Join us as we trace the history of coffee from its origins in Ethiopia to the Starbucks around the corner. It is a fascinating story of politics, power, chance and intrigue. We will also examine coffee's cultural influences as well as the differences between various types of coffee. Cream and sugar not included.

Key Lecture Points

  • Coffee is the 2nd most widely traded legal commodity in the world after crude oil. Over 2.25 billion cups are consumed everyday worldwide. And, about 125 million people around the world depend on coffee for their livelihood.
  • The average American consumes 9.25 pounds of coffee/year, which averages out to 1.5 cups of coffee/day, man woman, and child. In total, the US imports about $4 billion worth of coffee annually.
  • Coffee trading dates back to the Yemeni port of Mocha in the 16th century, but coffee’s origins are in Ethiopia perhaps thousands of years earlier. From Mocha, the imperial powers took coffee to their colonies in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia where it was first developed as a slave-harvested plantation crop. Colonial production fed (and profited from) the growing demand for coffee in Europe and North America.
  • Today, coffee is still generally consumed in the Global North but produced in the Tropics. Some argue that given sharp recent declines in coffee prices that little has changed from the colonial era. Southern farmers are still undercompensated, it is argued, and still at the mercy of Northern economic forces (not colonizing nations, but rather corporations like Nestle, Starbucks, Kraft and Sara Lee).
  • Coffee drinking has, in the past several decades, undergone significant changes, with speciality coffees consumed in coffee bar chains increasingly becoming the norm in the United States. Specialtiy coffee sales have been increasing at about 20% per year.
    More recently, gourmet coffee shops have populated certain regions of the United States. These “third-wave” coffee bars often simultaneously combine a more traditional Italian ethos with innovative approaches to serving coffee, raising the art and science of coffee beverages to new levels of nuance, subtlety, and artisanship.
  • Coffee consumption has undergone significant changes in the United States in the past several decades. ‘Specialty coffees’ such as Fair Trade and Organic have increased in popularity as consumer consciousness and concern for the welfare of farmers has grown. Demand for gourmet coffee has increased with the development of coffee connoisseurship and an approach to the subtleties and varieties of the beverage that rivals that of wine and beer.
  • To serve this emerging culture of coffee consumption—and in many ways spurring it—small-batch roasters are increasingly sourcing special varieties of coffee beans from specific farms, cultivating personal relationships with many farmers in the process. This trend allows consumers to enjoy higher quality coffee, and eventually it may be of benefit to the farmers who forge personal ties with roasters in coffee-consuming countries. The extent of this benefit remains to be seen.

Exploration Questions

  • What sorts of labor practices has global coffee production historically encouraged?
  • What are the implications of chronic oversupply in the coffee market for farmers?
  • How did coffee move from being a Middle Eastern beverage to a European commodity?

Reflective Questions

  • How has the consumption of coffee changed in your lifetime?
  • Have you ever been to a Starbucks? How is it different from the typical coffee shops of the past?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Wild, Antony. Coffee: A Dark History. W.W.Norton and Co, 2005. 323 pages. This beautifully written and fascinating history of coffee accounts for the cultural, social, botanical, psychological, political and international aspects of this incredible plant. Wild’s telling takes the perspective of those exploited and downtrodden by coffee and its industrialization—hence, his ‘dark’ history.
    Click here to order
  • Luttinger, Nina. The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop. New Press, 2006. 232 pages. This comprehensive discussion of coffee is an excellent introduction to the plant, its production and consumption, and its global importance.
    Click here to order