Coffee, anybody?

The story of Cuppa Joe and the old chicks

I heard it first on the radio and then read a more detailed article which stated that according to research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, people who drank four or five cups of coffee a day tended to live longer than those who drank only a cup or less. Coffee-drinking men cut their risk for death by 12 percent after four to five cups of coffee, according to the study. Women who drank the same amount had the risk of death reduced by 16 percent. I nodded my head as the reporter was droning on with the details, and imagined the scene in Madras, the octogenarian Iyer mama with his stainless steel glass and dovarah pouring the coffee back and forth, as the Hindu paper lay open at Page 2, whipping up the foam and muttering “Of course, that is what I have been saying, soon they are going to say the same about betel leaves and arecanuts…. Alamelu, ithe paru…naan enna sonnen? Used to tell my son the same thing years ago, that drinking coffee is good. Well he listened to it and that is why he finished his IIT and went to the states. Now these fellows have grandly discovered what we knew all along. I tell you.. this vella kaaaran is so clever... eppidi pesaren ........paaru.”

The thought of coffee brought back a memory from the past, a visit to ‘Coffee day’ at Calicut, which as anybody can attest is a coffee shop somewhat further from the crowds and the mainstream shopping area. In our college days, we used to go to ICH near Aradhana or Park restaurant opposite Mananchira for a cuppa, with the latter presenting a different ambience in an open park, that we all used to enjoy so much. But this as you can imagine was more recent. Ah! I am straying, we are at Coffee Day at Calicut, it had been a throat parching day, the missus needed accompaniment for shopping and a strenuous round of many a shopping street had been completed. After these arduous hours, the joint decision was to get a cuppa. And thus we landed up at coffee days, our cheery (late) family driver Mani in tow (May his soul rest in peace, he passed away last year). When we walked into Coffee days, we could feel the subtle change created by our grand entry. The place was full of hep and jean clad youngsters lolling round on the tables and sofas and so on. Girls and boys were chatting away, texting furiously and an odd one lapping away at his laptop. Many an expression changed as they saw us making our entry. I could almost hear the comments muttered under their breath…”man..look at those uncles..sheez..Wearing dhoti and all”..well, but naturally, we were happily clad in dhotis, mine at half mast and we strolled in purposefully. Without much ado we sat down and were provided a menu card full of various kinds of coffee. Mani looked at the menu and at me with incredulousness writ on his face and asked ‘what kind of coffee place is this? Rs 100 for a coffee?’ Can we not find an Indian coffee house or a Brahmin hotel? Well, too late, I told him and so we had our expensive coffee not in steel dovarahs and galsses, but in cups with patterns drawn on the foam, surrounded by the uncomfortable crowd. Soon we were off, and the visit consigned to the grey cells, though not the coffee taste. Nothing like the older ones. How do you like that – nowadays, you even need a proper attire to drink coffee in certain places in Kerala. I could have been even more hep in attire, but who bothers when you are back home..In Kerala, my motto is - always a dhoti…

This article was fun researching, for I came to understand a lot that I did not have an inkling about, for example how coffee was a passion for a king, the one who talked to his coffee plant for whole days and who also built the world’s first green house for his favorite plant and other stories of people who risked death moving saplings and seeds across continents. And the relationship goats had with coffee. In the interim even more of the brown liquid had been consumed, more of the beans ground and mixed with liquids like milk and water. The upper class European would abhor the sight of milk added to coffee and well, sometimes they act as though coffee is stuff they invented and perfected, with arched eyebrows and a scoffing expression. Pity that they do not have the faintest clue about the origins, but then again, that is how most things are.

And of course I recalled my younger days when we would get the coffee ground 75% peaberry, or robusta, 25% chicory and stuff it into the decoction filter for a great cup in the morning. We have still not got the right mix here and the experimentation with various brands and percolators continue. But I had written on those lines already some years ago in a few articles. But this one is more about the origins and to trace the stories we go to Africa.

