What We Eat: The Story of Coffee - #109

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the Americas for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The most famous story about the discovery of coffee tells of an Ethiopian goat herder who noticed that when his goats ate the berries of a specific bush, they became highly energized. He tasted those berries and found that they excited him, too. Then a local monk stopped in and joined the experiment – had the same effect on him. The berries became a regular part of the diet at the monastery and were considered a gift from God because they helped keep the brothers awake during late night prayers.

BURT WOLF: The word coffee comes from an Arabic word for wine and Islamic law forbids the consumption of wine. So in many ways the Islamic world has chosen coffee to take its place. The first serious cultivation of coffee as a cash crop took place in Yemen during the 1400s. Religious pilgrims visiting Mecca spread the news about coffee throughout the Arab world, and coffee houses soon became part of every Islamic community.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At first, the acceptance of coffee was questioned by conservative scholars; they felt it was like wine and should be outlawed. But a much larger group of scholars liked it. They felt its effect was the opposite of wine. It opened your mind, it loosened your tongue, it kept you awake during long hours of prayer.  By the early 1500s, there were shops that sold coffee and made it for you to drink, all over Arabia. 

BURT WOLF: A Dutch traveler described Middle Eastern coffeehouses as “large halls, with floors covered with straw mats. At night the rooms were lit with lamps. The customers are served with smoking pipes and cups of coffee. Scholars sit in these establishments and tell tales, deliver speeches on various subjects and receive small contributions from the audience for their efforts.”  A French traveler pointed out that “the guests mingle without distinction of rank or creed” — everyone talking to everyone else. The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant, and in these ancient Arab coffeehouses it stimulated original thought, a sense of freedom, and a desire to discuss politics and social change. But by the early 1500s things were getting out of hand.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: The coffee houses were sort of centers of prostitution and gaming and writing fantastically funny, satirical verses about the Governor of Mecca, whose name was Cayar Beg.  And he heard some of these things. And he didn't like it.  So, he decided he was gonna close the coffee houses.  There's too much stuff goin' on there.  Seditious literature, et cetera.  And so, he got his advisors to say that coffee was like wine, which is illegal for Muslims, and, so, he banned it.  It didn't last very long.  The guy in Cairo, who was above him, said, "Forget that.  I like coffee."  And so ... but it was the first time that they had closed the ... a coffee house. But it wasn't the last time, by any means. It kept happening over periods of time, because people tend to become irreverent, when they drink coffee.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Ottoman Turks controlled the trade between Europe and the Arab world and they were very careful to protect their coffee monopoly. It was against the law to ship a fertile seed to their customers in Europe or Asia. During the 1600s, however, a Muslim pilgrim from India was able to get his hands on a couple of seeds, tape them to his chest, and return home without them being discovered. He started a coffee farm.  He didn’t have much commercial success, but he did prove that it was possible to grow coffee beans outside of the Middle East.


EDWARD BRAMAH ON CAMERA: Coffee houses in London is a very exciting story, because... a traveler, a business traveler, came back with his servant, and brought coffee back, and was making coffee in his home.  And all his friends came round to taste the new drink.  But he said, oh dear, I can't have this anymore, we'll ... and he asked his servant to open ... a chap called Pasqua Rosee, to open up a little bar, which he did, off Corn Hill, in Saint Michael's Alley.  And it was called Pasqua Rosee’s coffee house.  That was 1652.  More coffee houses were opened, and between Corn Hill and Lombard Street, in that area, between 1700, or by 1700, there were over 20 coffee houses, which were, of course, the kingpin of the social and the commercial life of the city of London.

They were the intellectual aspect, of course, of coffee houses were ... that they were called the penny university.  You paid your penny, and you could listen to the main orators of the day, holding forth on their pet subject.  But, you know, there was no television in those days.  There were no cinemas, there was no where to go, except your coffee house.  They met a demand of the time.  And the traders, the stock brokers, were in one coffee house, the medical men in another, the estate agents in others, the shipping people in the Baltic, and so on.  And so you had coffee houses to cater for particular trades, and of course they were absolutely essential.  And, you wanted also to know what on earth was happening in the capital.  You know, if you'd recently chopped the king's head off, you wanted to know whose head it was next.

