Hester M Poole and a history of coffee. Image: Colombia - Coffee Triangle 013 by McKay Savage via FlickrThis is the final of seven guest blog posts about coffee. Baristador Coffee cannot vouch directly for the accuracy of Ms Poole’s work but much of it does marry with documentation cited elsewhere. Many thanks to Project Gutenberg for making this guest blogging series possible.

It would be almost as desirable to know who drank the first decoction of coffee as “who tamed the first wild steed,” or “who first conquered fire.” Perhaps, like Charles Lamb’s roast pig, it was first parched through the burning of a rude cabin, near which grew the odorous and inviting shrub. Some of the roasted berries may have fallen into a calabash of water, whose primitive possessor, weary and thirsty through vain efforts to save his shelter, drank unwittingly of the decoction, and, in the bewitching cup, made a great discovery while drowning his sense of misfortune. All great benefits to mankind have their origin in obscurity.

The birth of coffee in Africa

It will never be known whether coffee was first used in Abyssinia, Arabia, or Ethiopia, as the plant grows wild in each of these countries. Its name is derived from Kaffa, in Eastern Africa, and a Mahometan legend ascribes its discovery to a party of dervishes, who, for some misdemeanor, were banished from the city of Mocha on or about the year 1250. Repairing to the mountains of Yemen, they came near starvation before finding that, upon chewing the wild coffee berry, their strength was marvellously supported and hunger relieved during enforced fasts and vigils. The prior, Sheykh Omer, began to steep the berries in water and to dry a store of the fruit for sustenance during long marches. Its use spread to other dervishes, then to Mecca and Mocha, Damascus and Aleppo, till, in the year 1550, coffee became the favorite drink in Constantinople, in which city coffee-houses were soon after opened. If Prior Omer has not yet been canonized, he should certainly fill the first vacant niche, for, surely, no man ever conferred greater enjoyment upon his fellows. Yet, during a long period—perhaps for ages—the wild tribes in the interior of Africa had before that date used the berry, and the incident of the burning of the primitive hut is neither far-fetched nor improbable.

As the mosques were comparatively deserted for the coffee-houses, the Mufti was petitioned to issue edicts against the use of a beverage so delicious as to cause the sons of the faithful to forget the call to prayer, and for a little while it was a secret and stolen delight. Seeing that it could not be suppressed, the priests, with an eye to the main chance—common to the powers that be in all nations—wisely decided to impose a high tax upon the berry, and the coffee bean, from that day to this, has been the daily inspiration of the dreamy, sensuous, and fate-worshiping Turk.

Coffee takes hold in Europe

It was not until about the year 1670 that coffee-drinking became popular in France, though infrequent travelers had brought with them from the East a few pounds of the curious berry. At that time Solomon Aga was sent from the Sublime Porte to the court of Louis XIV., and he became very soon the rage, through the splendid and unique entertainments at which he figured as host. Costly Eastern stuffs, at that time seldom found in the elegant capital, displayed the rich and harmonious coloring of which the Turks are masters. Divans and cushions of embroidered velvet shot with gold, prayer rugs of every kind and device, vestments of many hues, bedizened with jewels and diamonds—all these made him the magnate of the city.

Most of all, the gay world coveted the services of exquisite porcelain and silver, the napkins fringed with bullion, and—served in cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong, and fragrant—that delicious coffee which has never lost the place it then secured. On bended knees the slaves of the ambassador presented the choicest Mocha to these grande dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces and bent their piquant faces—bepatched, bepowdered, and berouged—over the steaming beverage. Such were the half-barbaric occasions upon which coffee first became generally known to that nation which is now so largely dependent upon the tiny brown berry of Arabia. Four years afterward an Armenian opened the first coffee-house to the Parisian public. Others followed his example, and a little later beer and wine were also served at the same establishments. Finer than any of his predecessors came a dusky Italian from Florence, and to his salon flocked the chief literary men of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Coffee became a tyrant, and, as tyrant, it still holds matutinal and undisputed sway over the civilized portions of the earth.