Even the earliest stories around coffee are interesting. It appears that a goatherd named Kaldi took his goats up some hillocks in Ethiopia some centuries ago and the goats appeared energetic after munching some red berries of a wild plant. As stories go, the goatherd also chomped a few of these berries and found himself rejuvenated. The berries were actually coffee berries. Our man came down the hill extolling the virtues of the wonder plant and thus introduced the elixir named coffee to the human race. But all these stories have multiple versions. Another version continues that Kaldi’s enthusiasm prompted him to bring the berries to an Islamic holy man in a nearby monastery. The holy man suspecting it to be not of any good threw them into a fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed. The story then states that the roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world's first cup of coffee. Now as you saw, this myth originates in Ethiopia. Yemeni’s are not far behind in claiming that it comes from their lands as documented in 1001 nights. Here the people notice that the goats were no longer resting or sleeping at night and continued to be energetic. Anyway Mocha in Yemen, an oasis area became synonymous with coffee a little later and the brew gained popularity after the Arabs introduced it to the masses visiting Mecca for the Hajj. The first written mention of coffee is in the 10th century by Rhazes, famous Arabian physician, is first writer to list coffee under the name bunca or bunchum. The Yemenis made a closely guarded business of it, and supplied coffee or the ‘Wine of Arabia’ to various Muslim rulers and by the 14th – 15th century, the potion was quite popular in Arabia and Persia as well as many Ottoman ruled areas.

So as we see, the popularity of the beverage in Arabia resulted in the proliferation of innumerable coffee houses or kahve kanes in the Mecca Jeddah area. During the early 16th century coffee consumption was banned in Mecca based on an adverse report by a couple of physicians or hakims. Soon all coffee houses and warehouses in Mecca were burnt. But the Sultan of Cairo, his superior did not agree as it was overtly popular in Cairo where he said there were even better physicians who stated that it was an elixir of health in Cairo. The Governor of Mecca canceled the ban soon after and coffee continued to be drunk though the governor was tortured and put to death thereafter. However in 1542, Sultan Suleiman ‘the great’ banned coffee as it was considered a radical drink that started revolutions due to free mixing of people in places like coffee houses. But that ban too proved short-lived. Around that time, it appears that the first taste of coffee reached Europe through Vienna, where Christian priests tried to get it banned. But Pope Clement VIII after tasting the brew decided that it is too tasty to be banned and stated. "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and by making it a truly Christian beverage."

Maybe the unadultered versions of the past could make you prance like a goat, or get geniuses like writer RK Narayan and Mathematician Ramanujam come up with masterpieces and discoveries or musicians like Shemmangudi to develop a new take on a wonderful Carnatic kirthanam, but the stuff you get these days have so many additives that you wonder what coffee will consist of or taste like in years to come, much like the direction tobacco took.

So we shall agree that goats discovered coffee for us, though there are other legends about Sheikh Omar, the bird, the coffee berries that saved him from starvation and so on. The Arabs popularized it and it was served in Mecca coffee shops which pilgrims visited. As they came back, they mentioned to others about this dark, bitter brew that provided people a much different perspective after imbibing it. Some of the pilgrims, who went for the annual Hajj, as we know, originated from the North Malabar areas, and one such person, an interesting character named Baba Budan will be our subject in the next paragraph. As the story goes, he lived some 1900 meters / 6300 ft above sea level, in a place called Vayu Parvatha or the Dattagiri hill range near today’s Chikmangalur. The place was popular in Hindu mythology too, and was known as the Chandra Drona Parvatha in some circles. It is also the place with a lot of those mystic Kurinji flowers, which flower once in 12 years.

Now those days were different. The Yemenis did not want the coffee planted elsewhere, so the seeds were always dead before they hit the Mecca markets, for you see, the Yemenis boiled them or pre roasted them so that it was good only for grinding & coffee brewing, not planting. Procuring or selling or stealing live seeds was punishable by death. It was during this period that Baba Budan decided to go on his hajj. Bab Budan was apparently a fakir, a learned sufi saint, and had other names/titles such as Hayat Kalandar and Hayat I Bahar. Well, like the introduction of silk by the smuggling of silk seeds by a holy man, our friend Budan sahib somehow acquired seven healthy coffee seeds during his Arabian sojourn around 1695 or so. Where he got it is a question, for if he did get healthy seeds, he must have got it from a courier at Mecca, which is highly doubtful due to the associated danger. Perhaps he went to Mecca via Mocha in Yemen, where he with his Sufi connections managed to get the seed from a source plantation. Perhaps he got them at Aden either before his dhow went on to Mecca or most probably during its return after he learnt about its good effects on the human mind at Mecca. As the story goes, he hid them in his hajj belt and brought it back to Malabar. After trudging back to the high ranges of Chikmangalur, he planted them and they were the first of the coffee plants of India. Whether he lived to drink coffee from the berries of the new plants is still a question that will have no answer for, but we do know that the myth took root and the man had a new name, Baba Budan, for he was saintly and a sufi saint at that.

