Introduction | Coffee Craze Spread With Islam
Old Labels Have New Meanings | Safeguards Spawn Illegal Profits | Coffee Fills National Coffers | Concocting a Quick Cup

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(Note: This article, originally published in the March 1981 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, is re-presented here in its entirety. Facts and figures have not been updated.)

The Bonanza Bean: Coffee

By Ethel A. Starbird
Photographs by Sam Abell

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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 (map). 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 (map) 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 (map), Colombia (map), Indonesia (map), and the Ivory Coast [now known as Côte d’Ivoire (map)]—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 (map) over the past decade, coffee remains one of the least inflated prepared beverages: five cents a brew-it-yourself cup.


© 1999 National Geographic Society All rights reserved.