Coffee as a luxury

Common as it is in this age, it was then an expensive luxury. The cultivation of the plant was confined to small districts, navigation tedious, and commerce with the East restricted. It is recorded that the daughters of King Louis of France had coffee imported for the use of the royal household at a cost of £3,200 yearly,—a fact which, after making all due allowance, shows that “rings” must have existed as far back as two centuries ago. The exact date of the introduction of coffee into England is not known. It is supposed to have been about the middle of the seventeenth century, and it became a popular drink there earlier than in France. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that the first English merchant who dealt in coffee had lived in Constantinople, and brought back with him to London a pretty Greek wife, who acted as his saleswoman. At first it sold for four or five guineas per pound, but soon became cheaper.

Coffee-houses multiplied, not only in the capital, but in all the large cities. Long antedating common newspapers, these shops were news centers, where the intelligent men of the age gathered to learn what was taking place, to discuss public affairs and governmental measures, and form public opinion. Considering that they were hot-beds of sedition and revolution, Charles II. ordered them closed in 1675, but the order was soon revoked. Cromwell ordered them closed again during the Protectorate for reasons somewhat similar; but they had become necessities to the people, and could not be put down for any great length of time.

Ideas brewing in coffee houses

Wits and poets, essayists and philosophers, daily gathered in the coffee-houses of London during several generations. How much they quoted from favorite authors—how faithfully they harangued and button-holed each other in that fashion, common to all ages, from the cloudy eras of the Chimpanzees to[40] the year of our Lord 1887—there are no annals full enough to describe. Within their precincts, what fear and folly, what foolishness and wisdom, have been uttered over steaming cups of Mocha!

It was at Will’s Coffee-house, Covent Garden, that Dryden and Addison, Steele and Davenant, Carey and Pope, met with other luminaries, and if it be proven that other potations, more fiery and deep, mingled with those of the Eastern berry, it may well be surmised that coffee often supplied the place of worse beverages, or mitigated their evil effects. The “intellectual drink,” as it has been called, gained friends every day among the wits of the reign of Queen Anne. Here Pope found the inspiration of “The Rape of the Lock,” if not the “Essay on Man,” an inspiration which he celebrated in these lines:

“From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China’s earth receives the smoking tide;
At once they gratify their sense and taste,
And frequent cups prolong the rich repast.
Coffee!—which makes the politician wise,
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes!”

Prior to the year 1700, coffee planting had been confined to Africa. The preceding year the President of the Dutch East Indies had brought some of the shrubs to Batavia, and Java rapidly became one of the first coffee-bearing countries—now exporting more than 75,000 tons annually. A shrub was sent from Batavia to Amsterdam shortly after, and in 1710 a shoot from this plant was taken as a curiosity to Louis XIV., who had it carefully tended in the Jardin des Plants, where it flourished for some years.

Coffee and the New World

But, with the development of the New World, coffee was a necessary concomitant. Across the stormy ocean, to the Island of Martinique, the Grand Monarch sent three plants in 1720, only one of which survived the voyage, and from this one shrub have sprung all the rich and expensive plantations of the West Indies and Central and South America.

It was not till the year 1754 that the first coffee tree was planted by a friar in the garden of the convent to which he was attached in Rio Janeiro, and not till 1809 did the first cargo of coffee land on the shores of the United States. Now, three-quarters of our coffee comes from Brazil, although much of it is sold under the name of Mocha or Java, the Chamber of Commerce report itself declaring that the “Santos pea berry and other similar appearing beans are used by mixers to supplement the supply of genuine Mocha.” It would be a gratification to be able to say that no other mixing or adulteration is practiced.

Brazil, under the enlightened statesmanship of Dom Pedro, now ships from her ports over one million of pounds daily, Sundays included, only a portion of which comes to this country. At our ports, chiefly at New York, vessels are unloading which received their precious freightage at Maracaibo, Central America, Savanilla, Hayti, Porto Rico, Jamaica, Macassar, Ceylon and Mexico, as well as from places which have been previously mentioned.