He planted the seeds near the dattapeeta cave and continued preaching what he wanted to preach and people took note. The dattapeeta cave lent the name dattagiri range to the area much later. The seeds derived from the plants that originated from the first seven beans are called old chik. A third of India’s coffee comes from these old chicks. Perhaps much of Ceylon’s and probably all of Java’s coffee comes from these old chicks. How did that happen? In fact they may even have cousins in Latin Amercia. Let us check to see what happened.

Coffee drinking never took off in India in that medieval period. In addition to the Budan myth of Chikmangalur, wild coffee has been grown as far down as Waynad in North Malabar , but never as robust as the ones in the hills of Mysore. While Portuguese, Dutch and English records indicate no mention of their bringing coffee to India, we do know that the coffee from the hills were sold as wild produce in the markets of Mysore and Waynad. Perhaps they have been around since time immemorial, but were popularized after Budan saw the berries used to brew coffee in Mecca. And like theme songs or jingles or bikini clad babes to market a product these days, Baba Budan’s smuggled seed story popularized coffee consumption, not in India, but elsewhere. Nobody took notice till the Dutch found the brew interesting and took it to Europe which already knew about coffee through the Ottoman Turks. Soon, by the 18th century, it became a cash crop with much demand in Europe.

Borrowing from Uker’s book - The Dutch eventually carried coffee, perhaps the descendants of the first seven seeds of Baba Budan, to Ceylon (In 1658 the Dutch started the cultivation of coffee in Ceylon, although the Arabs are said to have brought the plant to the island prior to 1505) and then to Java (In 1696, at the instigation of Nicolaas Witsen, then burgomaster of Amsterdam, Adrian Van Ommen, commander at Malabar, India, caused to be shipped from Kananur, Malabar, to Java, the first coffee plants introduced into that island). They were planted by the Governor-General Willem Van Outshoorn on the Kedawoeng estate near Batavia, but these were subsequently lost by earthquake and flood. In 1699 Henricus Zwaardecroon again imported some slips, or cuttings, of coffee trees from Malabar into Java. These were more successful, and became the progenitors of all the coffees of the Dutch East Indies, where, after some effort, coffee growing was established on a commercial basis.It took a while before they caught on, but by now the Javanese blends were the ones hitting the European markets.

Back in India, the first of the cultivations of coffee was in the Anjarakandy (5 ½ candies of crops) plantation, managed in Tellichery by Murdoch Brown late in the 18th century, and the labor was fully imported from Ceylon ( you can see some linkages to the Thiyya origin here) on a regular basis for this and other plantations. Brown had many a problem with the local Moplahs and soon the Anjarakandy farm was closed down, but some of the seeds of the plantation went to the Mananthavady plantations in Waynad. While the Malabar coffee plantations never took off, the Mysore maharajah encouraged its cultivation (Batayi system whereby half the produce was handed over to the king) initially. Later the raja sold all of these to Parry & Co. Parry were also not too keen about coffee and the work of continuing coffee cultivation was taken up mainly by individuals.

Ukers continues - In 1706 the first samples of Java coffee, and a coffee plant grown in Java, were received at the Amsterdam botanical gardens. Many plants were afterward propagated from the seeds produced in the Amsterdam gardens, and these were distributed to some of the best known botanical gardens and private conservatories in Europe. In 1714, however, as a result of negotiations entered into between the French government and the municipality of Amsterdam, a young and vigorous plant about five feet tall was sent to Louis XIV at the chateau of Marly by the burgomaster of Amsterdam. The following day, it was transferred to the Jardin des Plantes at Paris, where it was received with appropriate ceremonies by Antoine de Jussieu, professor of botany in charge. This tree was destined to be the progenitor of most of the coffees of the French colonies, as well as of those of South America, Central America, and Mexico.