BURT WOLF: Up until the 1600s, most of what we think of as big business was done by governments—most small businesses were run out of people’s homes. The coffeehouses provided homes away from home for a new breed of capitalists, who were busy building private industry.  In England, the coffeehouse became known as the place where businessmen did business. And slowly, coffee houses began to percolate in Europe.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: Oh, there's a great story about coffee coming to Vienna also. That was in 1683.  The Turks were besieging Vienna.  They needed to have somebody sneak through the lines, the enemy lines, to get reinforcements, and there was a guy named Franz George Kolschitsky who had actually lived in Arab countries, and, so, he dressed himself up to look like an Arab, and he snuck through the lines, and he was the great savior, and the Polish troops came and drove off the Turks and drove them off very quickly, so they left everything, and among the things they left were many bags of unroasted coffee beans.  Nobody knew what these things were.  They thought they were camel fodder, or something. So, they were burning them, and Kolschitsky smells it and says, "Ah! it's coffee. Stop. What are you doing?  Don't burn that. If you don't want 'em, I'll take 'em."  And he started the first coffee house in Vienna, and since then the Viennese, as you know, have really taken to coffee. 

Coffee houses have always been a place where people can come to talk, to gather, to plan.  Because coffee is a social beverage that sort of makes people have bright ideas, the American Revolution was planned in a coffee house. The French Revolution was planned in coffee houses.  They've always been breeding grounds for trouble of one sort or another.  During the Vietnam War, there were GI coffee houses that were set up outside Army bases where people were protesting the war. So, it has continued to this day.


BURT WOLF: Eager to capitalize on the demand for coffee, European entrepreneurs were always on the lookout for new sources of the bean. The Dutch, like the Turks before them, did their best to prevent other interests from getting their hands on live coffee plants.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: There was a French lieutenant named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who became obsessed with the idea that he wanted to take a coffee tree to the New World.  He was stationed on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. So, he got hold of a tree from the Paris Botanical Gardens, and he took it on a ship. And the way he tells the story, which is probably a little over-dramatic, you know, he had to give it half of his ration of water because there was a drought.  There was a big storm, and it almost got swept overboard. There was an evil Dutchman who didn't want him to take it, and he ripped off one of the branches.  But eventually, he brought it to Martinique and it flourished, and from that one tree, supposedly, most of the coffee in the Western hemisphere, has descended.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The story of how coffee got to Brazil is equally stimulating. The Brazilians wanted to plant coffee, but they were having a hard time getting their hands on a live coffee plant – that was something that nobody wanted to share. Then in 1727, there was a land dispute between French Guiana and Dutch Guiana and a Brazilian official was sent in to broker the problem, which he did, and at the same time conducted an extraordinary secret love affair with the French governor’s wife. As he headed home to Brazil she gave him a gift of a huge bouquet of flowers—in the center of which was hidden a live coffee plant.  When he got home to Brazil, he planted the plant and that was the beginning of the Brazilian coffee industry.

BURT WOLF: The British colonists in North America arrived with a taste for coffee. John Smith, who led the settlers at Jamestown, had traveled in Turkey and loved coffee.  Coffeehouses also crossed the Atlantic with the colonists; in 1689 Boston opened its first coffeehouse.


MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: Ironically, the British who had become fanatical coffee drinkers during the late 17th Century eventually switched to tea by the late 18th century.  And ... a lot of that is because of economic factors. They wanted to ... they had ... were doing quite well with the British East India Company. So, the British were getting a lot of their money by taxing the goods that they were selling to the American colonies. The colonies objected.  The British withdrew most of their taxes. But they left the tax on tea, and, of course, the Americans were ... they were British.  They loved tea.  They weren't into coffee particularly. But they were very upset about this tax, and in 1773, there was the very famous Boston Tea Party, where they threw all the tea overboard.  Now, from that moment on, it became very unpatriotic to drink tea and very patriotic to drink coffee.  And that was really the origin of the American obsession with coffee.