In the year 1886, 247,141 tons of coffee were used in the United States, against 242,677 tons in 1885. This gives an increase in one year of 1.8 per cent., making the per capita consumption of the population of 60,000,000 to be 9.22 pounds, nearly nine pounds and a quarter for every man, woman and child in this country.

Coffee consumption increasing

As may be supposed, the consumption of the berry is yearly increasing. While this is due partly to the growth of population, it is still more affected by the increasing popularity of coffee as a beverage, by its relative cheapness, and by the fact that it is prepared much easier than before it was sold in its roasted state. The loss and labor entailed in the preliminary preparation deterred many housekeepers from its use. A moment’s forgetfulness or preoccupation converted the berry into a piece of charcoal, and rendered it bitter and innutritious. Now, by the aid of large roasting establishments and improved machinery, that tedious process is thoroughly done, though, it must be confessed, with the loss of a slight portion of its volatile aroma.

Coffee and skullduggery

This loss, again, is more than balanced by the avoidance of a more serious trouble. Large dealers well know that, in order to give coffee a good color and thereby increase its value, the traders in Rio and manipulators in New York use vile drugs, coloring matter, and soapstone. To buy this green coffee and roast it at home is to take slow poison, because this adulteration is not wholly dissipated by the process of roasting. The large roasters of the country do not buy this doctored berry; they care nothing for the appearance if the coffee roasts well, and is clear and free from “quakers” or decayed berries. Therefore it is better to buy roasted coffee of the retailer, either in paper packages or out of tins bearing the name of a reputable house, and refuse to purchase the green under any circumstances. The can from which it is taken should be practically air-tight. Coffee scooped from the top must come in contact, more or less, with the atmosphere, and readily loses its value. Nothing so quickly parts with its delicate aroma; nothing so easily absorbs injurious or disagreeable particles from surrounding substances. The near presence of decayed vegetables, kerosene oil, effluvia, or foul air of any kind, not only destroys its delicacy, but may render it deleterious. That very quality which makes it capable of cleansing a room of foul odors is the very property which makes it dangerous to expose it to them.

The average consumption of coffee per head now amounts to slightly over nine and a half pounds yearly, an increase of over five per cent., or about one-half pound more for every man, woman and child for one year. As a whole, the United States consumes coffee largely, but it has not reached the point of consumption of Denmark, where the average is thirteen and a half pounds for each person, and of Holland, where the per capita consumption is twenty-one pounds. But with Mexico on the west materially increasing her yield of coffee, and with increased railroad facilities for commerce with this country, dealers in the fragrant berry expect that the importation this year will be double that of last year. Mexican coffee is of excellent quality, but loses its identity by being mixed with other grades. It figures under other names, just as various kinds of wine are mingled to make champagne.

The coffee-growing industry

Coffee-growing is an industry as interesting as it is important. In Brazil the seed is sown in the shade of coffee trees in long rows. At the end of a year the plants have reached about the height of a foot, and are ready for transplantation. The grounds which are selected for plantations lie principally between 25° north and 30° south of the equator, as the plant does not flourish in a climate where the thermometer falls below 55°. High altitudes also favor its perfect development, and the best berries are found on hills having an elevation of 3,000 or 4,000 feet above the sea. The ground must be rich in mineral matter, well watered and well drained.

The plants are then removed to the plantation and set out in long beds, at a distance of four to six feet apart, with roadways between the beds. The plants are topped when reset, and are ever after kept closely pruned, so that they are about twelve feet high, instead of attaining their natural growth of fifteen or twenty feet. In three years the bush bears fruit, and thereafter for forty years, being in full vigor from its tenth year till its decay. From three to eight pounds are plucked yearly from each bush, and the longer the bean is kept the richer will be its flavor.

And a beautiful sight it is when the coffee unfolds its first blossoms during September and October! Appearing in clusters only for a day or two at the axils of the dark-green, shining, evergreen leaves, the scene is made all the more brilliant by the consciousness of its evanescence. Each flower consists of a small, five-clefted white corolla, affording a fine contrast to the laurel-like leaf, some four or five inches in length. The bright blue sky, the warm air, the billowy lines of foliage, the clusters of jessamine-like flowers, tossing fragrance from their tiny bells, the intoxicated butterflies flitting from plant to plant, all belong to a climate as unlike our northland as it is possible for the mind to conceive.

