“And this ma’am, is Luwak. He’s sleeping now because they are nocturnal.”
“Is it because he’s up all night from the coffee?” I joked, and my friends laughed sarcastically.
We were in Ubud, Bali at a special Kopi Luwak agrotourism center, following a young man show us the different Balinese coffee plants through the enormous gardens. He had stopped to show us one of the famous Luwak animals sleeping in a wooden crate, and explain how Indonesia got its ‘world’s best coffee’. He told us that the furry little guy (an Asian civet) would go around selecting and eating only the very best coffee cherries. His poop would then later be collected and processed for the coffee beans, and then the beans would be sold or ground into coffee mixes. Since the civets only select the best fruits to eat, the resulting beans are usually full of flavor, thus making it the ‘best coffee in the world’.
At the end of the tour, the young man brought us an entire tray of different teas and coffees to try. My friend even bought a cup of the Luwak coffee to try (it is also considered very expensive – here it was around $5 for the cup). I remember it tasting a bit bitter and strong, and that we didn’t really know what to think of it since we were definitely not coffee connoisseurs! After the sampling, I bought a little brown paper bag of the delicious vanilla coffee, and my friend got bags of mangosteen and lemon tea.
It was pretty cool to actually tour around an Indonesian coffee garden, and it was also pretty neat to read Thor Hansen’s story of the coffee plant. While on the tour, I distinctly remember realizing that I knew very little about coffee, even though I drink it almost everyday from Tim Horton’s during the school semester. I found that Hanson answered all of my questions through a unique, interesting, and modern perspective of coffee and our global addiction to it.
Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.
Coffee, or as Hanson so amicably calls it, ‘the cheeriest of beans’, originated in African trees, and was first used in drinks by the Arabic people of North Africa (Hanson 146). I especially loved how Hanson hooked me into the chapter by first describing how Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu obtained a coffee plant and so tenderly took care of it in order to plant it in Martinique (in the Caribbean Islands) (Hanson 143). Hanson attributes de Clieu with bringing the coffee plant to the America’s, as de Clieu’s plant spread from Martinique, to Mexico, and even to Brazil. Hanson further explains how coffee began to dominate beer, starting its rise to the top around the seventeenth century in Europe. Hanson states that “per capita beer consumption in northern Europe ranged from 156 to 700 liters annually”, and to put this into perspective he writes that Germany today only drinks about 107 liters annually (Hanson 151). Its hard for me to imagine anything productive being done in Europe, and I don’t even want to imagine what their livers must have had to endure! Thus, Hanson perfectly describes how coffee became increasingly popular, as it ‘woke up’ these societies to enlightened thought, increased diligence and offered up a new kind of buzz in a way that beer could not. Even devout religious people could not deny coffee in that it was not clouding mind or judgement like the alcoholic drinks that were frowned upon by the Islamic and Christian faiths.
I especially loved this chapter for the way that Hanson wrote of the co-evolution between coffee and intellectual conversation. Hanson writes of famous coffeehouses and their extraordinary customers in beautiful detail that was such a pleasure to read. I couldn’t imagine the great Napoleon Bonaparte not being able to pay for his coffee at a small French Cafe! And I was astonished that “Voltaire reportedly drank fifty cups of coffee everyday; he spent so much time in Paris’ Cafe de Procope that his writing desk remains there” (Hanson 153). I found it extremely interesting that these ordinary coffeehouse attracted the most brilliant scholars and artists, and that they were even called “penny universities” since it was thought that you could get a decent education by just visiting these shops.
Hanson eloquently described the biological properties of these aromatic seeds (Hanson 148). It was interesting to note that they are natural insecticides (I wonder what mutations the civet must have adapted to withstand eating so much of the endocarp of coffee cherries), and how they attract honeybees with caffeinated nectar (not unlike how coffee attracted us). I also didn’t know that most of the chemicals in coffee have not been well studied, and that “coffee drinkers enjoy a reduced risk of type II diabetes, [and] liver cancer” (Hanson 152).
I think this chapter was my favorite read so far, since Hanson did an amazing job recounting the tale of the coffee plant and how it became the world’s second most traded commodity. I am a cashier at Costco, so I especially know how important coffee is to people in today’s booming and bustling world.
I once did a school trip to Europe with my friends and dad, and I remember having a charming young bus driver, Jeseppe. I remember Jeseppe maneuvering around the little Italian, Swiss and French towns, singing Italian love songs to us, and most of all, drinking coffee from the shiny chrome espresso machine inside our bus, right next to his seat. In fact the machine was the first thing you saw when you got on the bus, and it had so many knobs and dials that I didn’t even know what it was at first. Each time we’d go on, Jeseppe would offer some to us in a little cups. If that’s not a true depiction of a man’s love of coffee, I don’t know what is.