This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Grounds for Revolution, first released on February 21, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
JAY RUSKEY: This is a Santa Barbara winter here. So it’s green, and, um, it’s 73 degrees, no wind. It’s gorgeous.
NICOLA TWILLEY: This is Jay Ruskey. Recently I got a chance to visit his farm where he grows rare fruit. It’s in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, in California. And as we walked around the cherimoya trees and the ice cream bean trees and the pitanga shrubs, I finally spotted the fruit I’d come to try.
(SOUND OF WALKING + BRANCHES)
TWILLEY: Beautiful, two little red cherries. I love it.
TWILLEY: It’s shiny, it’s oval or whatever ovoid rather than round, it’s beautifully shiny. Alright, let me try this.
TWILLEY: Mmm! That’s actually delicious.
GRABER: I am really jealous of this trip, because I love fruit and all those rare fruits sound amazing, but the fruit Nicky was laser focused on eating straight off the tree was something we never think of as a fruit! It was coffee!
RUSKEY: For coffee plants here we’re approaching 5000 trees. We probably have 8000 fruit trees on this farm. In the state of California we’ve planted over 100,000 coffee trees across 74 farms.
TWILLEY: Coffee, growing in southern California — I mean, who knew? But that’s just one of the many mysteries of this shiny red berry and its stimulating seed that we’re exploring this episode. This, of course, is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this episode, we’re getting to the bottom of how the seeds of a tiny berry from Africa ended up in the cups of more than a billion people around the world every day. And how the plant ended up being grown everywhere from Kenya to Indonesia to Colombia to, yes, southern California.
TWILLEY: It’s the story of how a single chemical that’s basically an insecticide became utterly essential to most people’s mornings. But it’s also the story of how that one molecule ended up shaping the world we live in today, from the stock market to social media.
GRABER: In the process, we also tell what has become a particularly American tale: why Americans drink so damn much coffee — and why it’s a critical part of basically our national obsession with work.
TWILLEY: All that plus the invention of the cappuccino and the coffee break, and the secret to brewing a perfect cup of coffee in this special two-part series on one of the world’s most popular beverages. In case you’re wondering, tea still actually has the edge, because it’s so popular in Asia.
GRABER: As you’ll hear, this special series is sponsored by Nespresso, and just to let you listeners know, Nespresso did not have any input on the actual content of this series. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
SARADA KRISHNAN: Well, coffee is something that we all can’t do without. It wakes us up in the morning. And, you know, many of us do not function in the morning without that first cup of Joe.
AUGUSTINE SEDGWICK: Coffee is a delicious, miraculous beverage that I depend on for my everyday success and happiness. And I think for many people, it’s the same.
TWILLEY: So here at Gastropod, as you know, we like to ask the big questions. Like, what is coffee?
JONATHAN MORRIS: Coffee is a plant. Coffee is a seed. Coffee ultimately is, of course, a beverage made from the beans, as it were, of the coffee plant.
GRABER: And we asked that big question, “what is coffee?” to people who spend a lot of time thinking about it. Sarada Krishnan, who you heard first, she’s the director of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, she’s director of horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and she owns a coffee plantation in Jamaica.
TWILLEY: Augustine Sedgewick is the author of Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug. And Jonathan Morris is a historian and author of Coffee: A Global History.
GRABER: And like Jonathan said, coffee is a drink, it’s a bean, or really a seed, and before any of that it’s a plant, from an entire family of plants.
KRISHNAN: So we have 131 species now in the genus Coffea. And of that, two species are cultivated as a coffee beverage for consumption.
GRABER: Other species have been used locally, wherever they grew, throughout history, but they basically fell out of fashion as two species took over commercially.
TWILLEY: And actually, for most of coffee’s history, only one species was grown commercially — Coffea arabica, or Arabica coffee. It’s originally from Ethiopia and South Sudan.
GRABER: Until recently, most people thought Arabica coffee was just from ethiopia. But Sarada and some colleagues actually led the team that showed it was also from South Sudan. They discovered it growing wild there.
KRISHNAN: Coffee in the wild grows in the forest, under really heavy shade. And so they get to about five or six feet but it is not very as prolific and full and lush like a cultivated plant would look like. It is much more like lanky and tall with a few branches at the top
TWILLEY: So it’s a lanky shrubby tree in the forest understory. So far, so unpromising. Who had the brilliant idea to start harvesting it?
GRABER: There’s a story that’s been passed around for hundreds of years, that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats chewing on the fruit and leaves of a particular lanky bush and then the goats started jumping around excitedly and so Kaldi decided to try the stuff that made his goats so energetic.
KRISHNAN: And I’m not sure how true that is. Is it just a myth or just a fun story to tell?
TWILLEY: Unsurprisingly, the Kaldi story seems to be just a fun myth. As usual, the problem is there aren’t written records of this kind of traditional plant use.
MORRIS: What we surmise is that in Ethiopia, in the forests there, people were foraging coffee and foraging it as a plant for various purposes
GRABER: The coffee leaves got made into a tea called kuti, and the seeds were also roasted with butter and salt to make an energy snack type thing.
