Colonialism & Cappuccinos:
How Methods of Coffee Production Transformed Luxury into Commodity
History of Food | March 2020
Second only to petroleum, coffee is the world’s most demanded commodity. But it didn’t always used to be this way. In fact, coffee has been around for more than a thousand years and its popularity is inextricably linked to a web of social, political, and economic factors. Like other popular commodities, colonialism transformed the way coffee was produced and exported around the world. However, coffee production and consumption today has come a long way since its grim colonial origins. This essay will explore the evolution of coffee production during 18th and 19th century colonialism, primarily in the Americas, juxtaposed with modern methods of production. Colonial coffee production was fueled by forced labor in the tropical West Indies resulting in productive inefficiencies, a monopolistic market, and exclusive consumption due to high taxation; however, the dissolution of slavery, onset of industrialization, and later commercialization of coffee lowered global prices, popularized consumption, and allowed for the democratization of the beverage throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While the mechanics of coffee production are largely the same, the industry became increasingly inclusive and spurred the globalization of the present coffee trade. 
First, it is important to briefly outline coffee’s conception for a more holistic view into its history. Coffee’s roots can be traced back to modern day Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia), around the 8th century AD. A legend credits the initial discovery of the coffee tree to a goat herder’s flock. Upon eating the fruit, the goats became incredibly energetic and failed to sleep throughout the night. After that, the goat herder allegedly shared his findings, and the power of caffeine was harnessed by monastic monks to keep them awake during evening prayer. After Ethiopia’s adoption of the drink, coffee made its way across the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula in the 15th century, where it gained its modern name (from qahveh) and was integrated into society through the establishment of coffee houses. Coffee grew in popularity, but its production was safely guarded by Yemen. Coffee farming was small scale, and coffee plants often shared plots with subsistence crops. That changed when beans were allegedly smuggled into the East Indies during the 17th century allowing for large scale coffee cultivation.
The Dutch were the first to take full advantage of coffee’s budding trade potential. After failing to cultivate coffee in Holland’s unfit climate, the Dutch established coffee farms in their tropical Eastern colonies. Java (Indonesia) soon became synonymous with coffee production. In Java, the Dutch forced peasants to grow coffee trees on small plots of land and then sell the beans at very low prices, much like serfdom. This production method proved inefficient, given that peasant laborers’ concern for quantity vastly outweighed their concern for quality. 
As the Dutch catalyzed coffee trade, coffee houses populated Europe during the late 17th century. Coffee houses were home to political debates and riveting discussion, yet they largely catered towards wealthy males. For the most part, the Dutch monopolized coffee production at this time. But in 1714, the Dutch gifted the French a coffee plant to be cultivated in the royal botanical gardens. This act completely changed the trajectory of this tiny little bean. 
Allegedly, a visiting French naval captain from Martinique, Captain de Clieu, smuggled a coffee seed all the way from France back to the New World despite a gamut of obstacles. Martinique, situated along the earth’s waistband, was an ideal location for coffee cultivation. There, de Clieu planted one coffee tree that ended up spawning the entirety of the New World’s coffee tree population. After this introduction, France’s model of coffee production relied on slave labor and exportation. Soon, the French colonies in the Caribbean supplied the majority of the world’s coffee. Specifically, more than eighty percent of the world’s coffee production came from the Americas, pushing the coffee production further from Java and the Middle East into the West.   
During this time of colonialism, coffee still only reached a limited market and was controlled primarily by the French and Dutch. Other countries lacked the resources to enter into this industry. A warm climate and fertile soil were essential, and the process of exporting coffee became quite expensive. Certain trade items were heavily taxed due to intermediaries or mercantilist policies, which drove up the global price. Only the bourgeoisie and those with money to spare could readily afford this luxury. It would still be more than a century before coffee became democratized. 
This period of colonialism also devastated the lives of those enslaved, which ended up affecting coffee production down the road. The slaves that were originally transported to the Americas to harvest sugarcane soon found themselves harvesting coffee beans. Additional slaves were imported to French colonies, such as San Domingo (Haiti) to meet the new labor demands. Coffee and sugar production went hand in hand, but came at a cost.
Slaves were subject to hellish conditions (that’s probably an understatement), and were severely overworked. These factors incited the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the most successful slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture. With the French gone, coffee production declined once the plantation system dissolved; however, many ex-slaves and Louverture himself tried to revive coffee production to fuel their new economies. Haiti was able to produce coffee on a smaller scale, and even instituted its own kind of plantation system. For a brief period, coffee prices rose due to the deceleration of production. 
The major takeaway from this is that the decline of colonialism paved the way for more players to enter into the market and allowed others to cultivate a taste for coffee. The most stark contrast between coffee production between then and now was the form of labor used to grow the coffee tree. 
Once coffee colonialism was disbanded in the nineteenth century, many new independent nations were able to adopt coffee production as a major part of their economy. It was during this time that Brazil took its place as a major coffee producer due to cheap labor, abundance of land, and an extremely well suited climate. Many local farmers could start growing trees and selling the bean to make a living. Additionally, the advent of the railroad system in Brazil allowed it to better transport coffee beans. Today, Brazil is the world’s lead supplier of coffee. Improved transportation significantly lowered the price of coffee because it reduced costs associated with production. The invention of commercially available household coffee makers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coupled with these aforementioned factors, allowed coffee to become more of a commodity, rather than a luxury. Coffee was thus democratized once more people could afford it, and its production wasn’t monopolized. 
