The Bonanza Bean: Coffee

By Ethel A. Starbird
Photographs by Sam Abell

The Japanese gentlemen buried me up to the chin in a shallow grave and left me to compost in 13 tons of soggy ground coffee. Fermentation, induced by pineapple pulp, had heated my pool-size percolator to a barely tolerable 140°F [60°C].

For 2,000 yen ([U.S.] $9.50) and 30 minutes, I steamed in some $10,000 worth of the world’s most popular beverage component, perhaps the best buy in today’s Japan. Billed as an antidote for almost everything, this featured attraction at Nishiarai Kouso Sauna Center in suburban Tokyo merely left me limp. And somewhat immodestly clad in a dissolving paper bikini.

If the unique bath did little for me therapeutically, it surely showed how tastes have changed in this land of traditional tea drinkers. A generation ago few Japanese had sampled coffee by the cup, let alone by the tubful. Now Tokyo alone has some 16,000 coffeehouses; the nation, more than 100,000.

None I visited even remotely resembled Europe’s “penny universities” of yesteryear, where scholars, philosophers, and politicians crowded into smoky dens to sip the brew for a penny or two. When an early English coffeehouse suggested customers ante up a little extra “to insure promptness” in service, the gratuity called the tip was born.

Japan’s yen for coffee requires plenty of yen these days—the equivalent of $1.50 a serving. For those who find indoor prices too steep, platoons of curbside vending machines dispense coffee for about 50 cents a can, hot or cold according to the season.

Although new to Japan, coffee had been an eye opener in other places since the ninth century, when according to legend, an Ethiopian goatherd found his flock frolicking about after munching on coffee cherries. He sampled a few and was soon gamboling along with his goats.

From humble beginnings as both food and drink for African tribesmen, coffee evolved into a global phenomenon of extravagant proportions. Among natural commodities in international trade, coffee usually ranks second only to petroleum in dollar value, accounting for 12 billion in 1979.

All 50 exporting countries—led by Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, and the Ivory Coast [now known as Côte d’Ivoire]—rely upon coffee as a major source of foreign exchange. Some 25 million people depend upon it for their livelihood. And uncounted millions down it by the potful.

This adds up to an amazing piece of action for a peanut-size bean whose sole purpose on this planet is to provide a virtually nutritionless beverage made mildly stimulating by the caffeine it contains—75 to 155 milligrams per cup. (Tea: 28 to 44 milligrams.)

Unlike Brazil, which grows a third of the world’s supply—some five million tons last year—and drinks a third of what it raises, most producing nations consume coffee sparingly. The bean brings more leaving home than staying there.

It’s not their addiction to cafezinhos—demitasse doses heavily sweetened and darkly brewed—that gives Brazilians the jitters. Rather, it’s the chilling thought of a killing frost, which, in 1975, damaged nearly half of the country’s three billion coffee trees and sent retail prices into orbit.

Another such disaster loomed in June 1979, when I talked to Wolney Atalla, the world’s largest coffee grower. Frost had again hit southern Brazil. “The loss of a single tree means the loss of income on that spot for the three to five years it takes to replace it. Multiply that by our 15 million trees, and you can appreciate our concern.”

At Pirajuí, an hour’s flight inland, the cold wave had already blackened large swatches of trees. Atalla’s workers, bleary-eyed, toiled into their third sleepless night, burning oil-soaked sawdust and saltpeter to smudge vulnerable areas with a warming smog. The Atallas, pioneers in this process, saw their efforts pay off in rescued trees.

The only major export country susceptible to frost, Brazil, suspended all shipments pending assessment of damage. And uneasy importers, fearing a shortage, went on a buying spree. Inevitably, prices rose, even though Brazil’s actual losses fell far below the first dire predictions.

Several international experts summed up coffee’s swings in much the same way: “We have long periods of low prices, short periods of high ones. When highs occur, farmers rush in to plant. Once the tree begins bearing, it churns out beans without too much effort for the 12 to 30 years of its normal life. Overproduction follows; prices fall. Farmers tear up their plants and put in more stable crops. A disruption in coffee supplies starts the cycle all over again.”

Producers and consumers agree that the only sensible solution is to limit output to what the market can absorb, plus a standby reserve, and sell at prices reasonable to both sides. But what’s reasonable?

Since 1963, 24 import and 44 export countries have cooperated through their London-based International Coffee Organization to stabilize the situation. By imposing a quota system, they can limit the outflow of beans from producing nations in times of oversupply. These controls, in force to sustain prices only until the market does so normally, have been applied twice: from 1963 to 1973 and again in October 1980.

Despite yo-yo conditions and a 100 percent increase in living costs in the United States over the past decade, coffee remains one of the least inflated prepared beverages: five cents a brew-it-yourself cup.