MORRIS: Yeah, it’s a nice herbal tasting sort of tea. I’ve not tried the energy bars, but the principle of the energy bar is, of course, that it’s got that caffeine release in it. And it was commonly used by hunters and by warriors for that purpose. So they would take it sort of trekking with them.
TWILLEY: The coffee plant was handy, but not yet essential. Until, at some point, someone started adding hot water to those roasted seeds, and coffee as we know it was born.
MORRIS: We know that around the 1450s, the wild dried cherry started being exported from Ethiopia across to Yemen and to Arabia. And we know that from shipping records and from the first Arabic manuscripts that talk about coffee.
GRABER: It made logical sense to ship only the dried seeds across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen. The caffeine in the plant is concentrated in the seeds, what we also call the beans. And dried seeds are easy to transport.
MORRIS: So we know that coffee definitively has been part of a trading system since about the 1450s. But it’s likely that it was being drunk much before then or being used in various ways, much before then.
TWILLEY: And one of those various ways was as a religious aid.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well one of the first uses of coffee and tea, interestingly enough, is in the religious context. Monks, Sufis, would use coffee to help them stay awake during long nights of prayer or meditation. And this was true, too, for, for Buddhists in China, they learned pretty quickly that tea was an aid to meditation.
TWILLEY: This is Gastropod’s very own fairy godfather, Michael Pollan. His most recent book is called This is Your Mind on Plants, and one of the three plants he explores is coffee.
POLLAN: It helps with the kind of focus that you want, and it also keeps you from falling asleep on the cushion.
TWILLEY: Sufis had obviously prayed for centuries *before* the 1400s, which is when coffee came along. At first, they favored another substance.
MORRIS: Sufis tended to kind of put themselves into a kind of transcendental state to perform their devotions, and they would often use for that the drug that’s known as khat. So you can smoke khat. It’s kind of a plant with a leaf that’s smokable.
GRABER: But then, in the late 1400s, there was a huge crisis in the Sufi community in the Arabian peninsula in what’s now Yemen — there was a shortage of khat! But good news, apparently at least one Sufi had traveled across the Red Sea to Ethiopia and he knew about the coffee plant. He suggested they use it for a drink, in place of their beloved khat. They called their drink kawa, which is one of the theories of the origins of the word coffee.
POLLAN: So that was the first practical application, was in a religious context, and it gradually, you know, changed from that to a commercial context and recreational context.
TWILLEY: That shift actually happened pretty quickly, because coffee was a killer app, especially in Muslim countries. Because alcohol was forbidden, people didn’t have pubs to go and socialize in. But coffeehouses? They were fine.
MORRIS: So there’s a story that in 1511 in Mecca, the governor of Mecca or the pasha of Mecca, attempted to suppress coffee drinking. He discovered people outside the mosque drinking coffee, and he referred this to the religious scholars for a ruling as to whether or not it was licit to drink coffee.
GRABER: He brought in the physicians of the day to testify that coffee made you drunk, that it was basically the same as alcohol, and that it should be forbidden in Islam.
MORRIS: But of course, the verdict was actually well, no, coffee doesn’t make you drunk. Coffee, in fact, makes you more awake. It makes you more stimulated. It makes you more active in praising the Lord, and therefore it was licit to drink coffee.
TWILLEY: Hurray! And coffee was indeed a blessing. Before coffee houses took off in the Arab Middle East, really the only option for hanging out socially was hosting people in your house, and that of course is a whole thing of displaying wealth and setting up obligations to reciprocate.
GRABER: But the coffee house wasn’t like that. There might be storytellers or musicians, anyone could come in, you’d be seated usually on a long bench depending just on when you entered, not on your social status, sitting next to whoever else came in. It was a kind of surprisingly un-hierarchical experience for the time.
POLLAN: Men, mostly, or probably exclusively, would go to these coffee houses and imbibe and engage in conversation and business. And that model, that there should be a special institution where you had your caffeine, that it was not something you, you did at home, but you did in a public place, translates pretty directly to the way coffee and tea were introduced in, in England and France.
TWILLEY: A handful of Europeans had come across this novel new beverage while traveling in Turkey and the Arab world in the 1500s, and they found it fascinating — it was hot, it was black like ink, and it seemed to make people very lively.
TWILLEY: One early English account described coffee as a, quote, “Turkish-kind of drink made of water and some berry that was somewhat hot and unpleasant. But, had a good after relish and caused some breaking of wind in abundance.’”
GRABER: Europeans wanted this farty bean for themselves, but they couldn’t get enough from Yemen. By this point, Yemen had become the center of commercial coffee production. The port of Mokka in Yemen was one of the main ports involved in the spice trade. And so would-be coffee growers had a ready-made distribution system.
TWILLEY: The Yemenis were smart, and they wanted to keep their monopoly over this increasingly lucrative coffee market. So they made the decision that they would only sell coffee as a roasted bean, not a green bean.
GRABER: And obviously you couldn’t grow a new plant from a roasted bean. So the more they protected the green beans, the safer their monopoly was.
