It’s the second most traded commodity in the world after oil.
Its global industry generates over sixty billion US dollars annually.
Between ten and twelve billion pounds of it are consumed every year.
Over 25 million families in more than fifty countries rely on it as their sole source of income.
What is it? It’s coffee, and right this very minute it’s out there changing our world in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
Ever since its semi-legendary “discovery” by dancing African goats, coffee has been the central player in a fascinating historical sidebar of thievery, intrigue, romance, and intellectual revival. Variously credited with spawning the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, the scientific revolution, and Western-style democracy, coffee has also been blamed for helping further to tread on the already-downtrodden people of the New World by subjecting them to the evils of colonialism, commercialism, economic exploitation, slave-labor plantations, and chain coffeehouses.
Today the romantic-yet-complicated love affair we have with coffee still inspires passionate conversations from people around the world from every walk of life. Still young and fresh even after so many years, the coffee industry is pushing its borders, exploring (and exploiting) new markets, and challenging its own historical ways of doing business.
And all the while, the goats have not stopped dancing.
What is coffee? For every answer, it seems, there is an equal-but-opposite “re-answer,” that leaves you with the idea that no one really knows what they’re talking about. But that’s part of the joy ― the complexity and diversity, the hundreds of unique faces, the paradoxes and complications ― that all end up being Coffee.
Every cup of coffee begins its life within a thousand miles of the equator. All of the coffee-growing land on earth is contained in that “belt” called the tropics. But keep your eye on that belt as you spin a globe, and you can imagine the incredible diversity you find in the coffee-growing world. From the lowlands of Vietnam where a million and a half pounds of coffea robusta were produced last year, to the mountain heights of Jamaica where specialty farmers grew only 5,800 pounds of the world’s most celebrated Arabica beans, from coffee giants like Brazil and Colombia, who together make up almost half of the world’s production, to nations like Zambia, whose coffee is just now gaining recognition in the world of specialty coffee, the origins of coffee are as diverse as the people who drink it.
But the diversity only starts there…
In Colombia, a grower carries his freshly-picked coffee fruit to the local mill, where it is washed, bagged, and shipped to a commercial roastery to be blended with millions of other beans from thousands of other farms from around the world.
In Yemen, the hot Arabian sun beats down on stone rooftops, where coffee grown on ancient trees on terraced hillsides is spread out to dry in the same way it has been for five hundred growing seasons.
In Paris, a woman sits at a table in a sidewalk café, nursing her coffee and scanning the passing crowd for the familiar face of her lover.
In Ethiopia, a guest is welcomed into a dirt-floored hut, where he sits in a circle by a fire with his host’s family while the coffee is roasted, ground, brewed and served in a hospitality ritual dating back hundreds of years.
In Guatemala, a peasant earns four cents a pound to harvest his crop.
In New York City, a businessman pays four dollars for a three-quarter-ounce espresso ristretto.
A specialty-roaster in New Zealand only sells premium organic shade-grown coffee.
A housewife in Finland scoops coffee grounds from a metal can.
A restaurant in Peru serves instant coffee with evaporated milk.
A barista in Japan earns his college tuition by pulling shots of espresso in a trendy café.
And yet, somehow, in spite of ― or perhaps because of ― all of these differences, coffee manages to unite people around the world. Coffee manages to bring together all of these paradoxes and put them into the simple cup that finds its way onto your breakfast table every morning. All of the legends and stories, all the varieties and flavors, all the people, origins, economics, habits and social issues distil out of the beans in your coffee pot into the mug that warms your heart, opens your mind, and gets you ready to face each new day.