Coffee Craze Spread With Islam

Certainly the ingenious Arab who stirred up the first “bean broth” from the coffee cherry’s agreeable seed had no way of knowing how his concoction would later stir the world. Launched about A.D. 1000 from Yemen, its popularity soon perked across all Arabia, keeping dervishes whirling through nightlong rituals and worshipers awake. For teetotal Muslims, it became an integral part of religious and secular life.

Battles over the brew began about 1500 when physicians sought exclusive distributorship and mullahs complained that outside imbibing was emptying their mosques. Despite frequent efforts to restrict its use, coffee collected devout disciples as Islam’s influence pushed north and west.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) quickly acquired such a great thirst that Turkish law permitted a wife to divorce her husband for failing to keep the family ibrik, or pot, filled. Suing on such grounds should be easy these days. Never able to grow its own coffee, Turkey can no longer afford to import it from abroad.

Behind the landmark Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a middle-aged Turk who had traveled in the States stopped me to practice his English and his charm:

“You are from America, yes? I will show you around.”

“All I’m looking for is a cup of real Turkish coffee.”

“Ah, so sad. There is none. Something nice in leather, perhaps? Or maybe copper?”

“No thanks.” I edged away.

He took my arm and guided me into a dark, cavelike café, where hidden from the eyes of less fortunate Turks glowering into their tea, we sipped small cups of bootleg brew—perhaps a bit milder but no less muddy than in better days.

The proprietor wasn’t shy about his sources. “Mostly from my countrymen who work abroad. They bring in two kilos when they come home, for their own use of course. I buy what I can for 3,000 lira [$36] a kilo. Six times old price, but I do OK.”

The bill convinced me: $1.50 for each three-ounce thimbleful.

“Government say Turks here no work hard any more. I say ’bah.’ Take away our coffee and what they expect?”

Recognizing coffee as a hot item, visiting merchants of Venice carried their first cargo from Constantinople to Italy in 1615; by 1750 it could be found throughout most of western Europe. So, too, could that fraternal lodge of the Levant—the coffeehouse.

As the coffee craze rumbled across Europe, devout Catholics denounced it as the drink of the infidels, and therefore sinful. Before committing himself, Pope Clement—so it’s said—tried a cup and became an instant convert. He settled the matter by baptizing the brew to give it Christian status.

Germans grudgingly did without for a while when Prussia’s King Frederick the Great banned the beverage to bolster sagging beer sales. In other places women agitated for prohibition, claiming coffee inhibited the virility of their mates.

By the late 1600s Britons became smitten with the bean, despite prices that reached the equivalent of $48 a pound—a record. Within a few years London was putting away more coffee than any other city in the world. (The economies of empire later caused a shift to colony-grown tea.)

Many of Europe’s 18th-century literary and musical greats found coffee a pleasant prod to genius. Voltaire reportedly drank 50 cups a day; it’s a wonder he got any work done. Balzac revved up on it before he wrote, and Talleyrand took time to pen his perfect formula: “black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” Johann Sebastian Bach composed an entire cantata poking fun at those who sought to suppress the brew.

Along about the Bach era, the ever enterprising Dutch took a good look at the lucrative coffee trade, another at their colonies in the East Indies, and decided the two were made for each other. By the early 18th century Java was supplying the Netherlands with a steady flow of fine beans carried in the steamy holds of westbound sailing ships.

Fortunately, the unroasted beans react little to lengthy storage if properly protected from strong odors, which they readily absorb. Once roasted, however, beans begin to deteriorate. Present-day purists put the peak flavor at no more than one month. Once coffee is ground and opened, they say, flavor declines after about ten days, even in refrigerated tight-lid containers.

Old Labels Have New Meanings

Beans labeled java and mocha (named for the former coffee capital of Yemen) still fetch premium prices in specialty shops and for use in better blends. More of both seem available than either source now provides.

A knowledgeable Belgian trader explained the discrepancy. “The bulk of today’s commercial coffees fall into two basic categories. Robustas, hardy but a bit harsh, usually end up in soluble form. Arabicas, largely from Latin America, are choicer, milder, of excellent cup quality. They’re preferred for coffees where taste outranks convenience.

“The original javas and mochas—in fact, all important coffee at one time—were arabicas. But Mocha has practically gone out of business, and Java was forced long ago by mass destruction of its arabica plantings from leaf rust to substitute more disease-resistant robustas. Nowadays, some high-grade arabicas are called java and mocha even though they may be grown elsewhere.”

