A brief history of coffee and an uncertain future

31 Mar
Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to write the “introduction” to my thesis (chronological order is sooooooooooo conventional, daaarlings). I suppose really this should have been introducing what I am doing and why I am doing it, but I decided, at least for now, to go with an introduction to coffee in general – it’s history, why (I think) it is important. Most of the issues I talk about later are all tied up with coffee history anyway, so it has got to go in somewhere. I am hoping that it is interesting enough to make the “why I chose coffee” question self explanatory – but maybe no-one else shares in my geekiness. 😦
I managed to get 400 years of world trade history down to 500 words, but that was because most of it isn’t relevant to my main focus (though I did get in Kaldi the goat herder and the highly romantic legend of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu for entertainment factors). Most importantly, I needed to focus on the history of coffee in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Costa Rica is relatively straightforward: other than being ruled over by coffee oligarchs for more than a century, nothing much happens there. Nicaragua on the otherhand has a ridiculously complicated political history, and since coffee still accounts for a third of their GDP, it is virtually impossible to skip over it. I asked for help and got a wonderful response:

“Colonialism. Independence. Some US invasions, some dictators. Long string of dictators. Revolution, shockingly successful despite US antagonism. Revolution falls apart due to US financing of contras and revolutionary overzealousness slash inability to hold to the ideals of the party. Revolutionary party eventually re-elected but not looking very revolutionary. Lots of poverty and racism throughout. The End.” – from Kate, fellow coffee Phd student in Colorado.

I replied:

“Love it Kate! I forgot to mention – it’s gotta be Nica history with circular reference to coffee…. thus:
Colonialism/banana republic, Independence… dictators inviting germans over to farm coffee, most of said germans fleeing during world wars, a few more US invasions and dictators, successful revolution but sandinista land redistribution means coffee farms taken away from some families, birth of the cooperatives, economy buggered and large section of work force missing, earthquake, sandinistas corrupted by power, hurricanes, inevitable grinding poverty of coffee growers. and pretty much everyone else. Very loose interpretation of “democracy”. The End.

Thought those were too good not to share.
I eventually got it down to 2000 not-very-clear words (including mention of Ronald Reagan’s lovely “I’m a Contra too!” t-shirt) and came to the inevitably conclusion – with a few statistics to back me up – that Nicaragua is basically screwed. Now I know why I deserve this PhD….

Next came the bit on The Coffee Crisis – that is, when the world prices fell below the cost of production back in the 1990s. Lots of things led up to this, droughts in Brazil, US drives for “free and unrestricted trade” and of course, the massive, World Bank funded over-supply of cheap crap coffee from Vietnam. I now know far more than I ever needed to about Agent Orange and badly thought out development initiatives. I thought it was bad enough that a lot of Colombian coffee was poisoned, but I didn’t realise that the vast quantities of robusta that Vietnam produces is grown on the land that was sprayed with Agent Orange. Now there is a good reason not to drink cheap instant stuff!!

All pretty depressing stuff really, not that I should be surprised by now. I get very cynical about the doom and gloom, anti-capitalist style books I read (main perpetrators here being Wild’s ‘A Dark History of Coffee” and Pendergrast’s “Uncommon Grounds”), but there is no denying that the history of coffee doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Which begs the question, do I really want to work in this industry?

Hormones and presence of the Cheese (now christened Big Foot) have made me think a great deal about what on earth I am going to with myself, and the baby, once this PhD is over? What on earth do you actually do with a Phd in coffee?! Possible plans of action including hoping against hope for some miraculous post-doc funding (where all this Nicaraguan coffee-history could come in, it deserves a thesis to itself!) allowing me to fester in academia indefinitely: I do love what I do now, I love Sheffield and the real world sounds quite tedious in comparison. Or, finally get out of university setup (for the first time in 8 years!) and *somehow* get a job as a coffee buyer – I’d love to go round the world, sourcing the very best coffee, and learn cupping. But then, would that be selling my soul? I am pretty confident that if I looked at any global commodity industry in this level of detail, I’d find pretty horrible things everywhere, and then I’d never be able to eat, drink, buy or work in anything ever again. On a more practical basis, the chances of finding a coffee company looking to employ an untrained, inexperienced buyer somewhere where I’d want to live (ie: not Darlo or London) are even more remote than finding a post-doc. 😦
The other option is, of course, to go full time with Doctor Coffee and make a living off that. But that involves moving – I am resigned to the idea that it is never going to be successful in Darlington. I can’t make a living off the van alone; and I haven’t got the capital to invest in getting my own cafe.
Sigh. I don’t know. I do know that the idea of being suddenly unemployed and with a small baby is quite a scary prospect though!! Can I just rely on my general faith in “something will show up” and hope it is coffee related?


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “A brief history of coffee and an uncertain future

  1. DustinAshland

    March 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Wondering if you knew where I might find the myth of the archangel gabriel introducing coffee to king Solomon. It’s credited to Abu Tayyib al-Gazzi. I can’t find it or any information. Do you know any clues?

    • drcoffee

      March 20, 2011 at 7:54 pm

      Sorry but I’ve never heard of that one! Sounds interesting though, let me know if you find anything!


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