The War on Coffee

The literature of coffee has produced a new genre: corrective history. Illustration by Ilya Milstein
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The history of caffeine and capitalism can get surprisingly heated.

“What would life be without coffee?” King Louis XV of France is said to have asked. “But, then, what is life even with coffee?” he added. Truer, or more apt, words for the present moment were never spoken, now usable as a kind of daily catechism. At a time when coffee remains one of the few things that the anxious sleeper can look forward to in the morning (What is life without it?), giving as it does at least an illusion of recharge and a fresh start, the charge has invariably slipped away by the time the latest grim briefing comes (What is life even with it?). Imagining life without coffee right now is, for many of us, almost impossible, even though the culture of the café that arose in America over the past couple of decades has, for some indefinite period, been shut down.

The growth of coffee as a culture, not just as a drink, can be measured in a unit that might be called the Larry, for the peerless comedy writer Larry David. In “Seinfeld,” which he co-created in 1989, coffee came as a normal beverage in a coffee shop—bad, indistinct stuff that might as well have been tea. (Paul Reiser had a nice bit about the codependency of coffee and tea, with tea as coffee’s pathetic friend.) Then, on “Friends,” the characters gathered in a coffee-specific location, Central Perk, but the very invocation of a percolator, the worst way to brew, suggested that they were there more for the company than for the coffee. Six or so Larrys later, by 2020, the plotline of an entire season of David’s own “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned on a competition between Mocha Joe’s and Latte Larry’s—the “spite store” that Larry opens just to avenge an insult over scones, with many details about a specific kind of Mexican coffee bean he means to steal. The audience was expected to accept as an obvious premise the idea that coffee was a culture of devotion and discrimination, not just a passable caffeinated drink.

This change is real, and is reflected in the numbers. As Jonathan Morris documents in his recent book, “Coffee: A Global History” (Reaktion), epicurean coffeehouses in the United States numbered in the hundreds in 1989, and in the tens of thousands by 2013. A lot of that is Starbucks, but not all. Roasters in Italy went from exporting twelve million kilograms of espresso in 1988 to more than a hundred and seventy million in 2015. Not surprisingly, the growth of a coffee culture has been trailed, and sometimes advanced, by a coffee literature, which arrived in predictable waves, each reflecting a thriving genre. First, we got a fan’s literature—“the little bean that changed the world”—with histories of coffee consumption and appreciations of coffee preparations. (The language of wine appreciation was adapted to coffee, especially a fixation on terroir—single origins, single estates, even micro lots.) Then came the gonzo, adventurer approach: the obsessive who gives up normal life to pursue coffee’s mysteries. And, finally, a moralizing literature that rehearsed a familiar lecture on the hidden cost of the addiction.

The most entertaining of the coffee-as-adventure books is Stewart Lee Allen’s “The Devil’s Cup” (1999), which helped establish the wild-man school of gastronomic appreciation. Allen, in a tone that marries Anthony Bourdain with S. J. Perelman, ventures jauntily on a pilgrimage to all coffee’s holy places, from Ethiopia to Turkey, meeting everyone from the keeper of Rimbaud’s house in Harar to someone who still knows how to make coffee from roasted leaves. Searching for the origins of the coffeehouse, Allen supplies much lively anthropological detail, dense with many stalwart sentences: “Everyone had warned me against taking the overnight train from Konya to Istanbul. They said it took twice as long as the bus (nonsense), that it was unsafe (rubbish) and so overheated that passengers’ clothing caught fire (this is actually true).” There is also much lubricious detail:

In the Oromo culture of western Ethiopia, the coffee bean’s resemblance to a woman’s sexual organs has given birth to another bun-qalle ceremony with such heavy sexual significance. . . . After the beans are husked, they are stirred in the butter with a stick called dannaba, the word for penis. . . . As the beans are stirred another prayer is recited until finally the coffee fruits burst open from the heat, making the sound Tass! This bursting of the fruit is likened to both childbirth and the last cry of the dying man.