When Indonesia, which includes Java, gained full autonomy in 1954, the Dutch departed, leaving behind a few large estates, now nationalized, and a good deal of native know-how in coffee culture. A returned Dutch exporter, A.M. Tijsseling, knows the market well. “Eighty-five percent of Indonesia’s output comes from about 100,000 smallholders; some work only a few trees each. Methods are as primitive as they have always been—planting, picking, sorting, and processing, all done by hand.”

Doyo Soeyono Kertosastro runs a more sophisticated operation on 860 acres [350 hectares] of his private estate in Dampit-Malang.

Harvest was in full swing. Flocks of dainty little Javanese women perched in the treetops, picking away and twittering to each other like so many brown birds.

“Another native we have also picks with care,” Doyo told me over a superb cup of coffee. “The luak, that’s a small catlike animal, gorges after dark on the most ripe, the best of our crop. It digests the fruit and expels the beans, which our farm people collect, wash, and roast, a real delicacy.

“Something about the natural fermentation that occurs in the luak’s stomach seems to make the difference. For Javanese, this is the best of all coffees—our Kopi luak.

He refilled my cup. “I’d like to try it sometime,” I told him more out of politeness than conviction.

“You just did.”

Branches of the family tree founded by Java’s pioneer plants finally reached the Americas in a saga of resettlement that reads more like fiction than fact.

A Java-born tree taken to the Netherlands in 1706 for botanical display spawned a descendant (most plants self-pollinate) that the Dutch presented eight years later to Louis XIV, King of France. Martinique’s military governor, on leave in Paris, managed to nip off a slip and nurse it through a trouble-plagued return trip to the Caribbean on his own scant water ration.

Coffee reached French Guiana in 1722. By then, neighboring Dutch Guiana already had been in the bean business for about four years.

When differences between the Guianas developed, a neutral Portuguese envoy sent to negotiate a settlement negotiated himself into the affections of a French official’s wife; she obligingly pilfered a few beans that he sneaked back to Brazil. Coffee was soon growing in suitable climates throughout equatorial Latin America.

The tropical Americas, which now enjoy a near monopoly on arabica coffees, have what it takes for peak production: rich soil, reliable rainfall, ideal altitudes between 3,000 and 6,000 feet [900 and 1,800 meters].

Because the bean-bearing cherries cling along branches in tight formation and ripen at different rates, gathering them has always been done manually. And it still is in the highlands of Colombia and Central America where mechanization, even if possible, would create catastrophic unemployment.

Southern Brazil’s much gentler slopes are less restrictive. Here, Wolney Atalla has already contoured some of his rolling acres to accommodate a mammoth of the modern age: primeira colhedora de café do mundo, the first successful coffee-picking machine.

Designed along the lines of a grape harvester, the machine straddles the tree rows like a platform on stilts, its rotors shaking off the cherries.

Field hands, paid by the bagful, tend to skip lightly loaded trees, leaving about 20 percent of the crop untouched. The colhedora isn’t fussy; it can clean off 95 percent in a single sweep.

It’s all still handwork high in Colombia’s Andes, where Luis Gonzaga López of Chinchiná cultivates 8 acres [3.2 hectares] of coffee, about average among the country’s 300,000 growers. With his nephew singing along the tree row beside me, I picked at top speed for more than an hour, collecting barely enough cherries to cover the bottom of my four-kilo [nine-pound] waist basket. Meanwhile, my relaxed coworker had filled his to the brim without missing an eligible cherry—or a note in his nonstop serenade.

Safeguards Spawn Illegal Profits

As some protection against coffee’s boom-or-bust cycles, farmers like López may commit their entire crop to the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia at a daily established price. To fund this subsidy program, the federation levies a 25 percent tax—in cash and actual coffee for its inventory reserve—on the exporters of outbound beans.

Most principal producing nations follow similar practices. But Colombia loses a lot in the process to smugglers.

Dr. Pedro Valencia, director of public relations for the federation, acknowledges the problem: “About 400,000 bags of contraband Colombian coffee reach the States every year; Miami warehouses are full of it. It’s a free-access commodity to your country, so no one cares how it gets there. Returning ships bring back contraband cigarettes, which clear your country legally and enter mine illegally. So we lose both ways.”

Smugglers ran far greater risk in Uganda during the tyrannical reign of deposed dictator Idi Amin. Compelled to deliver coffee to his corrupt regime for worthless currency or none at all, smallholders began sneaking their better beans into Kenya, which also prohibited such traffic. Those caught on the Uganda side were usually put to death, while those across the border made a bundle as illegal middlemen.

While the intake of coffee may not be hazardous to health, its output can be, especially in tiny El Salvador, where 3 percent of the growers produce 60 percent of the crop. At the larger fincas one may be greeted by ferocious guard dogs and wary, armed employees. These coffee czars, most from the country’s wealthiest families, have long been targets of terrorist threats, kidnappings, and sometimes murder.

