Coffee: The Elixir of Life

Coffee: The Elixir of Life

“What I absolutely love about writing articles on food is that I get to learn so much about its cultural history. From the forests of Kaffa, Ethiopia, where it was first foraged, to modern day coffee shops, join me in discovering the evolution of coffee. A big thanks to Tori Avey and PBS’ History Kitchen for some of the information in this article” Sujatha

Daana’s Wild Arabica Coffee is from the indigenous Kurumba communities in the bio-reserve of the Nilgiri Hills in south India.  This is a single origin, unblended and uncultivated Arabica. Arabica coffee tends to be less acidic, and lends itself well to many brewing techniques, including drip, pour over, French press and espresso.

Our coffee grows wild in the forest, under the shade of native trees, which provide a sanctuary for birds and other animals. This diverse ecosystem enhances the quality of natural organic matter in the soil and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. Shade trees also control the growth of weeds and reduce insect and pest damage, and leaf disease, thus eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

Growing coffee in high-diversity shade like in the Nilgiri forests is the most eco-friendly coffee cultivation method. India is one of the very few regions of the world where coffee is grown in dense and diverse shade.

The coffee grows among other plants such as oranges, tangerines, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, wild basil, and pepper vines, thus resulting in a unique flavor and character in every cup. Beans are handpicked to make sure that only fully ripe ones are harvested. Underripe beans are left on the plants to ripen further. Selective picking by hand ensures that beans are at the peak of their flavor. They are then sun-dried. Although this process takes much longer than mechanical drying, the slower drying process further enhances the flavor of the beans.

Daana works with the Keystone Foundation  in sourcing coffee beans. Keystone Foundation  has been working for more than 25 years to help establish livelihoods for tribal communities, and ensure the continuation of their traditional ways of life. Read more about the community, the region and Keystone Foundation’s work in my trip report.

Soundararaj, one of the members of the community, is featured below:

The origin of uncultivated coffee goes back to 10th century Ethiopia. Documented evidence of cultivation and coffee drinking is from the 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. In those days, coffee was exported to other regions in roasted or baked form so that no one could grow it on their own and hence were forced to buy from the Yemenis.

Introduction of coffee to India is credited to Baba Budan, a 16th century Sufi saint. He is said to have smuggled in raw beans from the port of Mocha in Yemen, while coming back from the Haj.  On his return home, he planted the beans on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Karnataka, southwestern India. This hill range was later named after him as the Baba Budan Hills, where his tomb can be visited even today.

By the 16th century, coffee had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and Africa. Coffee then spread to the Balkans, Italy and to the rest of Europe, as well as to south east Asia and America.

The drink wasn’t popular in America until the Boston Tea Party and the subsequent boycott of tea. An entry in one of John Adams’ letters to his wife Abigail reads:

I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. “Madam” said I to Mrs. Huston, “is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?”

“No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but He make you Coffee.” Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.

The Civil War and other conflicts that followed also helped to increase coffee consumption, as soldiers relied on the caffeine for a boost of energy. Teddy Roosevelt himself is counted among America’s great coffee drinkers due to his rumored consumption of a gallon of coffee daily! Roosevelt is also said to have coined Maxwell House’s famous “Good to the Last Drop” slogan after being served the coffee at Andrew Jackson’s historical home, the Hermitage, in Tennessee.

By the late 1800s, coffee had become a worldwide commodity, and entrepreneurs began looking for new ways to profit from the popular beverage. In 1864, John and Charles Arbuckle, brothers from Pittsburgh, purchased Jabez Burns’ newly invented self-emptying coffee bean roaster. The Arbuckle brothers began selling pre-roasted coffee in paper bags by the pound. They named their coffee “Ariosa,” and found great success selling it to the cowboys of the American West. It wasn’t long before James Folger followed suit and began selling coffee to the gold miners of California. This blazed the trail for several other big name coffee producers, including Maxwell House and Hills Brothers.

In the 1960s, a certain awareness for specialty coffee started to grow, inspiring the opening of the first Starbucks in Seattle in 1971. Today, the grassroots coffee movement continues to grow with the increase of small independently-owned cafes boasting sustainable, locally roasted, fair trade beans. Coffee making has evolved into an art, with beans now valued for their complexity of flavor and terroir, much like wine.

Coffee in India

I must touch upon the tradition of coffee in southern India, a region where these plants were first grown outside of Arabia. Coffee drinking is still mostly a domestic activity and is the harbinger of a good morning in homes across south India. The tradition of coffee shops began in the 1930s when an organization called the Coffee Cess Committee opened their first outlet in Mumbai. Prior to that, coffee houses were open only to the British and not to Indians. Several more opened shortly, all over the subcontinent. Many of them served as meeting spaces for people involved in the Indian independence movement.

Thus began the saga of the iconic Indian Coffee House chain. The Coffee Cess board shut them down in the 1950s. They were taken over by the communist leader A.K Gopalan and reopened as worker owned cooperatives across the country. Read this lovely write-up in the Slate magazine on Indian Coffee House. My favorite is the one in Kolkata (featured above), with a life-size photograph of a handsome Rabindranath Tagore in his twenties. The place was frequented by Netaji Bose, Tagore, and later by luminaries like Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen, and Aparna Sen. The famous singer Manna Dey composed a song reminiscing his youthful days hanging out with friends –listen to it here.

Decades later, the opening of the first Café Coffee Day in Bengaluru in 1996 paved the way for an explosion of modern day cafes throughout the country.

If you are a coffee adventurer, do try this south Indian coffee brewing technique, called the Filter Coffee. It is slowly making its way into boutique coffee shops in the United States.

From a simple cup of black coffee to a complex, multi-adjective Starbucks order, each coffee drinker has their own favorite way of indulging in this caffeinated wonder-drink. My order (much to my 15 year old’s chagrin) goes like this… “I’d like a double shot of espresso, with extra hot soymilk on the side, no foam please, in for-here cups.” Whats yours?