For all the book’s Hunter S. Thompson curlicues, the essential information is communicated. The coffee bean comes in two basic families, arabica and the inferior (though easier to grow) robusta. It thrives in high terrains, and, like wine grapes, it does best in seemingly inhospitable environments—rocky and volcanic soil on mountainsides. An alternative to alcohol, coffee was central to teetotalling Islamic civilization in the Middle Ages, and spread from Turkey to points west, where the coffeehouse became the cockpit of the Enlightenment, and even up to little Iceland, where it became the national sacrament. Throughout, Allen’s assumption is that everyone craves coffee, and that, while the craving may lead to many superstitions and black-market absurdities, the craving in itself is good. In the spirit of the time, craving was living.

It was fun while it lasted. Now the strictures of a corrective literature have come for coffee. Augustine Sedgewick’s “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug” (Penguin Press), as the title announces, tells a story not very different from the kind that might be told of Colombian cocaine production and narco-terrorism, with another product that offers simulated energy to money-driven people. Coffee got produced by something like slavery and was then pushed on a pliant proletariat by big business and the Yanqui dollar. Americans, under the pressure of mass marketing and pseudo-scientific propaganda, have been encouraged to drink ever more coffee while the peasants of El Salvador suffer and die in the brutally efficient coffee monoculture promoted by plantation growers. Both North and Central America became “coffeelands”—a peasantry making the drug, a proletariat consuming it.

The first moral that this new literature brings out—a commodity that was a huge aid to the European Enlightenment was a huge drag on the people who made it—can be found as well in Antony Wild’s 2004 book, “Coffee: A Dark History.” Even Stewart Allen couldn’t conceal the truth that growing and harvesting coffee is luckless and backbreaking work. A built-in divide separates things we hunt and things we grow: hooking swordfish and netting tuna have been the subject of romances, since the erotic aura of the chase still attaches to them. But there’s nothing romantic about mass agriculture, no matter how prized its products are. Virgil’s Georgics—a propaganda poem ostensibly in praise of farming—makes plain that frugality, austerity, and repetition are the farmer’s civilization-supporting but lamentable lot.

But, far beyond the hardships of farming, the story that Sedgewick details (and Wild sketches) identifies a system of exploitation powered by fine-toothed gears. It is much like the story of sugar told by Sidney Mintz in his epoch-marking “Sweetness and Power,” from 1985: sweet are the uses of adversity, Shakespeare’s Duke says, and adverse are the sources of sweetness, Mintz replies. What sweetened the cup of Europeans was bitter to the people who produced it.

Extremely wide-ranging and well researched, Sedgewick’s story reaches out into American political history, not to mention the history of American breakfast, but it is mostly set in El Salvador, where a large-scale monoculture of coffee began, at the turn of the twentieth century, under the fiendishly brilliant direction of a British expat named James Hill. Originally from Manchester, the birthplace of the British industrial revolution, Hill, in the nineteen-twenties, imposed a program of modern serfdom on the indigenous Salvadoran people in order to grow coffee on an unprecedented scale. Recognizing that wages were of limited value to a peasantry who largely didn’t live within the cash economy, Sedgewick writes, Hill “used food rather than money to attract people” to work for him, “offering an extra half-ration, one tortilla and beans, for the completion of each task. The extra rations were always given as breakfast, which was a double incentive, for only workers who arrived at the plantations before 6 a.m. qualified for breakfast—serving stopped and work started at 6:00 sharp.” Hill had the Fitzcarraldo-like obsessiveness of the European in Latin America: he wouldn’t use child labor, but kids served as messengers between mill and plantation and were treated like something close to hostages, their welfare guaranteed as long as their parents worked; elderly people were recruited as spies, reporting on slackers among the working peasants.

