By Matija Šerić
Often, individual natural resources have a great influence on the development of humanity. Everyone will immediately remember oil and gas, the use of which fundamentally changed the world, however, there are other commodities that have had a decisive impact on global political, economic and social development. One of those goods is coffee.
Over the past centuries, coffee has become the favorite drink of millions of people. The influence of coffee is not limited to the food industry and catering, but is much broader. Drinking coffee has become an indispensable part of the daily life of millions, but also a key factor in the historical development of societies. From its humble beginnings in the Ethiopian highlands to a global ultra-popular product, coffee’s impact is immense. In its centuries-long journey to become a global beverage, coffee was a tool to build and dismantle empires and fuel the industrial revolution. And sometimes it was the driving force behind exploiting people, encouraging slavery, and fueling civil wars.
The coffee plant has always grown in Ethiopia and was probably used by nomadic tribes for thousands of years, but people only realized that they could roast its seeds (beans) around 1400. Farmers noticed that goats that ate coffee beans were more energetic than those that did not. Coffee was the driving force behind the development of trade in the Early Modern Age. Its popularity grew exponentially, and prices reached incredible heights.
More than five centuries ago, when coffee was a localized culture in the East African territories of Ethiopia, Arab traders in the early 16th century were the first to recognize the potential of coffee and set out to bring it to Yemen. Arab Sufi monks used the drink for a similar purpose as people drink it today – to get a boost to stay awake. Their goal was to reach divine consciousness in midnight prayers. It was also used for medicinal purposes. From Yemen, coffee conquered the entire Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Persia and finally the European continent. In fact, coffee was the first plant to initiate the ancient globalization that changed trade flows and shaped the economic dynamics of the world.
Coffee and slavery
As the drink became more popular, empires realized they could grow their own coffee using the labor of peasants and slaves in their distant colonies. By the 18th century, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch leaders had made coffee one of their top colonial crops, along with sugar, cotton, and tobacco.
From Indonesia to Latin America and the Caribbean, enslaved laborers were forced to grow coffee on colonial plantations. The French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue grew two-thirds of the world’s coffee in the late 18th century until the island’s plantations were burned during the Haitian Revolution in 1791. Using a large slave labor force, the Portuguese accelerated the processes that led to Brazil becoming the world’s largest coffee producer. Brazil was the country where the largest number of enslaved people arrived in the New World, mostly to work on coffee plantations. When the plantations were created, the Amazon rainforest was destroyed. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888. Relying on black slaves, Brazil made coffee the lifeblood of its economy, banking system, and political and social structure. Faced with laws granting freedom to the descendants of slaves, a member of the Brazilian parliament who opposed the abolition of slavery declared in 1880: “Brazil is coffee, and coffee is black.”
Cafes – initiators of social change
Various forms of coffeehouses and cafés became the starting points from where cultural and intellectual revolutions originated. Coffee houses first appeared in the Ottoman Empire because Muslims who abstained from alcohol had no need to gather in beer halls. Over the centuries, coffeehouses became key to the establishment of what some philosophers call the “public sphere,” once dominated by elites. Coffeehouses were the only public places where men could gather and discuss news, religion, politics and gossip away from the watchful eyes of religious or state authorities.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European coffeehouses became epicenters of intellectual discussions, heated political debates and artistic manifestations. People gathered to share ideas, discuss philosophies and consequently shape the destinies of their nations through revolutionary changes. Coffee became a symbol of the Enlightenment and freedom of expression, and its consumption enabled the opening of space for critical thinking and innovation.
Coffee has played a key role in political and social changes in different parts of the world. For example, the “Cafe Revolution” in 18th century England was associated with the development of public gathering places and public debates on social issues. In some countries, political decisions and events often took place in coffeehouses, where people made important decisions. The London Stock Exchange, the insurance company Lloyd’s of London and the East India Company were founded in coffeehouses, which became known in London as “penny universities” because the price of a penny cup of coffee often gave patrons access to ongoing intellectual debate.
In colonial America, Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern became famous as the place where the leaders of the 13 British colonies in America met to organize the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and spark revolutionary ideas that led to the American Revolutionary War and the creation of the USA . It is often said that after the Boston Tea Party when American colonists raided British tea ships and threw crates of tea into the harbor, Americans universally switched to drinking coffee.
Literary works, newspapers, and even works by great composers like Bach and Beethoven were also created in coffeehouses. Some historians, such as Mark Pendergrast, have noted that thanks to coffee, Western civilization was awakened and started for the better through the processes of enlightenment and the abolition of slavery, which were just happening at the time when the consumption of coffee was growing.
