian plantations turned to tea or rubber, and where coffee maintained its hold, as in Sumatra, it was mostly the robusta, rather than the disease-plagued arabica, that was grown on peasant plots. Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, and the Philippines were also major coffee producers into the nineteenth century, but were overwhelmed by Latin American production in the twentieth century.

Production in the Caribbean

The Dutch, who brought some arabica trees to Amsterdam’s botanical garden, assisted coffee in its move westward by planting it in Surinam; later some seedlings were transported to Brazil. Another early Dutch contribution to the dissemination of coffee in the Americas was even more circuitous. An arabica tree, given by the mayor of Amsterdam to Louis XIV, was cultivated in Paris’s botanical garden. One of its seedlings, however, made its way to the Americas early in the eighteenth century when the Frenchman Gabriel de Clieu carried it across the Atlantic to a New World home in Martinique. From there it spread to St. Domingue (today Haiti) and later the mainland.

On St. Domingue, colonial production was perfected when slaves, already imported to grow sugar on the island, were also employed in the coffee fields. European consumption grew tenfold in the 50 years between 1739 and 1789, with French colonies supplying three-quarters of the total. In fact, relatively inexpensive Caribbean coffee was already displacing Yemeni beans even in the Cairo market, demonstrating, among other things, the competitive advantage of slave labor and plantation agriculture over the garden plots of Yemen and the peasant farms of Java. Nonetheless, the arabica remained a rather exceptional specialty product under mercantilism. In 1800, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Europeans consumed on average only about three-quarters of a pound per year.

By the end of that century, however, coffee had become the world’s third most important traded commodity in terms of value, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and its transformation of transportation systems and markets. Perhaps fittingly, it was also during the nineteenth century that coffee was grown for the first time on an industrial scale. This occurred in the fields of Latin America where, unfortunately, coffee helped to sustain slavery—even to resurrect it.

The slave revolution in St. Domingue severed the colonial tie with France, abolished slavery, gave birth to modern Haiti, and sent the island’s coffee economy into an irreversible decline. But rather than ending slavery, French and Spanish planters made Cuba the next great slave-operated coffee system. Its reign, however, was short-lived because the profitability of sugar overshadowed that of coffee. Meanwhile Brazilians, who were having difficulty competing with Cuban sugar, switched to coffee growing, and Brazil in the 1830s began a domination of world coffee production that has endured to this day. For most of the nineteenth century, Brazil owed that domination to the toil of slaves.


The transition from slave-based sugar to coffee growing in Brazil was natural, but not inevitable. An agricultural downturn during the first four decades of the nineteenth century propelled government officials, and even some planters, to reassess the newly independent country’s export orientation and reliance on human chattel. But a burst of European and North American demand for coffee redoubled reliance on the export economy and stimulated the craving for slaves; the planter elite, once again, confidently pronounced Brazil an “essentially agricultural country” and, more specifically stated, that Brazil was coffee, and coffee meant slaves. The rate at which Africans were landed in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia between 1800 and the abolition of the Atlantic trade in 1850 far surpassed that of any previous place or time. Brazil had been by far the largest importer of African bondsmen and was the last country of the Western world to abolish slavery when emancipation finally arrived in 1888 (Curtin 1969).

Contemporary critics complained that slavery was not only socially dangerous but was also delaying Brazil’s social, economic, and political development. Later, in the 1960s, a school of analysis known as “dependency theory” extended this critique. The coffee industry was accused of reinforcing slavery, which, in turn, had impeded the development of a domestic bourgeoisie, restricted commodity and capital markets, skewed wealth distribution, created an unfavorable view of manual labor, and fashioned a liberal oligarchic state that sold national sovereignty and progress in the bags of coffee shipped abroad (Frank 1969; Santos 1974). Indeed dependency theory maintained that not only slavery but also monocultural export economies in general had led to the underdevelopment of neo-colonies that were tied to the world economy.

A counter-argument, however, concedes that the dependistas were correct in their assessment insofar as the Paraíba Valley (parts of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro state, and São Paulo state) was concerned, but claims that they were wrong in the case of western São Paulo where coffee stimulated capitalist development (Amaral Lapa 1983).There, when emancipation became inevitable, planters turned to immigrant labor. Some 3 million southern Europeans emigrated to Brazil between 1880 and 1930, most of them headed toward São Paulo’s coffee fields.

These families of workers helped Paulista planters become agro-industrialists on a scale previously unknown in coffee cultivation. Indeed, Paulistas established some of the largest plantations (Fazendas) ever built anywhere, at any time. The Cambuhy Estate, for example, spread out over 250,000 acres on which almost 3 million trees were grown, with the whole tied together by 60 kilometers of private railroad track and 300 kilometers of roads.