TWILLEY: Eventually, somehow, and there’s a couple of probably mythical stories about this, too, the Dutch smuggled it out, and planted coffee in their colony, Java, an island in what’s now Indonesia.
GRABER: Growing coffee on Java meant that Europeans had access to a lot more coffee, and yes, this is why coffee is still sometimes called Java today.
TWILLEY: While we’re talking about coffee names, Yemen as we mentioned was exporting coffee through the port of Mokka, which is another place name that has become synonymous with chocolate-flavored coffee in particular, but also all sorts of other coffee-related stuff.
MORRIS: You’ve got mocha as the so-called moka-pot, the thing that the Italians use as a stovetop espresso. So all of these are really tributes to the original mocha and Mocha being the port from which coffee was being exported.
GRABER: Whatever you called it and wherever it came from, by the 1600s, Europeans were into it. They’d set up coffee shops in Europe, too. The first was in Venice, but the first coffeeshop culture really developed in England.
POLLAN: And its effect, I think, on Western civilization is profound.
POLLAN: I mean, I think it ushers in what amounts to a new form of consciousness, a new way of perceiving the world that was incredibly helpful to things like the scientific revolution and the capitalist revolution. Because it cleared the Western mind, which had been badly clouded by alcohol.
TWILLEY: Like Michael says, before coffee arrived in Europe, people had mostly been drinking alcohol of some sort. Alcohol was preferred over water because it was safer, but, as anyone who has had a drink at lunchtime and then tried to work afterwards will know, it does not help with productivity and efficiency.
GRABER: Coffee also was safer than plain room temperature water because you boiled the water for the drink, which killed a lot of what would make you sick, and then on top of that, it also basically did the opposite of alcohol. Instead of being a little sluggish from your lunchtime beverage, suddenly with coffee you’re super alert.
POLLAN: And so what’s great about caffeine is you can actually watch how a plant psychoactive affects us as a society in a fairly short period of time, because it arrives in England in the 1650s.
POLLAN: Coffee and tea and chocolate, which also has caffeine in it, all arrive in the same wonderful decade of the 1650s.
POLLAN: So that’s why it’s a really interesting case study, because we can really look at civilization, our civilization, before and after caffeine.
TWILLEY: As it happens, caffeine is Michael’s favorite drug, and, as his regular readers will know, he’s tried a few.
POLLAN: Yeah, I put caffeine right up there. I mean, there are others that are kind of more novel and more exciting. But if I wanted to be realistic about it, I’d have to say the favorite is caffeine.
GRABER: Michael can’t even really remember his life without this drug in it, he’s been using it since he was young —
POLLAN: Ridiculously young actually. I started drinking coffee… I must have been nine or 10.
POLLAN: And, you know, kids generally don’t like bitter drinks, and they get their caffeine usually through soda, but they do get their caffeine. But I liked coffee.
POLLAN: My dad was a, just a complete coffee addict. I mean, he drank coffee all day long. And it was a treat for me to join him at breakfast and have coffee with him. It was the adult thing to drink.
POLLAN: Yeah, so I developed my liking for it pretty early and was often told it would stunt my growth. Which suggests I would be like 6’6″ if I had never developed the habit because it didn’t. I mean I’m pretty tall.
GRABER: True, he is.
TWILLEY: The point is, we’re talking coffee mega-fan here. Which unfortunately made it almost impossible for Michael to imagine how it must have felt for Europeans who had never experienced coffee or caffeine, to suddenly have this wondrous beverage in their lives. Until he quit his favorite drug.
POLLAN: Well, I got off coffee strictly for research purposes.
GRABER: So Michael was interviewing a psychedelics researcher for his book, and the guy also happens to be a caffeine researcher.
POLLAN: And one of the first things he said is you’ll never understand your relationship to it until you get off it.
POLLAN: So it was a challenge that I felt I had to take, and, you know, as you know, I like to practice immersive journalism and for my other drug related work I’ve, I’ve tried various substances. You know, so I could describe what their effect was like.
POLLAN: And this time I had to, I had to abstain from a substance, which turned out to be much harder in many ways.
TWILLEY: Immersive journalism can be super fun, you visit people, you try things. But the idea of abstaining from coffee was not appealing.
POLLAN: Oh, I was totally bummed out. The idea that I would have to give up my morning cup of coffee, you know, whatever kind of journalistic and narrative and comic possibilities that offered, it was, it was a big sacrifice.
POLLAN: So I dreaded it. I put off the day as long as I could, and once I was like, I was at that point in the story, and I had to do it.
GRABER: So one morning, Michael tried to hold onto his usual morning ritual, he got up, he and his wife walked over to their usual coffee shop, but instead of coffee, he drank herbal tea. And he felt the difference really quickly.
POLLAN: And, the sensation I remember is that there was a kind of a hitch between me and reality. There was a veil that had come down, and things seemed less precise, less clear.
POLLAN: And… I was in a mental fog, and the fog thickened over the course of the day, and got really unpleasant. I had a lot of trouble concentrating. I, you know, I couldn’t read. I certainly couldn’t write. It would be weeks before I could write again.