Attempts to ban coffee
In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair-Beg, banned coffee because his medical advisers warned that it was bad for people’s health (indeed, political dissidents used to gather in coffee houses) but this policy was soon abandoned. In the 16th century, the Ottomans, who spread coffee throughout the Muslim world and later Europe, tried to close the coffeehouses, only to face massive protests that forced them to reopen.
One of the most famous cases of banning coffee occurred in 18th century Prussia. It was banned by King Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great. It was banned for the most incredible possible reason: King Frederick preferred his subjects to drink the beer. However, the ban did not last long. Coffee was banned in Italy in the 16th century because people believed it was satanic, but the ban was lifted when Pope Clement VIII discovered that he enjoyed the drink and blessed him. Coffee was banned five times in Sweden, and the most famous (and bizarre) incident happened when King Gustav III. banned in 1746 because he was convinced that the drink was deadly. The ban was lifted when Gustav was killed in 1792.
The role of coffee in the industrial revolution
Coffee had a significant impact on labor productivity during the Industrial Revolution. Its stimulating properties (read: caffeine) allowed workers to stay alert and focused during long working hours in factories. This changed the dynamics of work and accelerated production, which had long-term effects on the development of modern industrial societies.
Everyone from the Ottomans to the European intellectuals of the Enlightenment understood that the caffeine in coffee boosts energy and enhances attention. In demanding factory manufacturing industries that required workers to work three shifts, coffee made it possible for workers to work at all hours of the day and night. Workers who used to take longer breaks to eat five times a day could instead take more frequent but shorter coffee breaks, which enabled the industrial revolution to spread across all continents.
Instant coffee – an incentive to war
Instant coffee, made from fast-dissolving coffee crystals that eliminated the traditionally time-consuming brewing process, took off during World War I. Then the American inventor George C. L. Washington found a way to increase production and sell it to the military, to give the soldiers an extra incentive to fight. “I am happy in spite of the rats, the rain, the mud, the draft (sic), the roar of the guns and the scream of the shells…” wrote an American soldier from the trenches in 1918. “It only takes a minute to light my little oil heater and make George Washington coffee.” In that war, soldiers called instant coffee “George’s cup”. In the Second World War, American soldiers called it a “cup of Joe”.
After the United States entered the war in 1941, the military ordered 140,000 bags of coffee beans per month for the preparation of the instant drink, ten times more than in the previous peacetime year. American officials restricted coffee for civilians for nine months so that soldiers on the battlefields would have enough. After the war, several companies, including Nescafe and Maxwell House, heavily promoted instant coffee using war veterans in advertisements. It was a successful marketing strategy because the public quickly picked up on the soldiers’ preference for the instant drink and the popularity of instant coffee grew further.
Coffee and civil wars in Latin America
After 1945 in Latin America, rural poverty and the widespread exploitation of laborers who worked in the fields of coffee, bananas, sugar and other goods fueled leftist activism. During the Cold War, America was afraid of the influence of the Soviet Union in its “backyard” and, working to protect the financial interests of large corporations, intervened in several Central American countries, which were moves with terrible consequences: coups were triggered and bloody civil wars escalated.
First, there was the US-backed coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954. Then the CIA launched a plan to overthrow the democratically elected president, Jacob Árbenz Guzmán, after he began giving more than 100 coffee plantations to peasant cooperatives with the support of the Guatemalan communists. The putschists installed a right-wing president, General Carlos Castillo Armas, who abolished the agrarian reform, restored the secret police and drove the peasants off the land they had been given. His assassination three years later led to three decades of repression and bloody violence by government death squads and guerrilla groups. The elite retained their coffee estates and social status. The workers continued to suffer.
During the 1970s and 1980s, similar conflicts took place in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador. In El Salvador, a US-backed military junta faced left-wing rebels seeking to overthrow a government that had worked closely with the Americans. US-trained right-wing death squads joined the civil war, and clashes in the countryside left 50,000 people dead. Coffee exports, which made up the largest part of the country’s income, fell drastically. Close to a million people fled the country. A similar situation took place in Nicaragua, where around 50,000 people also died.