BURT WOLF: When the United States of America went to war with England for a second time in 1812, the supply of English tea was cut off again.  Americans went back to drinking coffee, but this time the coffee came up from Latin America rather than Asia or Africa. Its source was nearby, it was inexpensive and the quality was top notch.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The choice was very simple: bad, very expensive tea or good, very inexpensive coffee. In the end, politics plays a very small role in what people eat or drink. Price is the determining factor.

BURT WOLF: Turning to Latin America and the Caribbean for its coffee, the United States became the world’s largest consumer of coffee, and South and Central America its biggest suppliers. Coffee became a major crop in the Western Hemisphere.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: During the Civil War, the South couldn't get any coffee at all. There was a blockade, and, so, they went nuts. They had to make fake coffee out of everything conceivable from acorns to figs to little roadside weeds, and, so, the effect, after the War, was that everyone in the South wanted coffee more than you could possibly imagine. I mean there's a story how an Atlanta jeweler got hold of a real coffee bean and set it, because it ... during the Civil War ... because it was so valuable.  Meanwhile, the Union troops were getting as much coffee as they wanted. They got 36 pounds per soldier per year, and it was a very valuable commodity. They would have coffee. Every time they stopped, they would start fires, and they would grind their little coffee beans and divide them all up within their company.  There are innumerable stories about what coffee meant to the Union soldiers, and, so, again, it really implanted this idea that Americans should drink lots of coffee. It should be strong, black, boiled, ruined.  They made terrible coffee.


BURT WOLF: As the United States industrialized, coffee found a new role. In the previous two centuries, coffee and coffeehouses had brought thinkers, artists, writers, and politicians together for conversations that initiated social and political change. But coffee soon became the fuel that powered the industrial laborer. For workers who had to be at the factory or office early in the morning, and often for round-the-clock shift work, coffee became a necessity.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On March 17th, 1930, at three-thirty in the afternoon, the owners of the Mississippi steamship company called their employees together for the first company-sponsored coffee break in the history of America.

BURT WOLF: Executives of the steamship line had seen something like a coffee break in Brazil, and they liked the effect it had on the morale of the workers. It also improved the morale of the workers in New Orleans, so they made the coffee break a permanent part of their operations. Even without corporate sponsorship, the coffee break has become a central part of the American work day.

Edward Bramah has one of the world’s largest collections of antique coffee brewing devices.

EDWARD BRAMAH ON CAMERA: When it comes to coffee-making machines, the first coffee pot was Ethiopian.  They call it the Jabena; it’s a combined coffee-maker and pouring pot.  And the coffee is pulverized and held in the palm of the hand and you just feed the coffee into the top with the water and when it’s on the fire, it froths up.  But because it’s frothing, you can see it coming out the top; you can take it off without any…wasting any coffee in the fire.  This is where the tall height of a coffee pot came from.  From Ethiopia, in Africa.

Rumford, an American – he made a coffee pot in 1812.  The French were very active with their drip pots.  But before long, that word again, “steam,” comes into the story, because they realized that perhaps if you could use the steam power to force the water up a tube and maybe through the coffee, and so you’ve got hot water coming up through the coffee, and then it hits the under side of the lid and you can see now where the beginnings of the percolator came from.  Well, what can I say about the cafetière locomotive?  I mean, it’s the pièce de résistance of the coffee-maker. It goes back as early as 1840s.  The railways were going out of Paris to the suburbs. I think it was 1832.  But this particular machine wasn’t automatic too much, except that water, hot water, was in the central tank; coffee was put in the funnel, here, in the usual way of a coffee filter machine; and then there’s a spirit heater underneath which will create the pressure to force the water up this tube, over the coffee.  So it was a drip filter into the coffee compartment, here, so that you could then turn the tap and have…and coffee, made coffee, coming out of there.