POLLAN: And I had just entered this space that, you know, felt like some sort of low level illness of some kind or being hungover. I mean, I guess a hangover was a pretty good description of how it felt.
POLLAN: And I was like, oh, man, this is not going to be fun.
TWILLEY: After just a few days, Michael had got over the initial pain of going cold turkey on coffee, but he still didn’t feel like himself. He didn’t feel sharp, he felt somehow subpar. Life without coffee was just not the same.
GRABER: So what is it about this bean, what magical substance does it have that makes Michael and really a hell of a lot of us feel so sharp and alive?
POLLAN: Well, the chemical that I was missing was an alkaloid called 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine, a tiny organic molecule known to most of us as caffeine.
TWILLEY: As it happens, we have previously made an entire Gastropod episode about this tiny organic molecule. But the short version is, it’s produced by a few different plants — coffee and tea, of course, chocolate, and also citrus.
POLLAN: It was hit upon by plants during their evolution as an insecticide, and also as a, um — a chemical that discourages other plants from germinating near you.
TWILLEY: Caffeine seems to work mostly by making insects lose their appetite so they get weak, and also by sort of discombobulating them. There’s a famous experiment where spiders were given caffeine, and their web-making went totally haywire.
GRABER: Caffeine might have originally been an insecticide, but as plants and their predators and pollinators evolved, caffeine turned out to actually be attractive to some pollinators, too.
GRABER: In one study, bees seemed to remember citrus plants with naturally caffeinated nectar better than ones that don’t have caffeine. Unclear whether they actually remember things better or just like the buzz.
TWILLEY: But that’s certainly how it appeals to humans, too. Caffeine turns out to measurably improve human memory, attention, focus, and alertness. It does this because it turns out to be a great fit for the receptors in our brain that normally host a very different chemical: adenosine.
POLLAN: Which is a very important neuro-modulator that regulates the sleep cycle.
POLLAN: And what caffeine does is, is hijack those receptors. It fits neatly into those receptors and then blocks the adenosine from doing its job.
GRABER: It’s not just that the sleep cycle is regulated. Once caffeine hijacks the receptors and blocks them, there are other side effects that happen in your brain. The levels of other brain chemicals are affected, and these contribute not just to how sleepy you feel but also to your energy levels and your mood and how alert and stimulated you feel overall.
POLLAN: And it looked very much like a free lunch in terms of giving people energy.
POLLAN: It was only later that we came to understand how you got energy from caffeine. That you were essentially borrowing it from the future.
TWILLEY: Basically, once your body metabolizes the caffeine, the receptors open up again, and all that adenosine that has been building up hits you all at once.
POLLAN: And you’re tired-er than you would have been had you not had the caffeine.
POLLAN: And what do we do when that happens? Oh, we have more caffeine, and try to postpone that effect as long as we can.
POLLAN: But you’re basically, you’re borrowing from the future. There is no free lunch.
GRABER: For more about the science of caffeine, like Nicky said, we do have an entire episode about it. But the point is, the British experienced this new drink as a wonder drug. Coffee drinkers were suddenly more focused, more alert, they could think better. And so coffee houses sprouted up practically everywhere.
POLLAN: So it was a really vibrant thing, and there was a point at which there was one coffee house for every 250 Londoners. So, an astonishing proliferation.
TWILLEY: To be fair, there were still many more gin palaces and pubs in London — coffee was a relatively expensive drink. It definitely wasn’t for the poor.
GRABER: We asked Jonathan and Michael what a coffeehouse would have been like, what we’d have seen if we walked in.
MORRIS: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’m afraid neither of you two would walk in because that would not be good for your reputations. But I could walk in.
POLLAN: Women were not allowed. But the men that were allowed could be of any class. And it was the first public place where people of any class could sit in the same room.
MORRIS: So the basis of those coffee houses, though, is that they are places primarily for meeting people and we might say people who are like-minded. So a lot of the coffee houses open up as alternatives to inns or ale houses.
POLLAN: And what was interesting about coffeehouse culture is that it very quickly subdivided into spheres of influence.
POLLAN: There was a coffeehouse associated with the Royal Society. There was another one that was where the literary types would hang out. And you could meet Dryden or Pope. And then there were ones dedicated to business.
POLLAN: There’s a coffeehouse that gradually turned into the London Stock Exchange, and another one that turned into Lloyds of London. This was a coffee house, it was called Lloyds, where you could go and take out an insurance policy on your shipment, and learn what ships were leaving or coming.
POLLAN: And then there was another one that, you know, actually turned into the world’s first magazine, which was an attempt to duplicate the variety and currency of coffeehouse cultures.
GRABER: It’s actually still a magazine today. It’s called Tattler, its tagline is “the original social media,” and it’s been around since 1709 when it was born in a London coffeehouse.
MORRIS: When you walk in, you’re going to find some long tables, again, you’re going to be sat at a table. There’s this famous thing about going in and saying “What news?”.