Two goldfish in separate bowls reach their fins toward each other.
Cartoon by Carol Lay

Sedgewick concedes that this program was less total than it might sound. Because coffee-growing was booming, peasants could usually find a marginally more humane deal in the next plantation. But given capitalism’s inclination to cancel competition rather than encourage it—a truth known to John Kenneth Galbraith as much as to Karl Marx—coffee was handed over to an oligarchy that had coalesced by the nineteen-thirties. Eventually, a legendary “fourteen families” came to dominate El Salvador’s coffee plantations, aided by a complicated program of American investment. When, in 1932, the peasants rose in a revolt, led by the Communist revolutionary Farabundo Martí, they were mowed down in the thousands, and their leaders, Martí included, were summarily executed. (A brigade of guerrillas fighting under Martí’s name bedevilled Ronald Reagan’s Central American policy fifty years later.)

The originality and ambition of Sedgewick’s work is that he insistently sees the dynamic between producer and consumer—Central American peasant and North American proletarian—not merely as one of exploited and exploiter but as a manufactured co-dependence between two groups both exploited by capitalism. “Cravings” are not natural appetites but carefully created cultural diktats. Coffee is sold less to provide an individual with pleasure than to support an industry with a skillfully primed audience. The objective of capitalist coffee production, in Sedgewick’s view, was “the foreclosure of the possibility of unproductive eating, being, doing—ways of living that were not directly convertible into cash on the world market.” American workers were compelled to drink the stuff as Central American peasants were compelled to make it. The coffee lobby bought scientific studies to sell American industrialists on the notion that caffeine was the ideal productivity enhancer. One manufacturer served free coffee, because, according to an industry advertorial, it insured that workers would remain in peak form, keeping “the standard set by the early morning hours more nearly stable” for the rest of the day. If faith is the opiate of the masses, then coffee is their stimulant. Sedgewick suggests that profit-seeking bosses deliberately addicted American workers to the beverage, in ways that recall the drug industry’s dissemination of opioids to the same masses a century later.

To be sure, Sedgewick recognizes that the actual history of caffeine and capitalist efficiency is more complicated than one might expect. Famous “rationalizers” of industrial work, including Frederick W. Taylor, saw coffee drinking as more distracting than energizing. Taylor, with his mechanistic take on human physiology, sided with the breakfast-cereal creators John Harvey Kellogg and C. W. Post, who had a dim view of coffee. At the same time, Sedgewick perhaps ascribes undue propagandistic power to the public-relations exercises of coffee producers. Like many radical historians, Sedgewick has a passionate feeling for detail, but lacks a sense of irony. Ordinary people saw through advertising campaigns then as readily as academic historians see through them now. No one, hearing that Chock Full o’Nuts is the heavenly coffee, has ever thought it actually was.

Sedgewick’s approach can seem dutifully leftist, but the evidence suggests that socialist models of production have hardly humanized the demands of agricultural labor. The problem, it emerges, is of a planetary enslavement to a monocrop existence. Agriculture, practiced on a mass scale, is the original sin of modernity. As Morris’s history of coffee emphasizes, Vietnam, after its victory against the United States, made itself one of the world’s chief producers of coffee, harvesting vast amounts of cheap robusta, first for the Soviet dependencies in Eastern Europe and then for a global market, with peasant labor and horrific environmental degradation of the country’s highland coffee farms. Whatever else this was, it was clearly not an issuance of capitalist hegemony.

Sedgewick, in a tradition of protest literature rooted more in William Blake than in Marx, sees mankind chained to a treadmill of obedience leading only to oblivion. His book is filled with nostalgic glimpses of prelapsarian Central America, the Eden before Columbus and Hill, and he concludes with a vision of a new order in which “food sovereignty” will emerge as “a direct rebuke to the core order of the modern world . . . pulling up the root of the international coffee economy, cutting off the principal mechanism of long distance connection between people who work coffee and people who drink coffee.” Communities in rural El Salvador will then be left alone to attend to the business of eating and feeding, “picking wild fruit, tending tomatoes and blackberries, cultivating corn and beans, raising chickens, hunting and fishing, cooking with family, feeding children, sharing with neighbors, welcoming friends, eating anytime, and going back for more, again.”

