Coffees of the millennium may sound grandiose (what’s next, skateboards of the millennium?), but the more I considered the idea the more persuasive and interesting it became. After all, coffee’s profound appeal to the human palate and nervous system literally helped constitute the modern world. As one of the world’s most actively traded commodities (second in value behind oil), coffee has been a driving force in the development of global trade, while as a beverage coffee helped cement the global culture that grew up around that trade.
Above all, I was persuaded to do this story by the realization that it still is possible to literally taste the millennium in the cup, to drink coffees that remain identical to the coffees that created history, from the Arabian (now Yemen) coffee that first excited Europeans in the coffee houses of Constantinople, to those coffees that filled the silver serving sets of the industrial barons of the 19th century, to those that in the late 20th century have created a newer and closer relationship between the people who grow coffee and those who drink it.
It also occurred to me that it would be possible to choose a single coffee that dominated commerce and taste for each of the coffee centuries of the millennium, from the 17th through the 19th, with a couple of extra coffees thrown in from the 20th as particular tribute to the complexity of our self-important century. Here are my choices for coffees of the millennium.
Best Coffee of the 17th Century: Yemen Mocha
Yemen coffee is a marvel: the world’s most ancient commercially traded coffee, yet still grown and processed exactly as it was five hundred years ago when it first seduced the world. Although the coffee tree originated in Ethiopia and probably was first domesticated there as a medicinal plant valued for the stimulating properties of its leaves and fruit, it was carried across the Red Sea to the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula (now Yemen) sometime before 1000 AD, where the mountain Arabs discovered how to grow it on their steep, terraced mountainsides, and, more importantly, how to unlock its aromatic potential by drying, roasting, grinding and brewing the “beans” hidden inside its small, sweet red fruit. It was Yemen coffee that filled the mysterious little cups that fascinated Europeans in the coffee houses of Constantinople and Egypt in the early 17th century, and it was Yemen that supplied the world with coffee for the next hundred years.
Then, as now, Yemeni farmers dry the coffee on the roofs of their stone houses in the bright mountain sun and carry it to market, where the dried fruit husks are removed by millstone and the chaff winnowed from the beans by hand.
Yemen remains one of the world’s great gourmet coffees: rich, wild, fruity, and unpredictably complex. It is a totally handmade coffee, a living creation of one of the world’s oldest and deepest coffee cultures, where coffee grown on the east side of mountain ridges has a different name from coffee grown on the west side, and where coffee dried when the moon is full fetches a higher price than coffee dried in the dark of the moon because the fruit is said to dry plumper and sweeter.
Best Coffee of the 18th Century: Sumatra (for the original Java)
In about 1705 the Dutch succeeded in establishing commercial coffee growing on Java, in what is now Indonesia. With that success they broke the world monopoly on coffee held by the Yemenis.
At some point during the 18th century the Dutch also pioneered a new approach to removing the fruit from the coffee seed or bean. Called the wet or washed method, it is used today to remove the fruit from most of the world’s fine coffees. It involves stripping the outer skin from the coffee fruit immediately after picking and allowing the beans to ferment for some hours to loosen the remaining sticky fruit residue, which is then washed off before the beans are dried. Apparently the Dutch discovered that the cloudy, often rainy weather in Java spoiled the coffee if they simply allowed it to sit out in the sun to dry, fruit and all, as did their competitors, the Yemenis. By removing a good part of the fruit from the beans before drying them they were able to avoid spoiling the taste of the coffee with the taste of rotting or moulding fruit.
In the highlands surrounding Lake Toba in Sumatra, the home of the famous Lintong and Mandheling coffees, peasant farmers still wet process their coffees by the simplest of means, probably very close to the way the coffees of Java were first processed in the 18th century. They use home-made machines to slip the skins off the coffee fruit, then ferment the skinned or “pulped” coffee overnight in woven plastic bags (no, the Dutch in the 18th century did not have woven plastic bags; they doubtless used something else small and portable) and wash the coffee in whatever water is available. The farmers sometimes dry the coffee directly on clay, accounting for the earthy taste often found in Sumatras.So there is a good chance that the dusky, smoky, deep-toned, often earthy coffees of Sumatra are living ancestors of the coffees of Java that competed with Yemen Mochas during the 18th century in the coffeehouses of Enlightenment France, the London of Addison and Steele, and the taverns and coffeehouses of revolutionary America.
Best Coffee of the 19th Century: Brazil Santos
It was in the 19th century that the new giants of North and South America flexed their coffee muscles. The United States became the world’s leading importer of coffee, and Brazil the leading exporter. They were well matched, because if the United States discovered how to mass produce industrial goods, Brazil learned how to mass produce coffee. The rolling hills of Brazil coffee country encouraged large-scale production, and the tradition of mammoth sugar plantations established in previous centuries was brought to bear on producing large quantities of coffee.
Brazilians returned to the roots of coffee production, the simple pick-the-fruit-and-put-it-out-in-the-sun-to-dry approach taken by the world’s first commercial coffee producers in what is now Yemen. Southern Brazil, like Yemen, is usually dry and sunny during harvest, which made sun-drying large volumes of coffee fruit feasible.
These simply processed, mass-produced coffees of Brazil became the staple of coffee blends the world over, particularly in the United States, where they still help fill the cans that dominate the shelves of supermarkets.
Nevertheless, the coffees that stood at the very tip of the Brazilian quality pyramid were admired as gourmet coffees throughout the 19th century, and still are, if you can find them. In the complex nomenclature of Brazilian grading standards they are called Brazil Santos 2, Strictly Soft Cup. Dry processed in the sun, but dry-processed carefully, they are low-key, sweet, smooth, occasionally spicy or floral, and altogether seductive. Good Santos is a coffee that pleasures us without calling attention to itself, a sort of old money coffee that murmurs delectably rather than shouts. The best Brazil Santos is probably what the business magnates that built the American West drank in their ornate parlours while planning monopolies and mansions.