BURT WOLF: By the turn of the 20th century, Europe was a hotpot of coffee innovation and the city of Trieste on the shore of the Adriatic Sea in the northeast corner of Italy became one of the world’s epicenters for great coffee. It was once part of the Austrian Empire and supplied Vienna with its coffee. A perfect place to look at Trieste’s balancing and blending between the traditions of Italy and those of the Austrian Empire is a coffee company called Illy Caffe.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The founder of the firm was Francesco Illy, an Austrian accountant who had been drafted into the Austrian army during the First World War, and stationed in Trieste.  At the end of the war he decided to stay on here and go into the coffee business. In 1935 his analytical mind led him to the development of the first automatic espresso machine that used compressed air instead of steam. And that was a big deal, because up to that point most of the coffee in Europe had been made by boiling water and coffee together and holding it in a huge urn.  Very often when you got your coffee, it had been sitting in that urn for hours.

BURT WOLF: At the beginning of the 20th Century, Italy introduced the idea of made-to-order coffee and called it “espresso.” The word “espresso” means fast, as in “Federal Espresso.” But in terms of coffee it means “a single cup made for you when you order it.” In the beginning espresso was only made in coffeehouses.  Unfortunately, the early machines used steam, which extracted negative flavor elements from the beans.

At the end of the Second World War, Illy was taken over by Francesco’s son Ernesto. Ernesto is one of the leading chemists in Italy and his passion is the science of coffee. He knew that he could make a great cup of espresso, but he wanted to understand the scientific principles that caused the flavor. And he wanted to be able to calibrate those principles so he could produce the same level of excellence every time. So he built a lab and is figuring out how to get DNA fingerprints from coffee beans.

DR. ERNESTO ILLY ON CAMERA: Espresso, contrary to regular coffee, is mainly olfaction; maybe sixty percent is the nose, and only forty percent is the taste.  In regular coffee you have eighty percent taste and only twenty percent olfaction, if the coffee is freshly-brewed.  So the slightest defect is perceivable. Because if something is in a bean, it has been expressed by a gene that is in the DNA of the plant.  We will be able to understand the excellence of a cup by looking to the DNA.

BURT WOLF: Espresso and the espresso bar, manned by a knowledgeable barista, became popular throughout Italy, and after the First World War, quickly spread across the Continent.


BURT WOLF TO CAMERA: By the late 1800s, coffee had become an established drink throughout the world, but because of its caffeine content, people were becoming concerned about its effect on good health.

BURT WOLF: They saw what caffeine did to some people and were very worried.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: Decaffeinated coffee actually began with a guy named Ludwig Roselius in Bremen, Germany.  His father was a coffee taster and died at a relatively young age, and Ludwig blamed coffee. He thought it was bad for you, and, so he developed the first decaffeinated coffee.  And he called it dekaffa, and in France, when he sold it, he called it Sanka, sans café.  And so, that was the origin of decaffeinated coffee.  In the early 1980s, in the United States, people actually were predicting that 50 percent of our coffee would be decaffeinated because there was this huge health scare. At that time, people thought that coffee caused pancreatic cancer, breast lumps, birth defects, all kinds of horrible things.  Those studies, none of them have stood the test of time, and now coffee has a fairly clean bill of health, as long as it's ... you have moderate consumption. But it really did push the consumption of decaffeinated coffee, and it's still quite popular with some people.


BURT WOLF: Soldiers serving in World War I  had a great thirst for coffee. But transporting the beans was a logistical nightmare. G. Washington, a New York-based coffee roaster, responded to the problem by developing the first successful instant coffee. Washington’s crystallized coffee was a huge success with the troops, and by 1918 the U.S. Army had requisitioned the firm’s entire output. During the First World War they consumed over 75 million pounds of coffee. And coffee was equally important during the Second World War.

MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: During the war, there were all kinds of names made up for the coffee that the GIs were getting in their foxholes.  Many of them, pejorative, such as mud, but it was also known as a cuppa joe because G.I. Joe, this was his coffee, and that's the origin of why coffee is called cuppa joe.  I thought one of the funniest things that I found from World War Two was that the British decided that they would break the morale of the German people by bombing them with coffee beans, and that they would show them:  Look! if you would only give up, you could get real coffee. I thought it was ingenious and devious. But it didn't work.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Currently coffee is the world’s largest cash crop, the most actively-traded commodity, after oil, and the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet. For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.