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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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 (map) 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 (map) 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.


© 1999 National Geographic Society All rights reserved.