The coffee berry

Soon the fruit makes its appearance,—green at first, but shortly turning a dark red,—which is ripe for gathering in March, and from that until August. The two seeds or berries contained within the fruit, which is shaped something like a cranberry or a cherry, are glued together, each being enveloped in a peculiar, leathery, parchment-like membrane.

The berries are picked by hand, care being taken to select only those which are perfectly ripe. They are then thrown into large, open yards, paved with rock and stone, with a grade sufficient for the free drainage of water. After a few days’ exposure to the sun, the berries being perfectly dry, they are put in the crusher to separate the berry from the husk. The coffee is then passed through large and small sieves, one under the other, with a fan at the back, by which means the husks are winnowed from the berry.

Grading follows next, according to the size of the grain. The best grade of coffee is Mocha, the next Java. The blending of various qualities is one of the most difficult accomplishments, without which, good coffee is almost an impossibility. Hence it is that retail dealers, who roast their own coffee, so often fail of success, since it requires skill, experience, and a knowledge of the properties of different growths to produce blendings which suit the palate.

As might be expected, numerous adulterations are found in ground coffees of inferior grades. Some of them, like venetian red to give color, are positively poisonous. Others, like chicory, an endive like the dandelion, are injurious. Tons of this root are annually consumed, many persons believing that it accentuates the flavor of the real article. Yet it has been[46] proven that chicory produces heartburn, cramps, and, finally, total blindness.

Besides these, are less noxious mixtures of roasted corn, beans, peas, wheat, rye, dandelion, and various nuts. As long ago as 1850, 18,000 pounds of vegetable matter were sold for coffee in the United States. Professor Sharples, the State Assayer of Massachusetts, last year found that one favorite brand contained no coffee at all. It was made up of green peas, burnt molasses, and “an occasional grain of rye.” Another French coffee was a concoction of peas, rye, and oats. Be sure of an honest grocer, is the moral, unless the coffee is burnt and ground at home. Some of these ingredients are harmless enough, but who wishes to be deceived and defrauded?

Picking out the adulterations of coffee

The adulterations of ground coffee can be easily detected. It must be premised here that the genuine coffee berry is extremely hard and tough. Every one knows the character of the grounds even after long soaking and boiling. “Now,” says an expert, “a spoonful of pure coffee placed gently on the surface of a glass of cold water will float for some time and scarcely color the liquid. If it contains chicory it will rapidly absorb the water, and, sinking to the bottom of the glass, communicate a deep reddish brown tint as it falls. Again, shake a spoonful of the coffee with a wineglassful of water, then place the glass upon the table. If it is pure it will rise to the surface and scarcely color the liquid; if chicory is present it will sink to the bottom and the water will be tinged of a deep red as before.”

Still again: “If, when a few pinches of the suspected coffee are placed upon water in a wineglass, part floats and part sinks, there is reason to believe it is adulterated either with chicory, roasted corn, or other substances. Coffee does not absorb the water; other substances do…. If the cold water becomes deeply colored, it is evidence of the presence of some roasted vegetable or burnt sugar. Or if, when a few grains of coffee, spread out on a piece of glass, are moistened with a few drops of water, we are enabled to pick out, by means of a needle, minute pieces of a soft substance, the coffee is adulterated, for the coffee particles are hard and resisting.”

But, given coffee pure as pure can be, what are its effects upon the system?

Coffee owes its stimulating and refreshing qualities to caffeine. It also contains gum and sugar, fat, acids, casein and wood fibre. Like tea, it powerfully increases the respiration, but, unlike it, does not effect its depth. By its use the rate of the pulse is increased and the action of the skin diminished. It lessens the amount of blood sent to the organs of the body, distends the veins and contracts the capillaries, thus preventing waste of tissue. It is a mental stimulus of a high order, and one that is liable to great abuse. Through its fascinations the scholar burns the midnight oil, and too rapidly reduces his store of vital force. To some temperaments it may be called a poison. Carried to excess it produces abnormal wakefulness, indigestion, acidity, heartburn, tremors, debility, irritability of temper, trembling, irregular pulse, a kind of intoxication ending in delirium, and great injury to the spinal functions. Unfortunately, there are many coffee tipplers who depend upon it as a drunkard upon his dram.