Amilder, milkier case against coffee advances from another front in Michael Pollan’s new audiobook, “Caffeine” (Audible). After the evangelical, psychedelic enthusiasms of his last book, “How to Change Your Mind,” he proves to be ambivalent about the jumping bean. Accepting the life-enhancing and surprisingly medicinal effects of coffee, he also relates how, in his own experience, breaking a coffee addiction can be a step toward self-discovery: it was the coffee that was waking up and doing all that writing. He sees it as a wonder energy drug—cocaine for the masses—but, where others have taken the coffeehouses of Europe primarily as seedbeds for the Enlightenment, he, like Sedgewick, focusses on caffeine’s role in the regimentation of work. For all the good it does us, Pollan argues, coffee is also ruining our sleep. The caffeine addict—king or commoner—must decide whether sleep may be a more powerfully salubrious remedy than the coffee that ends it.

Not much hope there for the coffee lover. One turns back to Stewart Lee Allen’s work, which, though far from polemical, does contain a useful politics. It is the ancient politics of pleasure understood as something won eternally from pain—or, as St. Augustine would put it, from original sin. Most pleasures, after all, rely on someone else’s pain, or the possibility of it. Sex has, historically, jeopardized lives through disease, abuse, and, for women, the high risks of childbirth. The goal of a good life should be not to denounce the pleasures but to minimize the pain. With some pursuits, the pain seems so inherent that we must end the pleasure. Bullfighting, boxing, foie gras, and football all fall somewhere in this zone. In other instances, we believe that we can retain the enjoyment and alleviate the suffering.

In fact, efforts to humanize Salvadoran coffee growing continue, and, though seemingly successful mostly on the margins, the margins are where such success begins. Rainforest Alliance certification, “bird-friendly” certification, and the rest are far from mere window dressing when it comes to protecting habitats. Several coöperatives in El Salvador, encouraged by the energetic activists at Equal Exchange, the pioneering fair-trade coffee retailer, seem to be now producing good coffee in humane circumstances, the best of them encouraging production of the big pacamara bean, a hybrid that makes a uniquely “buttery” coffee.

To live at all is to be implicated in the world’s cruelty, a central Buddhist and Christian lesson, and the hermit’s choice to escape from the world of wanting and getting seems, on the evidence, to despoil society of its humanism rather than to enrich it. The way to reconcile the buyer’s appetite and the maker’s welfare is to raise prices, to make the pleasure costlier. But it’s one thing to ask people to pay more—whether for pastured beef or shade-grown coffee—and quite another to tell people that the pleasure they experience is not actually a pleasure but an insidious product of a conspiracy of taste. The second is unlikely to sustain social reform.

Coffee was perhaps the first naïve emissary of internationalism. In the seventeenth century, Iceland got the beans and became addicted, on the whole quite happily. You can’t open a book about coffee, no matter what tone it takes, without reading a global story. Whatever else the current crisis may be teaching us, the one certain thing is that self-sufficiency is a non-solution to our suffering. None of us are sufficient, since none of us are complete selves, and what is true of each of us is true of every nation. Whether you pursue coffee as the ideal recreational drug from Istanbul hookah lounge to Ethiopian hideaway or see its dark track of exploitation from Salvadoran plantation to Detroit assembly line, you are inexorably led into stories that go everyplace on earth. On our tightly connected planet, it is impossible to sustain the policy of spite stores and their isolating spiral of envy. What happens here happens there. A bat may infect a pangolin in Wuhan, and the world shuts down. No café is an island and no latte can be Larry’s alone. In these times, it’s a lesson worth remembering.

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