TWILLEY: Coffee houses were the place for all the chat. At the time, people called coffeehouses a penny university, because you could learn so much just by hanging out and listening, all for the price of a coffee.
MORRIS: Samuel Pepys was well known, for example, for patronizing coffee houses.
TWILLEY: Pepys kept a famous diary documenting life in 1660s London.
MORRIS: Apparently, Pepys actually said himself, he really couldn’t stand coffee. In fact, it made him ill. But he knew that this was the way to build up the contacts for himself at the Admiralty.
MORRIS: So that’s the kind of people you might meet there.
GRABER: Even the ballot box, that thing where you drop your votes into a box, it actually was popularized in the coffee house, because it was a way of collecting votes about the winners of debates there.
TWILLEY: This one drink, coffee, fuelled the creation of all these institutions and innovations. It sparked the debates and ideological revolutions of the Enlightenment. And it powered the Industrial Revolution too.
POLLAN: Obviously, it wasn’t the only factor, but it’s hard to imagine an industrial revolution without caffeine.
POLLAN: You needed something to keep people working hard, keep them focused, allow them to operate heavy machinery, and do dangerous work without, you know, being drunk.
POLLAN: And the other thing it did, though, was open up night to colonization, basically. Because before we had caffeine, we were much more tightly yoked to the diurnal cycle. You know, people tended to work from daybreak till sunset.
POLLAN: And the whole idea of a night shift or an overnight shift without caffeine is pretty hard to imagine.
GRABER: Obviously the lightbulb was pretty important, too, but also, coffee sounds kind of miraculous. But we’re Gastropod, so you all know what’s important to us: what did that coffee actually taste like?
MORRIS: The coffee would have tasted pretty foul, I suspect. You’ve got to remember the coffee takes a long time to get there, so it’s already quite stale.
MORRIS: You tend to brew it by boiling. They would roast the coffee over the fire very dark.
MORRIS: Would it taste like coffee today? No. Would it taste something like very badly made coffee today? Yes.
TWILLEY: No matter. At this point, Europe’s intellectuals literally couldn’t function without it. But, as demand grew, supply became an issue, and by the 1720s European nations started feeding their habit by farming coffee intensively in their growing stash of colonies.
GRABER: Brits actually started turning away from coffee and towards tea for their caffeine hit at this point, because they were growing tea under what were basically monopoly conditions in their colonies and so it was cheap for them.
GRABER: But the Spanish and the Portuguese in particular started planting lots of coffee plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil—in fact by the late 1700s, 80 percent of the world’s coffee was coming from the Caribbean, mostly from what’s now Haiti.
TWILLEY: And that brings us to the next chapter in coffee’s extraordinary story. It’s kind of hard to overstate how revolutionary coffee was for Europe. But when it moved to the Americas, it changed pretty much everything there too. That story, coming up, after the break.
GRABER: Today, as we said, drinking coffee is basically the national pastime in America. But it wasn’t always this way — early colonists drank a lot of alcohol, like folks in Europe did. And then they started switching to the new and exciting tea and coffee.
TWILLEY: The story that a lot of people believe for why Americans turned into such committed coffee drinkers and why tea here is so awful most of the time is that after throwing a load of tea overboard in the Boston harbor, these newly independent upstart Americans didn’t want anything more to do with the English and their tea.
TWILEY: But Jonathan thinks that’s a bit of a myth.
MORRIS: Yeah, I don’t think the Boston Tea Party is quite it. The Boston Tea Party is really about rejecting British things. But in a sense, people still go on drinking tea, just not tea, hopefully that they’ve imported from British colonies. Where coffee really takes off, I think, is in the years of and following the American Civil War.
GRABER: During the Civil War, the north, the Union side, they were given relatively huge rations of coffee. It became something the soldiers relied on, they brewed it every day.
MORRIS: We reckon that the average soldier on the Union side was getting through 10 cups of coffee a day.
MORRIS: And indeed, there’s a statistic which says that if you go through the diaries of Civil War soldiers, you’ll find the word coffee more often than you’ll find the word rifle or gun.
TWILLEY: The Civil War helped make coffee the drink of the American people, and then in the years following the Civil War, there was a huge amount of immigration from the coffee drinking cultures of southern and eastern Europe
MORRIS: So you have a lot of people with a taste for coffee. And so that demand for coffee grows.
GRABER: And these Americans were getting the coffee to meet that growing demand from the Americas. Haiti had hoped to supply the growing market in the US —
TWILLEY: But after a huge struggle, really one of the only successful slave revolts in history, the Haitians had overthrown their colonial masters and declared independence in 1804. And that made them politically problematic to coffee buying countries that didn’t want to encourage slave revolts.
GRABER: So the US and the European countries were like nope, Haiti we are not buying your coffee. Instead, they started expanding coffee plantations in Brazil, where there were plenty of enslaved Africans who were forced to work on those plantations.
KRISHNAN: I mean, slavery is something that we cannot get away from, you know. We have to talk about it.
KRISHNAN: Slavery was part of coffee, and coffee cultivation was done through slave labor.
