Gastropology 101

The Authoritative Coffee: Part 1

by Nadge Ariffin Photography FriedChillies on Wed, March 11, 2009

We kick off our coffee fortnight with a great article from our Gastropologist at large, Nadge. There's so much to write about coffee, this first part is titled: From Simple Cuppa to Special Mocha and More

Sufi Muslim mystics were one of the first groups to reap the benefit of coffee

“I’ll have the Mo-cha…”, I began as I scanned the beverage menu.

“Mo-ka”, corrected the bright young lady serving me, as naturally as she must have corrected a hundred or a thousand other customers.

“Oh, Mo-ka…” I sheepishly repeated. As a Spanish-speaker, I naturally tend to pronounce any ‘ch’ combination with the ‘macho’ sound.

That was years ago but it made me curious as to how coffee drink names like ‘Mocha’ and indeed how the current explosion of coffee consumption came about. In places like Malaysia, similarly in the rest of Asia and indeed the whole world, ubiquitous coffee chain outlets to new kopitiams to hotel bars all now compete with the humble kedai kopis to feed us all types of coffees – teh tarik not withstanding.

A resurgent coffee culture is upon the planet, with over two billion cups of all forms of coffee - from humble plain to special blend - served daily in coffee houses, bars and restaurants. And that’s not counting the personally made brews of popular decaffeinated coffees at home or office.

Today coffee can be drunk in a mind-boggling variety of forms, from the most exquisite gourmet blends, in straight black espresso, in caffe latte mode with varying proportions of milk (latte in Italian), or foamed cappuccino-style, mixed with chocolate as in Mocha, and finally sprinkled with every kind of spice or flavouring imaginable with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and vanilla being popular.

Taste is an individual preference, and so is place for enjoying your cuppa. In fact, you can say there is no one coffee culture but many different coffee modas thriving within a country or even a city.

Think of a nice warm kopi to go with your favorite newspaper at a vibrant street coffee shop, or an exotic aromatic blend with a friend at a cool hotel lounge, or just a simple piping hot brew anywhere and ponder how this quiet coffee craze began.

For this we should thank the Arabs, and a certain Kaldi over a thousand years ago, a goat-herd youth whose usually staid goats pranced excitedly after they munched on the coffee berry. The lad tried it himself and got high. A monk chanced by, saw the happy boy, and tried it with similar results. He brought some to his fellow monks and it helped them stay alert for their long prayers.

Indeed, Sufi Muslim mystics were one of the first groups to reap the benefit of coffee, who were delighted to find something that made them high for their esoteric religious ceremonies and yet was not the forbidden wine. The coffee culture was thus born.

In fact, the name coffee comes from the Arabic word al-qahwah, a poetic term for wine. The Turkish form is kahveh and from there it evolved in European tongues, since the coffee-addicted Ottoman Turkish army left behind numerous sacks of beans after they abandoned their siege of Vienna in 1683, and coffee was soon drunk in the Austrian city.

Up till that time, the Arabs and those who followed had been enjoying it as a straight black drink, without sugar or alternately with copious amounts. For rich or poor, it was drunk almost reverently and savored daintily, as it should even today; personally conscious of its sensations seeping on the tongue and spreading in the torso.

Today connoisseurs talk of discerning the different tastes; its mild or strong bittersweetness an individual preference, its acidy tang the sharper the better, its aroma enervating but not be overpowering and its lingering body feel in the mouth should be good enough that you’d want to French kiss someone who’s been sipping the brew.

And is there a best brew? That’s a debatable issue. But commercially, the best coffee beans come from the Coffea arabica tree species. It was first cultivated in the Arabian colony of Harar in Ethiopia, where it is native and from where it spread.

By the 15th century, it was intensively cultivated in Yemen and began to be exported via the Arabian port of Al-Mukha, hence the name Mocha. Coffee spread throughout the Islamic world via pilgrims in Mecca for the Haj, giving the Arabs a highly profitable trade monopoly.

The Arabs guarded the secret of its production jealously but eventually beans and plants were smuggled out of Arabia. Dutch traders stole some and were first to bring live specimens to Europe from the Middle East in 1616, where it remained a botanical curiosity for decades. Only in the 1690s did the Dutch open plantations in their colonies in Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, whose coffees still enjoy high prestige.

The Dutch brought back Java coffee plants to Europe, from where in 1713 the French took samples to Haiti, spreading it throughout the Caribbean. From 1718, the Dutch also brought coffee together with Javanese exiles to their South American colony of Suriname, from where it (coffee, not the Javanese) spread to Brazil in 1727.

In the mid 19th century the coffee leaf disease Hemileia vastatrix struck Indonesia, Malaya and India, where it almost wiped out local coffees. This allowed other places such as Latin America to overtake production. Today Brazil is the world’s biggest coffee producer. Coffee is now grown in over 60 countries in the tropical belt, providing a livelihood for more than 25 million people. Besides arabica, the tougher but less flavorful robusta as well as liberica are cultivated.

The coffee drinking culture spread throughout Europe in the 1700s, joining a craze that continued in the Arab-Islamic world and resulted in coffee houses becoming social fixtures in every nation – uniting the world in coffee. Ah, if only the nations were that simple to unite.

So strong was the fixation on coffee and coffee houses that at various times authorities actually wanted to ban both. Islamic clerics were the first to try since, like wine, coffee could intoxicate and also because people were spending too much time in coffee shops discussing politics rather than at the mosque for prayers. But culture was stronger and the Muslim masses just ignored the bans, which died away.

Christians were not far behind. Italian priests petitioned Pope Clement VIII to ban coffee partly on the grounds that it was a ‘Moslem beverage’; ironically just as Muslim leaders were trying to forbid it. The Pope must have been a coffee lover for he is said to have instead baptized the drink for Christians to enjoy. Hallelujah!

The coffee culture mixed so well with business that coffee houses even gave birth to some of the great mercantile establishments. The most famous of many examples is Lloyd’s of London, which resulted after so much underwriting of shipping took place at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in Tower Street, London. The Stock Exchange in Sweetings Alley was a similar story. Indeed, coffee is still the second biggest traded item in world commodity exchanges today, after oil.

And so, whether you're enjoying a personal cuppa over a newspaper or a blended mocha over business, remember the great history behind the humble beans that gave birth to this globe-spanning drink.