On the other hand, coffee is of sovereign efficacy in tiding over the nervous system in emergencies. Soldiers in the late war declared they could march longer and endure more hardships under the stimulus of coffee than under that of liquor. During their long predatory excursions the tribes of Central Africa subsist for many days at a time on a mixture of coffee and butter. Made into balls an inch and a half in diameter, one lasts a man during twenty-four hours. The Belgian coal miners live on a less quantity of solid food than the French miners, who are furnished with a smaller amount of coffee.

Coffee as a medicine

Coffee is also, in its place, an excellent medicine. In typhoid fever its action is frequently prompt and decisive. It is indicated in the early stages before local complications arise. Coffee dispels stupor and lethargy, is an antidote for many kinds of poison, and is valuable in spasmodic asthma, hooping-cough, cholera infantum, and Asiatic cholera.

It is also excellent as a preventive against infections and epidemic diseases. In districts rife with malaria and fever, the drinking of hot coffee before passing into the open air has enabled persons living in such places to escape contagion. Probably the nervous system is aroused to a positive condition, in which fever germs are rendered innocuous.

That coffee is a medicine in cases of extreme alcoholism is well known, but it is hardly understood to what extent this exhilarating and potent beverage might be used in place of liquor. Coffee-houses, where all the accessories are cheerful and wholesome for mind and body, greatly tend to diminish drunkenness. In the city of Birmingham, England, according to the report of the American Consul a few years since, the seventeen temperance coffee-houses in operation received the[49] patronage of 20,000 men daily, six days in the week. “And,” he truly adds, “a large proportion of these visitors would otherwise have spent their evenings and their earnings in liquor saloons.”

Methods of making coffee

The methods of making coffee are as various as the nations that partake of it. In Arabia the coffee is freshly roasted and pounded whenever the decoction is prepared, and its flavor is enhanced by the addition of a few aromatic seeds or a little saffron. It is drank in small cups, without sugar or milk, but hot and strong, and Oriental hospitality demands that it be served to every visitor. In country places the people use an infusion of coffee leaves, steeped like tea and tasting like a mixture of coffee and tea.

It is curious to observe that in the extremes of the North and South coffee is alike regarded. In Sweden, near the midnight sun, where the necessaries of life are scant and dear, Du Chaillu found that the rudest cabin cherished a little store of the precious berry to be used on festive occasions, feasts and funerals, or for the infrequent and welcome traveler. Nothing in his narration is more touching than those portions in which he describes the hospitality set forth in the odoriferous cup in those hamlets near the Arctic circle, where salt fish and sour milk form the staple winter food.

From its cordial and gently stimulating effect, Western nations may well join in the panegyric pronounced upon coffee by an Arabian, translated thus: “O Coffee, thou dispellest the cares of the great; thou bringest back those who wander from the paths of knowledge! Coffee is our gold, and in the place of its libations we are in the enjoyment of the best and noblest[50] society. Every care vanishes when the cup-bearer presents the delicious chalice; it will circulate freely through thy veins and will not rankle there. Grief cannot exist where it grows; sorrow humbles itself before its powers.”

Lastly, it may be said in the words of Sidney Smith, “If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee.”

No matter where the coffee bean may have grown or how perfect its condition, the decoction may be ruined in its preparation. Among the numerous coffee-steepers in the market, one, lately devised, seems to fill all requirements. It is the Common-sense Coffee-pot, a veritable wonder worker, invented by Mr. Krag, of Indianapolis. A bag or filter at the top, like that used by the French, is nothing new. The improvement—and it is a great improvement—consists in a simple yet ingenious arrangement whereby the steam is condensed and returned to the coffee. By this means the delicate aroma is entirely preserved, and the coffee made delicious and strong.


Image: Colombia – Coffee Triangle 013 by McKay Savage via Flickr. CC BY 2.0