These Paulista agro-industrialists directed some of their agricultural capital not only to urban real estate, public works, and government bonds but also to railroads, banks, and even factories. The fazendeiro was thus transformed from rentier to capitalist, from coffee baron to entrepreneur. He became the leading partner in what is generally acknowledged to be the most progressive national bourgeoisie in Latin America—indeed, one of the most entrepreneurial in the entire developing world. He industrialized São Paulo, and coffee was transformed from a colonial product to the foundation of the nation-state (Dean 1969; Cano 1977; Silva 1981; Levy 1987).

Albert Hirschman (1981) has argued that coffee had special advantages that encouraged the development of a national bourgeoisie and industrialization. He points out that the relative lack of forward and backward linkages, and the simple technology sufficient to grow and refine coffee without great capital requirements, may have stimulated entrepreneurial initiative by keeping foreigners restricted in their participation to the areas in which their comparative advantages lay, namely commerce and transportation. Thus, unlike petroleum, copper, or even sugar, the production and processing of coffee (except roasting and grinding) was done almost exclusively by nationals. Agricultural production profits remained within Latin America and because coffee did not demand great infusions of capital, planters were free to diversify into other areas.

The economic wealth of planters translated into political power which, when wielded to protect their own interests, led to a fundamental transformation of the liberal state and, ultimately, of the world market for coffee. Beginning with the valorization of coffee in 1906 through the creation of the Institute for the Permanent Defense of Coffee in the 1920s and, finally, the Departamento Nacional de Café in 1933, the Brazilian federal and state governments came to finance most of the world’s coffee trade and hold most of its visible stocks. Seven years later, one of the first international commodity cartels was established with the Inter-American Coffee Agreement. And in 1962, the rest of the world’s producers were brought under the umbrella in the International Coffee Agreement, which persisted until 1989.

Coffee set the precedent that other raw-material producers would later follow, including those of OPEC. It also transformed the state’s role in the domestic economy. By the end of the First Republic in 1930, the Brazilian state was responsible for much of the financing, warehousing, transportation, and sale of coffee and controlled one of the world’s largest commodity markets. Coffee, thus, carried Brazil from an archaic slavocratic social formation to state capitalism in half a century (Topik 1987), and the state played a similarly large economic role in most other coffee-producing countries.

Spanish-American Production

In other coffee-producing lands, large-scale plantations like those of Brazil were unusual even during the height of the export boom. In Venezuela, for example, despite a tradition of slave labor and haciendas, smaller-scale production eventually prevailed (Roseberry 1983). In Colombia, the eastern part of the country had a strong colonial tradition of peasants, with no slaves or latifundia, whereas in the west there had been both. The east was the leading growing area until the beginning of the twentieth century when western provinces, such as Cundinamarca and Antioquia, rapidly increased production. But in Cundinamarca, coffee was grown on shares; only in Antioquia were haciendas important social units, and there were also many small growers as well. Nationally, by 1932, 87 percent of all coffee farms had less than 5,000 trees (farmers usually placed 500 to 800 trees per acre), and 74 percent of all production came from farms of less than 20,000 trees, meaning less than 40 acres (Beyer 1947; Nieto Arteta 1971; Palacios 1980).

In Central America, coffee was also grown mostly on small and middle-size farms called fincas. Although Costa Rica was far from being a rural democracy (71 percent of the peasantry was landless in 1883) and land ownership was concentrated, even the biggest coffee plantations were often discontinuous and fragmented into a number of small or medium-size lots, sometimes several kilometers apart (Cardoso 1977: 175-6; Seligson 1980). In fact, even the “great estates” in Costa Rica were defined as anything over 76 acres, which in Brazil would scarcely have been considered a middle-sized holding.

Elsewhere in Central America, coffee estates were somewhat larger than in Costa Rica. Nicaragua did have some coffee haciendas, but they were neither numerous nor extensive. El Salvador, the most dependent of all countries on coffee, had a dynamic agrarian bourgeoisie with extremely efficient production techniques and concentrated land holdings. But production was intensive, not extensive as in Brazil. Eugenio Aguilar was considered a large, wealthy planter with two fincas that held 230,000 trees on less than 300 acres. But in Guatemala and southern Mexico, with larger frontier areas, there were substantially larger holdings. Many were spread over 5,000 acres in Guatemala, and in Tehuantepec, Mexico, there were several coffee estates with 1.5 million trees on some 20,000 acres (Lindo-Fuentes 1990).

Coffee estates, in general, were smaller in Colombia and Central America than in Brazil because of terrain and transportation problems, along with a shortage of capital and labor, the relative absence of a frontier, and the presence of people with preexisting land claims. To compensate for the higher production costs wrought by such problems, growers had to produce a better coffee that would command a higher price at market.

