by Tony RyalsLegend has it that a goat herder in northern Africa, perhaps Ethiopia, noticed his goats growing feisty and running around to release this nervous energy after eating plants with a red berry. We now call this plant coffee, after a word borrowed from the Arabs. This was perhaps a 1,000 years ago. While I'm not sure that anyone knows when or how the Arabs evolved from chewing the sweetish red berry and its "beans", or seeds, somewhat later it was transplanted to the Arabian peninsula and methodically cultivated as a cash crop.
During the 1600's, Muslim Turks, who apparently got more than just their religion from the Arab world, brought coffee drinking to the walls of Vienna, Austria. The story goes they were in such a hurry to retreat they left some coffee outside the walls, and either some Austrian educated in the ways of the Turks, or a Turkish trader, taught them how to make the brew.
Coffee houses later spread through Europe and were for some reason associated with intellectuals and similar social deviants. This, combined with its previous associations with heathen Muslims, who still controlled the market, did not help its social standing with the European establishment.
Some European localities had coffee sniffers, or spies, who brought the law down on anyone daring to roast or sell the evil brew. (Actually, bean is a misnomer because it is not a pod-bearing nitrogen-fixing plant, like legumes, that produce the world’s protein-rich beans). At one time, the controversy was even brought before the pope. Being a coffee drinker himself, he could only defensively reply that anything as good as coffee should at least not be left to the Muslim world alone.
Coffee in History
Moving along in history, it is said that when the Germans took Paris in 1870, with the help of the Krupp family cannons, the Bismarck set up office in a luxury hotel. He required the staff to confiscate the hotels chicory to insure his, or the hotels, coffee would not be contaminated with the chicory flavor popular with the French, (just as the Arab world has cardamom-flavored coffee).
In Guatemala, the green coffee bean is called "oro" or gold. This is because it has for over a century been a chief generator of foreign currency and something those who harvest it can least afford to consume. When it is consumed, it has been mixed with corn (the Guatemalan equivalent of the Arab cardamom or French chicory coffee). Sometimes even wild beans are added in the public market, giving it a terrible taste.
In the 1700s, coffee was introduced to the Americas and Dutch-controlled Indonesia, breaking the Arab monopoly. While coffee is not native to the Americas, it is now the world’s largest producer of coffee. Coffee was introduced to Guatemala in the mid-1800s to replace cochineal dye, which could not compete with the new coal-based dyes produced by the Germans. Co-incidentally, the Germans got in on the ground floor of the Guatemala coffee industry through immigration investment policies introduced by General Justo Rufino Barrios. Barrios and the "liberals" argued that coffee production was more efficient on a larger scale than that of cochineal production and so encouraged large "finca" ownership for coffee production as opposed to smaller "cafetales". While coffee would, in the end, have to be collected together to satisfy the large foreign purchases, this could be done through cooperatives or private retailers. So such an argument, while to the advantage of large growers such as the German investors, is probably not really valid. In fact, small individual growers are the most likely to be able to give the most attention to their plants and least likely to be able to afford pesticides. (A problem, or solution, that didn't exist in the 1800s anyway).
CaffeineBut highland coffee (which is the specialty coffee and what has made the name "Antigua" as opposed to simply "Guatemalan" famous), demands less and sometimes no pesticide spraying. That is because the highlands, being less tropical than the lowlands, have fewer insects and other pests. Africa evolved at least three species of coffee of which two are commercially cultivated. Cafe Robusta grows at or near sea level in the tropics. The specialty arabicas grow at higher altitudes, or perhaps further from the equator, but not so high or further from the equator to tolerate much freezing. This is probably because caffeine is an alkaloid evolved to defend against insect infestations. It is known that many, if not all, alkaloids were evolved as natural pesticides. However, it is also a fact that many alkaloids including, or particularly, the illegal ones, have pharmaceutical value.
For instance, while it is a fact that cigarette smoke has toxic effects from various molecules produced in burning, the nicotine alkaloid itself has only recently been proven to at least minimally mitigate against Alzheimer’s, and its consequent memory loss effect. Yet, tobacco and its nicotine can also be soaked in water and sprayed on plant leaves as a natural pesticide. Another different molecule, probably an alkaloid, found in tobacco, has at least some minor mitigating effect upon Parkinson's syndrome.
But back to coffee and caffeine-while specialty coffee, or highland coffee, is not decaffeinated, it naturally has less caffeine than lowland robusta. A few highland coffee growers have actually grafted arabica coffee into the rootstock of lowland robusta because the lowland robusta is more resistant to nematodes that attack the roots.
And while some swear at the caffeine alkaloid, others swear by it. Particularly university students cramming for an exam, or some other person doing brainwork. Although it seems bioresearch has found that plants manufacture alkaloids to harm organisms that eat them, generally by mimicking hormones that harm the pest’s cell growth or specialization of its larvae-these same molecules have strange, or different, effects upon the complex human or other central nervous systems.
