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Culture Focus Global Kitchen

Coffee Around the World

Kiyoon Lee June 15, 2019

 Illustration Credit: Eva DiNino

What does a cup of coffee mean to you in your day? Coffee helps some people to go deep in their work. We often have coffee on casual hangouts with friends. In my case, a cup of warm, light-roasted coffee brings me a few minutes of serenity. By writing about coffee around the world and the history behind it, I wanted to give coffee the appreciation it deserves.


   Coffee, the wine of Islam.

Ethiopia is where the Arabica coffee plant is indigenous. The plant’s berries, leaves, and seeds were all used for the Oromo Tribe of Ethiopia. When it reached Yemen, only beans were used to make Qahwa, a religious drink that sustained Sufi mystics throughout night-time prayers. The religious practice spread coffee to other Islamic countries. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire brought coffee to major cities at the time including Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkish coffee developed its’ opaque black color because dark roasting allowed coffee to go around Islamic dietary law. In Turkey, coffee beans are ground into fine powder and it is brewed instead of filtered. Therefore, grounds remain at the bottom of the cup which the Turkish use for fortune telling! Boiling creates foam on the top which is also a unique characteristic of Turkish coffee as well. Turkish Delights goes along with the drink to make the perfect experience.


   Differences in coffee as national identities.

Coffee was first introduced to Christian Europe by a Turkish merchant in Venice. Adding milk to coffee (Kapuziner from Vienna and Café au lait from Paris) was a significant move because “As well as sweetening the taste, milk symbolically transformed the black Muslim brew into a white Christian confection.” Countries with colonies that grow Robusta (as opposed to Arabica) developed bitter coffee, and bitterness became consumer preference in Europe.

Difference in coffee between European countries emerged in the last century, although we think of them as very traditional. For example,  a high-pressure espresso machine was used to serve coffee ‘expressly’ to busy customers of Milan in 50s and 60s, due to the industrialization urbanization. Coffee bars became ideal for grabbing coffee before and in between work. Drinking coffee on feet without a seat is standard in Italy because the price is different if you receive service. When you try your espresso like an Italian, try to notice the layer of foam on top called crema that provides full aromatic experience.


   Trace of colonialism developed into unique coffee

Europeans seeking stability in supply of coffee lead to colonial plantation overseas from the 1720s. Regions that had big coffee plantation includes South America, West and Central Africa and Southeast Asia. After leaf rust that swept away Arabica in colonies lead to the rise of Robusta as a substitute.

In Vietnam, coffee was planted by French and they still have vivid presence in the coffee industry. Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer and the first largest of Robusta. Vietnamese coffee filter is made of steel, which allows the essential oil of beans to be included in the drink. That results in thick and dark coffee, and sweetened-condensed milk is added to counterbalance its’ bitterness. The Unique coffee scene in Vietnam could be found on street-sides. People enjoy coffee on stools while vendors constantly fold/unfold them to accommodate customers and make room for a sidewalk.


   Mass culture of coffee as a result of the war.

European descendent in the U.S. enjoyed coffee but it was really the Civil War that popularized coffee throughout the nation. The word ‘coffee’ was mentioned more than ‘canon’, ‘rifle’ or ‘bullet’ in soldiers’ diaries which allows us to gauge its’ significance. After the war, soldiers came back home with heavy coffee-drinking habits. Rising coffee consumption of Americans could be met by plantations in Brazil and industrialization of coffee production.

American coffee is known for being light and thin-bodied and this characteristic could be attributed to several factors. First, Brazilian beans are mostly Arabica. Second, when percolator – a type of pot for brewing coffee – was introduced in America, companies encouraged users to saturate coffee over-night and heat it up in the morning. Third, coffee was brewed in large quantities in diners and homes to give people unlimited refills. ‘A cup of joe’, which means a classic American coffee, was firmly established in American culture by 1930s.


   Cultural richness found in coffee is just unbelievable. Although I almost reached every continents, there are still distinct coffees in the world that I missed in this article. As we saw, coffee and society have had a significant influence on each other. This has an important implication for today’s highly globalized world. From labor involved in coffee plantation to carbon footprint from export of processed beans, there is so much complexity in a cup of coffee. Understanding the full circle of coffee, I came to notice the importance of the ethical process of making coffee. After accompanying this journey, how do you feel about your cup of coffee now?