Higher-quality coffee required more labor-intensive harvesting. Shade trees had to be planted, and the berries were picked individually just as they ripened, in contrast to the procedure of stripping entire branches as was done in Brazil. Workers would sometimes have to pass the same tree six or seven times during the harvest instead of just once. Better quality also demanded the more sophisticated and expensive “wet” method of treating the berry.

While inspecting this method in Costa Rica, the Brazilian planter Jorge Dumont Villares marveled that the preparation of coffee was a “true science” there. The berries were picked, hulled, then left 24 to 40 hours to ferment. Next, they were washed to remove the outer membrane and dried for one or two days. From the drying grounds, the beans were taken to dryers where they were left for 25 to 35 hours to dry. The parchment film was then removed mechanically and the beans sorted by size, quality, and color. Finally, the beans were polished (Villares 1927). Producing high-quality coffee, then, demanded substantial capital and technical expertise, as well as abundant labor. The capital was provided more by mill owners than by growers.

The relationship between coffee and the kind of labor applied to it varied from country to country and changed over time. As noted, coffee reinforced slavery in the Caribbean and in Brazil, but slavery was not common elsewhere in Latin America where other coercive forms of labor were applied. Nonetheless, as we have tried to show, coffee, plantations, and slavery or forced labor were not necessarily linked, and coffee did not always yield a strong landlord class. Rather, in Costa Rica, for example, merchants and millers came to predominate because of the small-holding pattern, and elsewhere merchants also became the dominant class. In Colombia, most of the progressive planters were initially merchants, and only in such areas as Cundinamarca were traditional landlords the coffee growers. Many Nicaraguan finqueros were urban based, and the El Salvador coffee-grower class was largely composed of merchants and other urban-based capitalists who invested in land in the 1880s and 1890s as coffee prices rose. German merchants in Guatemala and Chiapas followed the same path.

In few cases was there much continuity between the colonial landed elite and the coffee bourgeoisie. In fact, many members of the coffee elite were nineteenth-century immigrants. Thus, it is a mistake to refer to the coffee growers of Central America and Colombia as Junkers or to discuss “landlord capitalism” as is often done (Winson 1989). Coffee was developed by a new bourgeois group that was not reluctant to invest in other sectors of the economy as well.

This does not mean that there was no resistance to the rule of coffee. In Guatemala, villagers frequently destroyed coffee fincas (Cambranes 1985). Peasants in western El Salvador, the center of coffee cultivation, in collaboration with the Communist party, attempted to overthrow the government in 1932. The result was at least 17,000 peasants dead in the gruesome massacre known simply as La Matanza (Anderson 1971; North 1985).

The willingness of coffee growers to use violence has often allowed the essence of their rule to continue while changing its appearance. Colombia never had a truly populist ruler; the traditional Liberals and Conservatives still share power. El Salvador and Guatemala have the most ferocious and brutal regimes of Central America, still overseen by descendants of the coffee elite. São Paulo was the last state to hold out against the populist leader Getúlio Vargas, even waging civil war against him in 1932.

Yet there has been change. São Paulo, for example, although its economy is now based on the cities and factories that coffee gave birth to rather than on the countryside, has become the home of Latin America’s largest socialist party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores. In Costa Rica, a revolution in 1949 brought to power a semiautonomous state that has presided over Latin America’s most vigorous democracy; and in Nicaragua, division among growers and a single family’s attempt to monopolize wealth led to the creation of the first truly socialist regime on the American mainland. In all of these cases, however, democratic trends began to grow only after coffee ceased to be the dominant export.

Socioeconomic Aspects and a Return to Africa

During the years 1850 to 1930, the world coffee market was fairly homogeneous, with the vast majority of the world’s coffee (as much as 95 percent) produced in Latin America. Although there are an estimated 50 different species of the genus Coffea, and a much greater number of small species or elementary hybrid-producing forms, over 90 percent of exports before World War II were of the same species, the arabica.

Such apparent uniformity, however, is a bit misleading. Because all coffee is cultivated outside of its natural habitat, under different methods and a wide range of natural conditions, the arabica is different on virtually each plantation (International Institute of Agriculture 1947: 19-20). Beans also differ from year to year. There are 10 generally recognized subspecies.

The international market divided coffee by port of exit and grade of the bean (determined by color, size, and degree of breakage). The main division in the world economy, however, was between “Brazils” and “milds”; the latter, produced in Colombia and Central America, began making inroads into the dominance of the former beginning in the 1920s, when Brazil’s coffee valorization program propped up the price of the stronger and more bitter “Brazils.” Different national crops also varied substantially according to the harvest season. But the time it took for beans to reach market was not of great consequence because they did not deteriorate over time (as, for example, apples, did) and importers maintained large stocks in the consuming countries to smooth the flow to market.