TWILLEY: And between the ready availability of slave labor, and lots of virgin soil from chopped down rainforests, and new techniques of growing coffee bushes in full sunlight, Brazil quickly started producing coffee on an industrial scale.
MORRIS: So by the sort of 1900s, Brazil has reached the point of growing 80 percent of the world’s coffee. And of that Brazilian 80 percent, 70 percent of it is being drunk in the US.
MORRIS: So there’s a kind of, sort of, symbiotic driving of the coffee economy whereby Brazil is producing more and more coffee and America is drinking more and more coffee.
MORRIS: And with that demand creates, again, the sort of the stimulus for Brazil to grow yet more. And so the market continues to expand.
GRABER: One final thing cemented the Americas as the center of the coffee universe, and that’s something called coffee rust. It’s a fungus that swept through and destroyed coffee plantations throughout Asia.
GRABER: But Central and South America escaped its ravages. So as a result: coffee was increasingly being grown in this hemisphere, and also increasingly being drunk here. Coffee had become American.
MUSIC: “Java Jive” by The Inkspots
TWILLEY: By the Jazz Age, cheap coffee had become an American birthright. Americans were probably the most caffeinated people on Earth.
MUSIC: “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” by Nat King Cole
GRABER: But all that coffee had to come from somewhere — Brazil grew huge amounts, but also enterprising people in Colombia and in Central America got into the coffee game too. Including El Salvador.
SEDGWICK: Over the course of the 20th century, coffee came to dominate El Salvador’s economy like few products had ever dominated any national economies.
SEDGWICK: And during that time, coffee accounted for more than 90 percent, well over 90 percent of El Salvador’s exports and more than a quarter of its gross domestic product. Really an extraordinary devotion by an independent nation of its economy to a single crop. It’s probably the most intensive monoculture in the history of the modern world.
TWILLEY: Augustine’s book tells the intertwined story of El Salvador, the US and coffee through the adventures of one of El Salvador’s big coffee-growing families. It is a fantastic read and you should get hold of a copy as soon as this episode is over.
GRABER: We’re not going to tell the story of that family — again go read Augustine’s book Coffeeland for that, you won’t regret it — but we did want him to join us to help us understand how America and our obsession with coffee reshaped, well, almost everything in El Salvador. Yes, it’s yet another shocking story of how coffee totally changed everything it touched.
SEDGWICK: El Salvador before the rise of coffee was kind of a small scale agricultural society where people mostly produced familiar traditional crops on communally held land.
SEDGWICK: It wasn’t predominantly a society that was given over in a large way to the production of crops for export to the world market.
SEDGWICK: So it was by no means a rich society. You could say it was a poor society. But it was relatively speaking economically a more balanced society and a more equal society than it ultimately became.
TWILLEY: Equality is all well and good, but toward the end of the 1800s, the Salvadoran government, like a good government, wanted to make this poor country richer. And it looked south and saw how much money Brazil was making from coffee.
SEDGWICK: The government of El Salvador in the second half of the 19th century was really pushing hard for anyone to start a coffee plantation, in fact, because they thought that the production of export crops by anyone was a good thing for the country at large. So there were lots of incentives given to Salvadorans to start coffee plantations.
SEDGWICK: Both native Salvadorans, Indigenous, and those claiming European heritage, but also new arrivals from Europe.
GRABER: Unsurprisingly, it was the new arrivals and those with European heritage in particular who had connections among the upper echelons of not just El Salvadoran society but international society. They knew people who ran banks, they could get loans, they could access shipping. So it was mostly European immigrants and those of European descent who started coffee plantations.
TWILLEY: But what these European immigrants didn’t have was land. Native Salvadorans had that.
SEDGWICK: In the 19th century, most of the land, most of the kind of obviously arable land was already being used. But that, thanks in part to government incentives that land was increasingly given over to coffee.
SEDGWICK: And when those government incentives didn’t have what the government decided was sufficient effect, they began to privatize what had been communally held land. Land that had been held by Indigenous groups as well as municipalities as a kind of economic base for the township. And auctioned it off to people who were willing to grow coffee there exclusively.
GRABER: Some people did get paid for their land, but not necessarily much. But also, not everyone could prove ownership so some people’s land was just flat out taken from them — in the end, the land ended up belonging to mostly European coffee plantation owners. And yes, these issues around land ownership should sound familiar — we told basically the same story in our recent palm oil episode.
TWILLEY: So now there was land to grow coffee on, but there was something else missing — the labor to grow coffee. Still today, a lot of coffee is harvested by hand, each berry picked individually when it’s ripe, and it’s a super labor intensive process, pretty backbreaking work. The European owners weren’t going to be doing that themselves.
SEDGWICK: Plantation owners in El Salvador were always complaining about the lack of labor, how difficult it was to start a plantation when it required so much work and there were so few people around right when you needed them to be, and wasn’t it just the worst?
GRABER: Fortunately for the owners that problem also had a solution. Because now the native people didn’t have their own land to grow food on anymore, that land had been turned into coffee plantations.