Some Santos-style Brazils are marketed as single-farm estate coffees, but most continue to be blends of coffees from different farms put together by exporters or importers. The best Brazils go to Japan and Europe, but now and then you can find an American roaster who understands the smooth, silky potential of the best Santos-style Brazil coffees and features them as a single origin.
Best Coffee of the 20th Century: Costa Rica La Minita Tarrazu
The Costa Rica coffee of La Minita farm recommends itself as one of the most important coffees of the 20th century in several respects. Not only is La Minita one of the best and most consistent of contemporary coffees, it is also of great historical importance. Owner William McAlpin’s success promoting La Minita Tarrazu in the 1980s established the model for the “estate” concept in specialty coffee, an approach to marketing coffee as wine is marketed, by farm and by crop rather than by country and grade. Furthermore, La Minita perfectly exemplifies the clean, powerful, dry yet sweet cup that has become the ideal of 20th century American coffee professionals.
Finally, La Minita symbolizes the ultimate refinement of the wet processing method that was pioneered by the Dutch in 18th century Java. With La Minita and similar carefully wet-processed coffees, the fruit is removed from the ripest coffee fruit step by meticulous step before the coffee is dried. When the fruit removal and drying are done as obsessively and carefully as they are done at La Minita, the result is a cup is without flaw or distraction, a perfect, ringing essence of coffee.
Best Coffee of the 20th Century: Kenya AA
Of all late-20th-century coffee origins, Kenya is doubtless the most admired. Coffee-growing came late to Kenya, introduced in 1900 by the British. When the Kenyans achieved independence they structured their coffee industry with what, in retrospect, seems admirable foresight. They maintained a technically sophisticated research establishment, made use of the most advanced techniques in fruit removal and drying, developed efficiently run cooperatives of small holders, and organized their export industry around the open auction.
The auction system in particular is probably key to Kenya’s coffee success. The buyer who offers the highest price for a given lot of coffee at the weekly government-run auction gets that coffee. No insider deals can be cut. Samples of lots of coffee up for auction are distributed to licensed exporters, who evaluate them and distribute them to their customers for their evaluation. The exporters bid for the coffees based on their own evaluations and on the preferences of their customers.
This simple, transparent system tends to reward higher quality with higher prices and so encourages quality. Kenya coffee also has the advantage of consistently high growing altitudes and whatever imponderables of soil and climate contribute to the heady fruit and wine tones that embellish the best East Africa and Arabia coffees.
Unfortunately, as the millennium comes to a close, the remarkable run of success achieved by the Kenya coffee industry appears about to dissolve under the pressures of the global market and the deceptive one-size-fits-all open-market ideology of the international financial establishment. Pressured by a global coffee glut and low coffee prices, Kenya may be about to abandon the auction system and allow farmers and exporters to cut their own deals with buyers. In the view of those who should know, both American and Kenyan, the end of the auction system probably will mean the end of the Kenya coffee industry as world leader in quality, as discipline and clarity are lost and hype begins to replace quality. Enjoy this, perhaps the greatest coffee of the millennium, while you can.
Most Influential Cause Coffee of the 20th Century: Aztec Harvest
Possibly the most important development in coffee at the end of the millennium is the evolution of what might be called cause coffees. Like La Minita and other estate coffees, cause coffees occupy market niches that elevate them from the faceless flow of coffees marked only by grade and growing region. Cause coffees put faces on the coffee we drink, but usually these are not the faces of a single family or estate owner. Rather they are the collective faces of some of the millions of peasant growers who have lived in poverty over the last three centuries while supplying coffee to the rest of the world at often absurdly low prices.
Cause coffees are distinguished first and foremost by concern for and solidarity with other beings on the earth, a concern that may be expressed in a number of overlapping ways: by organic growing methods, by a more just economic return for growers, by various development projects benefitting growers, and by shade growing and other agricultural methods that support wildlife and earth. Good quality may be the ticket required for entry into the club of cause coffees, but the sales pitch is clearly cause first, gustatory abstractions like cup quality second.
Like estate coffees, cause coffees could only develop in the rich medium of the global communications community of the late 20th century, in which jet airplanes, faxes, telephone, e-mail, and international meetings bring growers and retailers face to face, or at least e-mail to e-mail.
My choice for poster child for cause coffees is Aztec Harvest Pluma Hidalgo, one of the first cause coffees of the 20th century. In 1989 David Griswold, an idealistic young businessman, helped a cooperative of Mexican peasant growers in the state of Oaxaca form their own marketing company to bring their coffee, branded as Aztec Harvest, into the United States. David and the cooperative gained the early support of Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee, one of the pioneers of cause coffees, then Ben & Jerry’s ice creams, then other roasters. With their success, David and his colleagues created a model for how peasant growers can outflank the anonymous machinery of the commodity coffee market and deliver their coffees directly to the roaster and consumer.
Aztec Harvest tends to be a bit uneven in quality, simply because it is the product of many peasant growers who pick their small patch of coffee and remove the fruit from the beans themselves. If you are lucky and your coffee came from a farm whose owner did his job carefully your coffee can be a superb example of the Mexico cup: brisk, light, dry, alive with fruit and floral innuendoes. If coffee sneaks into your bag that was badly processed or rained on while it was drying, you may find your cup over-fruity or fermented. But this very inconsistency can be seen by those who value these coffees as the signature of the calloused, singular hands that created them, bean by bean.