Coffee – a bridge for connecting different cultures
Coffee consumption has become an integral part of many cultures and has often served as a means of bringing different cultures together. Its presence at cultural events, rituals and celebrations has enriched human interaction and created lasting bonds between people. Throughout history, different communities have shared their coffee customs and rituals. The “coffee” cultural bridge contributes to understanding and tolerance between people of different ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
Different communities have developed unique coffee rituals, from Turkish coffee to Italian espresso. Coffee has become a symbol of hospitality. Italian espresso spread around the world thanks to Howard Schultz, the marketing executive of the American company Starbucks, who visited Milan in 1983 and was fascinated by the hundreds of bars that served lattes and espresso coffees. Back home, he convinced the owners of Starbucks to let him open an espresso bar. In 2020, Starbucks owned close to 9,000 coffee shops/restaurants in the US and boasted more than 30,000 coffee shops/restaurants worldwide. In the 20th century, coffee was considered the drink of intellectuals in the West as it was embraced by popular writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot. This explains why coffee is popular among nations and neither the left nor the right want to ban it (at least for now).
Top coffee producing countries
More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are drunk in the world every day and the needs of consumers are great. Countries that grow coffee are mainly developing countries along the so-called coffee belt around the equator: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam. Stable temperatures, moderate rainfall and rich soil make the perfect conditions for the growth of the coffee tree.
From Ethiopia, coffee spread throughout the Arab world and then by the end of the 17th century through Asia to Java and Sumatra. In the 18th and 19th centuries, coffee cultivation spread throughout Latin America, and that’s when the coffee belt gained its final extent. The top 10 coffee-growing countries in 2021 are: Brazil (2.6 million metric tons), Vietnam (1.5 million metric tons), Colombia (754,000 metric tons), Indonesia (669,000 metric tons), Honduras (475,000 metric tons), Ethiopia ( 471,000 m.t.), Peru (346,000 m.t.), India (312,000 m.t.), Guatemala (254,000 m.t.) and Uganda (209,000 m.t.).
There are 25 million families in the world who earn their living from coffee. When the number of family members is taken into account, the figure comes to about 100 million people today dependent on growing and selling coffee. In Brazil, where almost a third of the world’s coffee is produced, more than five million people are employed in the cultivation of over three billion coffee plants. The coffee plant is a more labor-intensive crop than other crops in the same regions, such as sugar cane, since its cultivation is not automated and requires a lot of human attention.
Neocolonialist trends in the global coffee market
According to research by experts for the global coffee trade, in the last three decades the biggest profiteers in the world coffee trade were processors in developed countries such as Germany, Italy and Switzerland. In contrast, small coffee farmers in coffee-producing countries have only moderately increased their incomes on average. The highest earnings in the global coffee distribution chain were achieved in the coffee roasting sector.
Over the past 30 years, the prices and quantities sold of roasted coffee or related coffee products, such as coffee capsules, have increased significantly. The volume of roasted coffee exports increased four times, and the export price increased even six times. In contrast, the quantities and prices of exports of unroasted, green coffee beans only increased by about 60%.
The countries of the coffee belt export about 70% of their coffee products, but 87% of them are in the form of original and unprocessed (unroasted) green coffee. This is not surprising since coffee roasting requires expensive investments and is technically demanding in order to achieve a consistent coffee taste. That is why coffee processing is mainly done by rich companies in developed western countries such as Germany, Italy or Switzerland.
In addition, it is much more difficult to transport roasted coffee over long distances from, for example, Brazil, Myanmar, Ethiopia to the end consumers, mainly in North America and Europe, without losing quality. Therefore, coffee roasting in coffee-growing countries for the Western market is limited to a few products. Therefore, several coffee companies in the West that dominate the market (Lavazza, Illy, Nespresso, Douwe Egberts, Julius Meinl, Tchibo) have a huge social responsibility towards the countries where coffee is grown, for example for more sustainable coffee cultivation, good working conditions, fair wages and more appropriate use of technology and machines in the fields. Unfortunately, these companies behave in a neo-colonialist manner.
When growing Arabica coffee beans (usually used to produce roasted coffee), growers can only increase their income by improving the quality of the beans. Conversely, for Robusta coffee beans (which are primarily used for the production of instant coffee), growing countries could acquire processing technology. That’s why instant coffee can be transported over longer distances and is less complicated and cheaper to produce. Vietnam and Ecuador, for example, managed to create a proper instant coffee production sector over time. Quality state policy can support the production and export of instant coffee through attractive conditions for the arrival of investors and quality transport infrastructure.
Coffee remains a key commodity well into the 21st century for many developing countries such as Brazil, India and Vietnam. Dependent on coffee, these countries generate income and provide funds for education, health and infrastructure projects. The impact of coffee on the economies of these countries is enormous and helps alleviate poverty and stimulate development. Coffee is more than a simple beverage, it is a phenomenon that has shaped the course of human history. From early trade routes to modern cafes on every corner, coffee is woven into the culture, economy and society of the most diverse nations and countries. Influence is global and will surely continue to shape the future of humanity.