SEDGWICK: In order to kind of provide for their basic needs, which they had done in the past, in part by farming, they began to work on the plantations.
SEDGWICK: And this became less and less a kind of supplemental income and more and more a kind of hard fact of existence. That if you gave up your land or otherwise had it taken from you, what you had to do in order to meet your most basic needs, including eating every day, was work on the coffee plantations for someone else.
TWILLEY: Work on the coffee plantations was not fun. It wasn’t a way to get ahead and improve your life. That’s not why people went to work there.
SEDGWICK: They went to the plantations because they were hungry. They showed up at the plantations expecting to work for 12 hours and get paid in food and a very small cash wage that didn’t have much consequence in the Salvadoran countryside.
GRABER: The plantation owners very intentionally used food as a tool to get people to show up at certain times, to move them around the plantation to where work was needed to be done.
SEDGWICK: Sometimes breakfast was given only at a certain period of time, such as between 5:45 and six o’clock, to make sure that people were at their assigned tasks by six o’clock.
SEDGWICK: The size of the servings were manipulated to attract people when more people were needed and were reduced when there were plenty of people around and there was plenty of labor to be hired.
GRABER: Coffee prices rose and fell in the US, but it didn’t matter — a small number of families in El Salvador kept growing their plantations and they basically took over the entire countryside and had a huge influence on the government, too. As Augustine said, more than 90 percent of the country’s economy was coffee.
TWILLEY: By this point, in the early twentieth century, coffee was a global commodity and a cheap one, and its price would get pushed down on the global market so that US consumers could have cheap coffee, and then the El Salvadoran coffee plantation owners pushed down wages for workers even more.
SEDGWICK: People were starving, and more and more people began to promote the idea that they didn’t have to live that way, and more and more people were susceptible to the possibility that that was true.
GRABER: And eventually, enough people thought this, that there was a revolution. It was spearheaded by people who thought that El Salvador could be more of what it once was, like a paradise of food. They wanted to grow their own food that they could eat, rather than send coffee out into the world.
SEDGWICK: And thousands of people, many of whom had been coffee workers, rose up and tried to overturn the social order of coffee production and the politics of coffee production in El Salvador. They were mostly armed with agricultural implements and some ammunition.
SEDGWICK: But almost as immediate immediately as soon as they, they kind of took their machetes and whatnot in hand, the word of the insurrection leaked out and the government mobilized the army and ended up undertaking months long, ultimately genocidal counter-insurgency campaign, against coffee workers and indigenous coffee workers especially, that killed as many as somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people in 1932.
TWILLEY: This slaughter is called La Matanza, and it basically used the uprising as an excuse to launch a wholescale, extremely brutal attack on El Salvador’s native population, one that Augustine says basically tried to wipe out their language and culture.
SEDGWICK: The government was kind of helped in doing so from kind of tacit permission from the the British government and the Canadian government and the American government, who were both concerned with the possibility of a communist uprising in Latin America during the, the volatile period of the Great Depression.
SEDGWICK: So it kind of represented a moment where the plantation owners came into alliance with a military dictatorship in El Salvador. An alliance between the capitalist production and a military force that lasted until the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
TWILLEY: So long story short, the US happily propped up a violent military dictatorship in El Salvador in order to make sure the country remained a stable capitalist cog in the coffee machine. And that meant life for workers, for ordinary people, was almost unbearable.
GRABER: And so a quarter of the entire population of El Salvador left the country in search of opportunity and an escape from persecution, starting really in the 1980s. And you listeners probably already know that most of them headed here.
SEDGWICK: At the root of immigration from El Salvador to the United States, is this much longer history of coffee production for the American market.
TWILLEY: So the story of El Salvador from the late 1800s through the 20th century is the story of coffee. And it really hasn’t been a super great story.
SEDGWICK: It’s an interesting question whether or not coffee has been good for El Salvador, because no one would say that it’s been good for El Salvador, but it is interesting to think about what alternatives there might have been.
SEDGWICK: It’s interesting to imagine the possibility that, no matter what commodity people in El Salvador landed on to produce, could things have been different? Would everything have been equally bad?
GRABER: Basically, the answer Augustine lands on is probably yes. As long as El Salvador was focusing its efforts on growing a cheap commodity to be exported to a capitalist market like America, whether it was tea or chocolate or bananas, the story probably would have gone the same way.
TWILLEY: And in fact that is how things went in other Central American countries — like, say, Honduras, which grew some coffee for export but also went all in on bananas, and also had a vicious military dictatorship that the US propped up.
SEDGWICK: I hesitate to sound so grim as to say that that’s simply the course of capitalist development around the world, whether the commodity is coffee or cacao or tea or jute or whatever. But I think that’s where I’d have to land.
GRABER: Meanwhile, we’ve been talking about America as a capitalist market for coffee, but coffee was actually part of the reason that America could be so capitalist in the first place.
POLLAN: Well, capitalism and caffeine are hand in hand. If you want any proof of that, just look at the institution of the coffee break. The fact that your employer not only gives you a free drug at the workplace, but gives you a place and time in which to enjoy it twice a day, in most places. And this is institutionalized.