Moreover, caffeine’s salvific qualities made coffee deeply integral to urban industrialized societies; it’s no coincidence that the countries whose economies were growing the fastest during the 19th and 20th centuries became the top importers of coffee. The United States’ predilection for coffee and growing population also helped increase global consumption. This led to the development of trade deals with coffee producing nations and catalyzed the coffee trade as we know it today.. Today, coffee has a much wider global supply chain. 
Another difference between production during colonialism and today is the amount of stakeholders involved Today, the coffee sector provides over 125 million jobs, and around 67%-80% of coffee production comes from smallholder farms. Coffee is now grown in virtually every country with a compliant climate, many of which are still developing. As of 2017, the top producers/exporters were Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. Inversely, the top importers were the United States, Germany, and France. Similar to the past, there is a wide distance between those who are producing the coffee and those who are consuming it. Coffee production has largely remained an export-oriented industry. 
Additionally, the general method of cultivating the coffee tree and processing its fruit has stayed the same. Growing coffee and preparing the beans is a very labor and time intensive process; the distinction lies not in how coffee is produced, but rather who is producing. Coffee trees produce fruit for up to sixty years, and the coffee bean resides inside the fruit (“cherries”) that must be harvested during three to four months out of the year. Picking the fruit relies on human labor. Coffee berries can either be wet processed or dry processed. In wet processing, the fruit is picked and washed, depulped, fermented for a few days, then dried and hulled to remove the outer husk. In dry processing, the fruit is dried immediately to the tune of a few weeks, hulled, sorted according to size, roasted, and sealed. As aforementioned, the majority of coffee is produced by smallholder farms in developing countries; in that respect, coffee production has been downsized from the large scale production methods of the colonial plantation system. Modern methods are also more efficient than those of forced labor systems. 
On a different note, the commoditization of coffee allowed for both consumers and producers to start paying closer attention to the quality of the bean. On the production side, a higher quality bean will perform better in a competitive market. In colonial times, consumers indulged in the social clout provided by drinking coffee and didn’t necessarily consider its flavor profile. Nowadays, consumers have the luxury of purchasing specific roasts and grades of coffee. This is largely due to the introduction of coffee standards, a grading system, and widespread commercialization and spread of coffee culture in the late 20th century. Specialty coffee ultimately resulted in increased consumer choice, a more nuanced drinking experience, and the exploration of different cultivation techniques that fight against species homogenization. Refining taste helped the coffee industry grow and reach a variety of palates around the world. 
Today, coffee’s multidimensionality and globality has continued to solidify itself as a social and consumable staple around the world. This differs from the colonial period, because the majority of coffee consumption was concentrated in Europe. Most cultures have their own take on the beverage, from Ethiopian jebena buna to Italian espresso to Vietnamese ca phe sua da.Though coffee did have a certain culture and social context surrounding it during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was far less inclusive than it is today. Modern coffee culture was largely pioneered by Starbucks, namely, and a wave of coffee chains in the late 20th century. Though coffee was already an established commodity, these cafes revolutionized its convenience and social context. They also influence the coffee industry as a whole, as they are major coffee buyers, trailing producers of household coffee beans. Before commercialism and consumer culture, it would have been impossible to see consumption of this scale centuries ago. Coffee has benefited from being easily prepared, highly addictive, and a versatile flavor that can be applied to other addictive goods. 
In short, the composition of the coffee industry has changed significantly from colonialism to present day, though the actual mechanics of harvesting coffee beans themselves haven’t seen a comparable revolution. Due to the monopolistic nature of the coffee trade and use of forced labor, producing and consuming coffee was exclusive, classifying it as a luxury item. The downfall of colonialism welcomed an influx of producers and consumers of coffee into the market. Plus, industrialization and urbanization lowered costs of production and forged a greater societal need for a caffeine boost throughout the workday, which led to the democratization and commodification of coffee during the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet with all this change, the way we interact with coffee and its social context hasn’t wavered. More often than not, meetings and meetups will be held at a Starbucks, reminiscent of the atmosphere fostered by 18th century European coffee houses. Today, coffee can be sipped all over the world and plays a huge role in our global economy. From luxury to commodity, coffee has undeniably changed our world. And that’s the tea coffee. 
Works Cited
Crawford, John. “History of Coffee.” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. 15, no. 1, 1852, pp. 50–58. JSTOR, 
Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: the History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Basic Books, 2019.
Rosner, Hillary. “Saving Coffee.” Scientific American, vol. 311, no. 4, 2014, pp. 68–73. JSTOR, 
Thurber, Francis B. Coffee: from Plantation to Cup: a Brief History of Coffee Production and Consumption: with an Appendix ... American Grocer Pub. Association, 1883.
Voora, Vivek, et al. Global Market Report: Coffee. 2019,
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