Despite such differences, the producing countries shared many similarities. They exported almost all of their crop to Europe and North America. And all used fairly similar cultivation techniques demanded by the arabica bush or “tree.” In order to increase yield and facilitate the harvest (done almost always by hand), the trees were topped in their third year and only allowed to grow to 6 to 16 feet, though in the wild they grow to 35 feet; hence they were often termed bushes rather than trees. The arabica grows best with deep, permeable, well-aerated soil and a minimum rainfall of 50 to 60 inches during germination (coffee lands in Latin America were almost never irrigated as they were in Yemen and Java). It also needs a long, dry season and mild climate, with the optimum temperature between 59 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Coffee-producing countries have also shared a secondary position in the industrialization of coffee. Since the consumers were in the rich countries, the retailing, wholesaling, roasting, grinding, and packaging were done in those countries. Growers were, thus, excluded from the most technologically sophisticated aspects of the production of coffee, from which the greatest innovations such as packaging, vacuum sealing, and soluble coffee emerged. These, along with roasting and advertising, have also constituted the most lucrative of the forward linkages. Thus the Santos price was at most half the New York retail price, and if the coffee were sold by the cup rather than the can, the additional labor cost and markup meant that as much as 90 percent of the value added was created in the consuming countries.

Today the supermarket price of standard roasted or ground coffee is 3 to 4 times the New York green price. Restaurants sell coffee by the cup for 6 to 10 times the retail bean price. And the specialty brands are even more expensive. Thus, upwards of three-quarters of the value is added in the consuming countries. The only dent in the consuming countries’ market command has been made by the increasing ability of some of the major exporting countries to produce and export soluble coffee.

For most of the coffee-producing Latin American countries, the cultivation of coffee became important toward the end of the nineteenth century or early in the twentieth century, and coffee came to dominate national exports, creating monocultures. In 1929, coffee cultivation was responsible for 71 percent of exports in Brazil, 61 percent in Colombia, 77 percent in Guatemala, 77 percent in Haiti, 54 percent in Nicaragua, 67 percent in Costa Rica, and fully 93 percent in El Salvador (Ukers 1935).

Since World War II, however, coffee cultivation has slowly shifted back to Africa. Although Latin America still produces most of the world’s coffee, the crop is no longer responsible for more than half of the exports of any one of its countries. In Africa, however, in the late 1960s, coffee represented more than half the exports of Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, and almost half of Uganda’s (Barbiroli 1970), and the continent now supplies about 18 percent of total world exports. Africans usually plant the more disease-resistant and faster-maturing robusta bush. It produces a less desirable brew but has been particularly successful in the soluble coffee market.

Coffee has come full circle in Africa. Ethiopians had vast forests of wild arabica trees but did not enter the trade until this century. Indeed, a nineteenth-century Dutch observer wrote that “the plant is not only no object of culture there, but is abandoned to persecution in some parts through the rage of blind fanaticism” (Kok 1864: 210).

European colonial regimes and planters initiated the coffee export economy in Ethiopia, as well as in Kenya, Angola, Uganda, and elsewhere. Africans were sometimes pointedly excluded by law from growing the arabica or robusta, although in Zaire and Ethiopia they were forced to grow or harvest the beans. In the last 40 years, however, decolonization has transformed the situation. Today, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, and Uganda are the principal coffee-growing nations of Africa, and African peasants, not European plantation managers, are the overwhelming producers (Clarence-Smith 1994).


Throughout its history, coffee has stimulated ideas, debates, commerce, and development, not to mention numbing people to routine and exposing them to vice and exploitation. And it has helped to subvert cultures, social systems, and governments. In the consuming countries, coffee moved from the mystical and mercantile to become one of the most traded bourgeois products in the world. Coffeehouses operated as centers of a bourgeois lifestyle for literati and businessmen alike, as well as meeting places for those who agitated for democratic politics. Coffee became the fuel of the industrial age.

In the fields of Latin America, however, European and North American demand led first to an intensification of slavery and then, in various places, to the appropriation of village lands, the expulsion of native peoples, and coerced labor. But, although there were large planters, there were also plenty of smallholders.

The story of coffee is clearly one of diversity. Geography, history, and local resistance combined to create a wide variety of social arrangements. To trace the history of coffee is to trace the path of the world economy over the last six centuries. From an Asian monopoly, to a European colonial product, to a global commodity grown on four continents, coffee has linked the different worlds of the producer and the consumer, the underdeveloped and the developed, the free and the enslaved, the rich and the poor, and the bourgeois and the archaic. Sufi Sheikh, sitting in the shade in Mocca, had no idea what a global force he was putting into motion when he sipped the first cup of coffee.