POLLAN: Why would employers do that if it didn’t offer them more benefit than cost? And clearly it does. They get more work out of people.
TWILLEY: In fact, this is legal truth, proved in a court of law, in 1955, in the case of United States vs Phil Greinetz of Los Wigwam Weavers.
SEDGWICK: So this was the case that this one necktie factory in Denver that became a focus of an important court case, where making neckties was actually really hard work that required a lot of physical strength and also concentration. And the people who had done it before had mostly been young men who had gone off to fight.
SEDGWICK: And so the factory owner tried to replace them, but was finding it hard to find workers who were up to the task. And people were kind of going home injured and not coming back the next day. And so to solve that problem he asked workers what he could do to make it a little easier for them, and they suggested coffee.
GRABER: So this business owner started instituting factory-wide coffee breaks, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and his workers came back much perkier. But he didn’t pay the workers for that time. He argued that it was time off from work, he didn’t have to pay them.
SEDGWICK: And that got him in trouble with the Department of Labor. And so the question of whether or not the coffee break was properly considered working time became a really important legal question. And eventually, the federal court found that the employer had to pay employees for break time because their break time was actually adding to their productivity at work.
POLLAN: So yeah, it’s been a handmaiden to capitalism, and we wouldn’t have coffee breaks if it, if it wasn’t more to the advantage of the employer.
TWILLEY: If you recall, last we heard from Michael, he had actually told capitalism to shove it and gone off caffeine cold turkey.
POLLAN: So I had three months of my fast, and, during this period, I, you know, I got more and more functional. I was able to write again, but I never felt quite myself, and that’s sort of an astonishing statement: that my self, what felt like my normal self, my normal consciousness, depended on this plant, this drug, and that, even after months without it, I didn’t feel quite normal.
POLLAN: So, you know, there’s normal, for me, is caffeinated.
GRABER: After those three months were over, Michael was extremely ready to fall off the wagon and back into the arms of a cup of coffee at his favorite coffee shop.
POLLAN: You know, that first sip, I could feel the caffeine sort of dispersing itself through my body. I remember reading that it went into every single cell. It’s very, very good at finding its way through the body, and very quick at doing it.
POLLAN: And I just had this feeling of well-being followed really by euphoria.
POLLAN: And that, that first cup was just, so great. And, you know, when you asked me earlier about my favorite drug, I think back to that moment, and it was as positive a drug experience as I can remember having.
TWILLEY: But then, after a little while, Michael started to get antsy, and he went home and he went on an organizational rampage. He unsubscribed from dozens of email newsletters and he organized his sweater closet.
POLLAN: So there, there you have, you know, the use of caffeine for work immediately channeled me into feats of productivity that I had not scaled before.
GRABER: Michael at first wanted to recreate this euphoria week after week by moderating how much caffeine he drank. Maybe just a little green tea for a weekday morning, and only having coffee on Saturdays, but then he faced a deadline during the week and, well, coffee was there to help him out.
POLLAN: So, you know, I made an exception, and gradually the slippery slope took over and I was back to my daily shot of coffee. Which is where I am now, and I don’t have any regrets.
POLLAN: I don’t plan to get off it again. I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and that it is, will continue to be my, my daily dose of pleasure.
TWILLEY: At first, hearing the story of coffee and capitalism in the Americas in the 20th century, it made me kind of resent my morning cup of coffee — like consuming it was just me working for the man. But Michael told me drinking coffee doesn’t have to be about squeezing out more productivity in a perpetual rat race.
POLLAN: You know, remember those Zen monks or the Sufis. That was a whole other application so you could put it to more spiritual ends. There’s nothing stopping you.
GRABER: Personally, Nicky and I use it to help invigorate us in the morning and then help us write Gastropod, not to stay awake for religious trances. But just as we can reframe our relationship with coffee, we can also reframe our relationship to the people and the countries that grow it. That’s where we’re going next episode.
SEDGWICK: It’s possible now to know more than ever precisely where your coffee is coming from. Therefore, it’s possible to know more than ever exactly how it’s being produced and by whom.
TWILLEY: Feeling good about where your coffee comes from is just one ingredient in the ideal cup, and so next episode we’ve got all the science on coffee brewing, roasting, and flavor so you can perfect your next coffee break.
GRABER: All that, plus a visit to a Boston coffee legend and we spend some more time at that pioneering southern California coffee farm!
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Sarada Krishnan, Jonathan Morris, Michael Pollan, and Augustine Sedgewick, as well as Jay Ruskey and the growers at FRINJ in California.
TWILLEY: We have links to Michael’s fantastic new book, This is Your Mind on Plants. We have links to Augustine’s fantastic new book, Coffeeland. We have links to Jonathan’s books and his fascinating podcast series, A History of Coffee, and we have links to Sarada’s research and where you can buy FRINJ’s Southern Californian coffee. All on our website, gastropod.com
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with the story of how coffee was good, then it got bad, and then it got good again — and how you can taste that for yourself. ‘Til then!