Monday, July 06, 2009

Black Coffee

Black Gold - something you'd associate with oil at the first instance. But Antony Wild has used the same phrase, aptly it appears, to point to coffee as black gold. At first, it is not obvious, because coffee, and indeed most other cash crops, hasn't always yielded obscene riches to people who grow them. The prices of coffee goes up and down according to worldwide market supply and demand. Mr Wild suggests other reasons, particularly, for the low prices of coffee.

As a coffee trader of more than 10 years (he took over the family business) and a sometime historian of the same, Mr Wild would be qualified to write about coffee's origins (in Ethiopia) and development as a beverage. In this book, "Black Gold - A Dark History of Coffee", he traces the beginnings of coffee and the development of the beverage derived from the coffee beans among the Arabs since the 1200s. Much of the information will be new to the average reader, given the esoteric nature of the subject. One would normally read of the rise and fall of civilizations rather than the development of a humble bean. Yet Wild's narrative encompasses both - of how people, cultures and conflicts interacted with this cash crop in the transmission and clash of civilizations. As expected, Wild discusses the various strains of coffee beans and offers his take on the relative value of each strain, the principal locations where they are found, and its propagation, particularly into the new world of Central and South America. Along with this narrative, Wild injects a lot of social and political commentary. He spent no small part of the book discussing Napoleon Bonaparte's exile on the island of St Helena and the coffee that probably converted him into a regular coffee drinker where once he advocated chicory, a coffee substitute, for his European empire.

Coffee appears to have spread globally through the slave trade, from Africa to Europe, and to Central and South America, perpetrated by the Spanish, Portuguese, European and British colonialists, both to the East and West Indies via their Navies, and in the case of the British, via the East India Company. Wild is highly critical of the use of slaves and slave labour for the propagation of the beverage. His commentary on the evils of the oppressive ways of the colonialists can be uncomfortable reading for some who have been brought up on generous doses of the adventure and heroism of these voyages of discoveries in the 14th to 18th centuries. He continues to lambast the neo-colonialists, sans slavery, in the 20th century, who did no better in its use of low cost labour and low coffee prices to reap huge profits for itself. Starbucks is mentioned as one example of how big corporations reap their great profits at the expense of the pittance that people who actually farm the coffee beans receive. Wild also discussed the coffee industry in Central and South America before turning his attention to Vietnam and Timor in the East.

This book discusses coffee - the beans, the roasting techniques, such as espresso, and, in Wild's opinion, the quality and desirability of each type of coffee. But it also discusses the darker part of the development of coffee by commenting on the people and their means of propagating and profiting from the bean. The former was enlightening, but the latter can make for uncomfortable reading at times.