Here, amid past volcanic convulsions, some farmers must rope themselves down their near-perpendicular manzanas to pick and prune their trees. And funiculars outperform man and mule in conveying the harvest from windswept ridgetops to deep-cleft chasms, where beneficios hull, dry, and bag the beans for export.

Coffee Fills National Coffers

Troubled as El Salvador may be, the country remains the coffee champion of Central America with a crop last year of about 150,000 tons, worth 532 million dollars to an economy almost totally dependent upon this one commodity.

Across the Atlantic in a like latitude, Ivory Coasters operate under more congenial conditions. Combined output of some 350,000 small growers makes them undisputed leaders in raising African robusta, a principal money-maker for nine of the continent’s developing countries.

No one paid much attention to the commercial potential of the robustas, first found growing wild in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo] in 1898, until the 1950s. Since then, the Ivory Coast pick has grown to a quarter of a million tons a year, giving the country a sound economic base.

Mr. Gng N’Gorand Yobouet of coastal Aboisso is an average Ivory Coast landowner. Along with the customary two wives and a number of his 18 children, he works 16 acres [6.5 hectares] of a semicleared forest, growing a casual mix of marketable coffee, cocoa, bananas, manioc, kola nuts, and oil-bearing palms.

I followed him through half a mile [0.8 kilometer] of tangled undergrowth to the site of his scattered coffee trees. Towering above ready reach, all of them needed pruning.

“No, no. It would take away too many of my cherries. The government man says they’ll come back better on new branches. But not for two years. With so many mouths to feed, I cannot wait.”

The government realized belatedly that old age and neglect of trees were killing off the crop. However, replacement and upgrading programs go slowly: Most farmers, like Gng, feel they cannot afford to lose what they have even for a more promising future.

Concocting a Quick Cup

The sudden surge in demand for Ivory Coast and other robustas stems from soaring sales of instant coffee. Introduced to an indifferent public in 1901 by a determined Japanese chemist, solubles refreshed some U.S. fighting forces during World War I but didn’t win a lasting place in civilian larders for another two decades. Today 20 percent of all coffee is processed into spray- or freeze-dried form.

Which simply means dehydrating liquid coffee much as it comes from an ordinary pot into an extract of easily dissolved granules, pulverized to a powder or agglomerated into larger nuggets to resemble regular grinds.

Another act in the roaster’s repertoire: eliminating most of coffee’s kick. Unroasted beans are soaked in water to swell their cells, then submerged in a solvent that flushes out about 97 percent of their caffeine. Rinsed thoroughly, they reenter the pipeline to be roasted, ground, and packaged.

World’s largest roaster, the massive Maxwell House plant in Hoboken, New Jersey, begins its production line across the Hudson River on Manhattan’s Wall Street. Here experts like Tom Conroy, a 47-year veteran, decide what types and tonnage of beans to buy in order to maintain quality standards for more than a dozen company blends.

A gas-fired roasting machine filled the tasting room with a tantalizing aroma; polished cuspidors yawned around a revolving, cup-laden table.

“In the taster’s trade, we smell, sip, and sense, but we don’t swallow.”

Tom began by “breaking”—stirring the coffee’s surface froth to release all its fragrance. He then inhaled a spoonful with a squeal not unlike air escaping a punctured tire. After rolling it around on his tongue, he neatly bull’s-eyed a cuspidor, gave the tabletop a slight turn, and took on the next cup.

“We classify coffee with such words as smooth, acidy, Rioy, winy, sharp, pungent, or neutral. Some, like acidy, may sound negative but are actually favorable traits.

“Identifying a batch and where it’s from isn’t too difficult: This is a Brazil from northern São Paulo state.”

The United States might never have acquired the coffee habit if rebellious colonists hadn’t resisted Britain’s tax on tea, dumping a load into Boston’s harbor and refusing to buy any more from Tory sources. By the time the Revolution ended, coffee had preempted tea as an American table mainstay.

Our forebears took their coffee seriously, steadily, but not with any frills. They simply poured loose coffee, crudely milled, into water, sometimes added eggshells to settle the grounds, and boiled the whole mess to the blackness of a bat cave. Not gourmet, perhaps, but it warmed and fortified many a frontiersman, and such coffee still satisfies some cookout chefs.

Like others, I have long sought the ideal recipe: filter, drip, or perk; beans and blends from this place or that; roasts that range from light brown to something short of soot.

I managed to figure out that the world’s annual bean production could make 3,644,000,000 cubic feet [1,112,000,000 cubic meters] of liquid coffee, a volume equal to the Mississippi’s outflow for an hour and a half. But I have yet to figure out how to brew that perfect cup.

To learn more about coffee, visit

© 1999 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.