A Somewhat Less Than Concise History Of Coffee

By Timothy J. Castle, Author of The Perfect Cup

The history of coffee, the beverage made from the roasted seeds of the coffee cherry, unlike many things in our universe, has been relatively brief and quantifiable, starting at about 615 years A.D. (give or take 50) in the mountains of Ethiopia. In discussing the history of specialty coffee, however, it becomes immediately apparent that establishing a starting point is more difficult. In fact, it’s not clear that there is one separate and apart from the historic arc of coffee itself.

Those of us involved in the business of getting specialty coffees from the “seed to the cup” care about this distinction because of the high rate of change that exists within our industry. It would be to our advantage if we could point to a specific pattern and be able to predict where we might end up in five or ten years, or to at least understand that there isn’t any way anyone could know, because the current conditions we face are completely new to all of us.

But all along we have been buffeted by numerous uncertainties. Since coffee was first consumed as the beverage we drink today, for example, no one has been sure of the best way to prepare it — (much less how to roast it, process it, and grow it) — those arguments continue today. In the realm of the marketplace we’ve had continued difficulty finding the ideal balance of price and quality for each consumer segment in a market distinguished by the extreme price volatility of our industry’s basic, underlying ingredient (green coffee). Further, the packaging methods and formats have rapidly changed over the past few decades. Coffee drinkers also prepare their coffee differently at home and drink it in different ways and in different places throughout the day than they did ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. All of this leads to the conclusion that while we are in the midst of something that has happened before, despite the relative youth of the commodity we’re dealing with, we cannot predict where these pending changes will lead. If we’re lucky it will be to greater complexity, more market niches, and more ways to add value while enhancing the coffee drinker’s appreciation and enjoyment of coffee.

From its first sip, coffee has fascinated, frustrated, amazed, and seduced enough of us to have spread around the world with a voraciousness that belies the apparent frailty of the tree itself. While offering no nutritive value in the way it is consumed, it has nonetheless outpaced many other manifestly more useful plants. Many argue that the caffeine it yields is the reason for its popularity, but there are other plants that produce this drug much more efficiently. The simple fact is that a lot of people like to drink coffee, and its popularity as a beverage is spreading, not shrinking, both geographically and across cultures. In addition to being a gift from nature, it is literally a force of nature and one that is unlikely to lose momentum – even as serious threats, including climate change, generally, and coffee leaf rust, more specifically – threaten its supply.

When I started working with coffee in the 1970s, if you asked an exporter in Central America, for example, for the best coffees they could possibly get, they would laugh at you and tell you those coffees all went to Germany, and that they had been going there for a long time. Other origins might say that their best coffees went to other importing countries, but the pattern that emerged was that, yes, there were great coffees and another customer of longstanding was already buying them.

So, presumably, while “specialty coffee” per se may not have been called by this term, very good coffee did exist and was being traded as such. In fact, there were small roasters all over northern Europe catering to their local markets and selling very good coffee for decades. Unlike the coffee culture in the U.S. and England that existed until relatively recently, most northern Europeans considered coffee an upscale beverage that was expected to taste very, very good.

Today, we tend to think of the practice of coffee roasters specifying processing methods as revolutionary. Yet in 1979, Carlernst Diedrich told me that the Hotel du Crillon in Paris used to specify, before the Second World War, that their coffee had to be produced from certain plots of specific farms in Guatemala and that the coffee, after washing, had to be dried on mahogany boards, not earth (too dirty), and not cement (too hot). The mahogany would absorb just enough of the sun’s heat to dry the coffee, it was believed, at just the right temperature. It was also believed that the wood would breathe in and dissipate the moisture from the damp parchment coffee at an ideal rate.

Nor are the micro lots of today a new revelation, they just weren’t sold to today’s “specialty” roasters and they weren’t called “micro lots”; they were more or less kept secret. Thirty-five years ago, when I asked if there weren’t certain plots of a particular farm (and this was asked of the better farms to begin with) that produced better coffee than all of the others, I would be told that while there were such lots they were already spoken for by longstanding customers. The roasters that bought them would simply call them out by their country origin (so as not to reveal where they got such good coffee) or use them in blends.

I’m delving into a little of this ancient and, by many readers, well-understood history simply to point out that while many of the practices we see today with regard to specialty coffee may seem new in the present context, they are not. Things like origin/region/estate/site-specific micro lots, process-specific green coffee contracts, and various and sundry other derivations of growing, importing, roasting, and brewing coffee all have precedents, and ones that are not too shrubbed over (if you will) in thickets of history.

Even flavored coffees have been with us since coffee’s earliest appearances. It used to be, and still is, scented with cardamom near its birthplace in Yemen. Coffee was then flavored with all manner of spices as it migrated around the world, and then, most notoriously in 1973, when the market spiked upward and flavoring coffee gave roasters a way to sell less expensive beans and still provide some perceived value to the coffee drinker. While a surging market may not be the reason for it today, aren’t the efforts to harness the effects of fermentation to produce a controlled and specific level of fruitiness in certain “honey process” coffees essentially a way of “flavoring” coffee with fermentation by-products? More recently, shouldn’t the very interesting results of aging coffee in well cared-for used wine barrels, when it comes down to it, be viewed as yet another way of flavoring coffee? In fact, it has been recently suggested that the efforts of roasters to combine coffee with drink-making in general, and to brew/extract it in different ways in conjunction with the making of those other drinks (including alcohol-laden cocktails), constitutes what some might consider the next era of “specialty coffee.”

As human beings, we spend a lot of time trying to identify patterns in history and establish models from those patterns that will reliably predict when a pattern will repeat itself or change completely. This is particularly true during periods of forced change, as we are seeing in our industry now.

At the same time, our industry is circling back to considering other flavors and options after over a decade of working on obtaining and delivering the best possible coffee. The mood in the industry is less judgmental and more inclusive of new ideas and methodologies. Part of this burgeoning openness may be born of the experimentation that occurs in the national and world barista championships and the efforts that are made there by baristi to stand out from everyone else in the competition. Furthermore, by promoting new coffee businesses, entrepreneurs need new stories to get the names of their businesses in print. Finally, there is a more secure grounding in the basics of what it takes to bring a great cup of coffee to market (to be explicit: to the lips and palate of the coffee drinker) that did not exist twenty years ago.

Let’s hope today’s new experimentations with coffee are not a response to threatened supplies of coffee in general and of higher quality coffees in particular. This time around, it might be worthwhile to remember that it might be worthwhile to remember that it’s the coffee tree and the delicious simple drink that its seeds can be coaxed to produce that got us where we are today. Coffee is not only one of the world’s most beloved beverages, but it is gaining in popularity. We should take a long and careful look at its brief history before we begin to consider where coffee might take us next.

For 30+ years, Tim Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup, (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991. He occasionally contributes to the “coffee conversation” on his blog at www.coffeecurmudgeon.com.