Highland "Shade" Coffee
But returning from the wonderful, (or at least strange), world of alkaloids, it is also interesting to note that specialty highland coffee is more acidic than lowland coffee. This seems to be true even when both coffees are of the Arabica species. A recent Anacafe, (Guatemalan Coffee Association), study seems to confirm what I have suspected for years. That is, that acidity and higher sugar content are related. And that highland coffee has a higher sugar content even when the lower altitude coffee is the same Arabica variety. I don't generally put sugar in my coffee and have often thought that highland coffee literally tasted sweeter. I think there is scientific proof for this and the recent Anacafe research seems to confirm it.
Recently interest has grown among coffee drinkers and purchasers as to the importance of shade trees in the "finca" or "cafetal", to migratory birds. This has been due to the interest shown by large growers and international development agencies, (US AID, I believe), to promote the cutting of shade trees to make more room for more coffee per acre or hectare.
Research by Smithsonian Institute has shown that besides providing habitat for migratory birds, the coffee shade tree system is rewarded by having the birds to ear insects. Thus, the birds also reduce the need for pesticides by eating harmful insects. It has also been estimated that open field coffee, even more so on hill and mountainsides, greatly speeds erosion when shade trees are cut. At least 30% more fertilizer must be applied to fincas or cafetales when trees are cut. This could be particularly grave as fertilizer becomes more expensive. And even worse for small growers.
For plants to make oils they must use up some of their sugars. I have had a belief that coffee plants growing in direct sunlight may produce more oil as a response to the stress of direct sunlight. If so, growing highland coffee in direct sunlight might be the equivalent of growing lowland-quality coffee in the highlands in terms of sugar-to-oil ratio. The coffee will convert its sugars to oil. I believe the Anacafe study seems to back that up. The response may have to do with making oil to protect the plant surface from solar radiation damage.
A lower sugar content in robusta, or lowland coffee, may explain why some coffee roasters in Spain and Italy etc. add a small amount of sugar when roasting an espresso bean. To save money, they buy the cheaper, lowland bean, which can be modified, in subtle sweet taste by this method. Although the U.S. coffee consumer is often maligned for having no taste in good coffee, the truth is no culture has been more fanatic about quality over the last 20 years than the U.S. Northwest. All our espresso, or dark, roast has been from the highest quality highland tropics. That is, no sugar even added to roast.
A large selection of highland coffee from around the world has always been available-something generally unheard of unless they've copied this west coast craze. Or, had the misfortune of having it introduced by a large U.S. chain copying these small roasters.
Doing the Right Thing
Since opening the Tostaduria Antigua several years ago, I have been asked many time why I don't grow my own coffee. My answer is that there are plenty of small growers who have coffee for our needs, and no means of justly marketing that coffee. And buying coffee in small quantity from these people for our needs has provided me, (and our clients), with subtle taste differences that are equal to the best coffee of New Guinea, Colombia, etc.
The differences are probably due to subtle changes in altitude, soil, shade and bean processing from one processor to another. We're probably the only roaster in the world to occasionally have coffee literally from the city limits of Antigua, not to mention from directly off the sides of volcano Pacaya. Although the National Coffee Association has said that coffee should be at least 5,000 feet above sea level to be called "Antigua", so Antigua city limits might be a few feet below the altitude to qualify under its own name. But it is just fine when we get it. Personally, I'll keep an open mind about 3,500 ft. above sea level to where even the micro-climate of Guatemala cuts off growth (6,500 ft. or perhaps higher).
Another unique aspect of our coffee purchases from the small (and yes, poor) coffee grower is lack of water to waste on the conventional coffee processing called "fermentation". For small growers to take their coffee beans to a "beneficio", or coffee processor, is to virtually give away one's coffee, or a few plants in the backyard - hardly worth the effort. The best alternative is to simply spread the red, ripe berry in the sun and let it dry. The berry dries to a black hard shell and most of the fruit sugar is dried on or around the seeds or "beans", making them sweeter yet. This is no doubt the original, or natural, method first used by the water-scarce Arab lands and drunk originally by the Europeans.
And old-fashioned is not always less wise. Central America's largest water polluters are the water-intensive beneficios. (Although modern synthetic organics, such as pesticides, etc. are a growing water polluter here as in the more industrialized nation). Fincas generally have their own beneficios, and perhaps the organic loaded water could be ponded and returned to the soil rather than destroying streams or rivers. However, I love what I came to call zero-water coffee (i.e. the dried bean of the small grower), and think it should become as revered and promoted by those concerned with sound or sustainable coffee production as the shade grown coffee production itself.
To promote and develop sun-dried coffee berries would automatically favor the small grower because they are the producers. They're also the last to be able to export their crop because they depend on the water intensive beneficios to buy their beans for export. And being small and economically disadvantaged, they are least likely to use pesticides. They are naturally organic and they need your help and business. So if you’re concerned about Central America's water, try not to support water-wasters and help make the small amount of zero-water purchases in the U.S. etc. become the majority.