The Story of Coffee

Everything has a story to it. Some little, some big.

The story of coffee is not just a tale, but it’s “epic” in every sense of the word.

One of my summer reads is Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity by H. E. Jacobs. This book was written in the 1930s, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. It’s fun.

The author not only reveals much about coffee’s march from Northern Africa to Europe and then across the Atlantic, but he does more.

See, Jacobs, apparently, is one of the creators of the “documentary novel.” So historical facts read like a fun paperback rather than a book of dusty old facts.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the discovery of the coffee bean in Yemen over a thousand years ago.

The goatherds couldn’t figure out why the goats weren’t sleeping at night. Here’s how Jacobs tells the tale:

“Hitherto a goat’s day had been, like a man’s, a day of twelve hours. At sunset, they were wont to go to sleep, lying with outstretched limbs, as motionless as stone. But now the goats were affected with sleeplessness. All night, for five nights in succession—nay, for seven or eight—they clambered over rocks, cutting capers, chasing one another, bleating fantastically.”

Several of the goatherds got together and started to try to figure it out.

Coffee Blossom

Coffee Blossom

After some bumbling detective work, they found themselves staring at a coffee bush.

(By the way, Java Jacks brews several Camino Real roasts from that general region.  Ask for their pick of the Yirgacheff, Limu Guji, and Sidama Ethiopian coffees .)

The book also tells of the disputes that town leaders had over whether coffee should be allowed or banned. One such Turkish ruler, Khair Bey, was embarrassed by the written caricatures being passed around about him. Jacobs tells,  

“Lampoons in verse were composed about him, making fun of his zeal for purifying public morals. Enraged thereat, he sent forth spies to find out who were the writers. Always they were were coffee-drinkers, who sat beneath the colonnades of the mosques, giving their fancy free rein.”

He tried to ban drinking of the beverage to no good effect. The book goes into interesting detail about how that played out.

In the chapter entitled “Kolshitshy’s Valiant Deed,” much intrigue is played out as the Turks take siege of Vienna in the 1680s. As 200,000 warriors surround the old European city, Kolshitsky, who knew the Turkish language, sneaks out and gets word to the Germans and Poles.

He returns from his epic journey with word of imminent rescue and is lauded a hero.

Here’s how Jacobs tells it:

“Through the instrumentality of the mayor, the municipality of Vienna promised to grant Kolshitsky the freedom of the city, to bestow on him a domicile (8, Haidgasse in the Leopold quarter), and to give him a charter to pursue any occupation he pleased.”coffeetrail

When the rescuing army comes in force, the Turks flee suddenly, leaving plenteous booty for the hungry Viennese and the army. Everyone gets to eat well.

But they find bags of black beans that they don’t understand.

Yet Kolshitsky who has spent much of his life with the Turks, knows exactly what it is, saving it from the burn pile.

Because he is already regarded a hero, the town decision makers give it to him.

But he has a problem. The Europeans don’t like Turkish style coffee which is black and thick with fine grounds floating in the brew.

He has to figure out what to do with it all and begins experimenting.

First, he filters the grounds out.

Then, he figures out that if he sweetens it with honey and adds cream, they like it. They like it even more when served with crescent rolls which they eat in celebration of the defeated Turks.

(In case you are wondering, Java Jacks doesn’t serve Turkish style coffee. The baristas filter the grounds out for which I, for one, am grateful.)

Here is sampling of some more interesting quotes from the book: “The discovery of coffee was, in its way, as important as the invention of the telescope or of the microscope, without which we should know little of the incredibly vast and nothing of the incredibly small.”

And another. (A bold claim!)

“Analytical thought, which, in contrast with synthetical thought, has been the main characteristic of civilization since the opening of the modern era, is mainly attributable to the generalizing influence of coffee upon thought itself.”

Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity is a great summer read. You can download it onto your Kindle reader or it’s also available in print from Amazon.

And of course, Java Jacks is a great place to read it. Bring in your reader and download it instantly with Java Jacks’ free wifi.

So come in. Get some Ethiopian coffee (or whatever you like). Drink it black or add cream and sweetener. And by the way, if you want honey, request it, they keep it behind the counter.

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