According to the most trustworthy data, de Clieu embarked at Nantes, 1723. He had installed his precious plant in a box covered with a glass frame in order to absorb the rays of the sun and thus better to retain the stored-up heat for cloudy days. Among the passengers one man, envious of the young officer, did all in his power to wrest from him the glory of success. Fortunately his dastardly attempt failed of its intended effect.

"It is useless," writes de Clieu in his letter to the Année Littéraire, "to recount in detail the infinite care that I was obliged to bestow upon this delicate plant during a long voyage, and the difficulties I had in saving it from the hands of a man who, basely jealous of the joy I was about to taste through being of service to my country, and being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch." "Water was lacking to such an extent," says de Clieu, "that for more than a month I was obliged to share the scanty ration of it assigned to me with this my coffee plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight. It needed such succor the more in that it was extremely backward, being no larger than the slip of a pink." Many stories have been written and verses sung recording and glorifying this generous sacrifice that has given luster to the name of de Clieu.

Arrived in Martinique, de Clieu planted his precious slip on his estate in Prêcheur, one of the cantons of the island; where, says Raynal, "it multiplied with extraordinary rapidity and success." From the seedlings of this plant came most of the coffee trees of the Antilles. The first harvest was gathered in 1726.

It appears that a gift of love then helped propagate coffee to Brazil - A young Portuguese officer from Brazil charmed the French governor’s wife in French Guiana. She gifted him some coffee cuttings as a token of her love for him. The Portuguese officer planted these saplings in Brazil and began what are now the largest coffee plantations in the world

Coffee drinking in India

Even though the Dutch and the English dabbled with coffee plantations and seeds and all that, Indians were largely disinterested with the potion. I am not too sure what they drank, but I believe it was either milk or buttermilk and rarely was something warm drunk. Sometime around 1900 the tastes may have changed to drinking tea and coffee. Chalapathy in his wonderful book opines that it was around 1914 or so and is closely tied to colonialism. The first use in India is attributed to the Sudra coolie who returned from the estates. Perhaps it kept them energetic much longer. Soon it displaced naeeragaram and kanji from their place as the potion of choice. It did not enter mainstream for quite some time and was equated with liquor while purists stated that filter coffee is more addictive than beer and arrack. However for some reason it soon became a hit with the upper Brahmin class and even chaste Brahmin ladies were seen drinking coffee. Some even complained to Gandhi about it. Coffee was soon blamed for all the ills of the nation. But by the 1930 period, the rave had caught on and it was soon being served to guests. In fact even Lord Siva visits one in a popular novel of the time.

AS Chalapathy puts it beautifully, soon came a time when a family’s character was decided by the quality of coffee they served. If the visitor stated that ‘their coffee is awful’, it would be their darkest condemnation. Chicory came much later with the war as a means to adulterate pure coffee, the fact remained that the best coffee is made only with cow’s milk, interestingly they had ‘pasumpal kapi clubs’ too. Soon coffee became a part of the middle class Brahmin household. Somehow by that time, tea became the workers drink. In North India, and Kerala, tea is more popular and here again it is very strange. Tea was a drink favored by the Chinese and as we all know, it came down through the English to us. The habit of tea drinking, especially in Kerala seems to be more associated with Muslims. However, even though coffee was the drink of choice at Mecca, it never caught on with the Moplah of Kerala. But if coffee was the Wine of Islamic Arabia, why is it that in South India where Islam was introduced very early on, Brahmins drink coffee and Muslims drink mainly tea? Let’s see how readers come up with an answer. Nevertheless, the beverage of the Malayali’s choice in Kerala these days is provided by the aptly named beverages corporation.

But why is coffee in USA called a cup of joe? First I thought it was something to do with Joe star bucks or something, just like the hamburger is a Mac. It is navy history. There are a couple of stories around it. Quoting snopes,
1914 Cup of Joe Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Among his Naval reforms were inaugurating the practice of making 100 fleet sailors eligible for the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and on July 1, 1914, he issued general order 99, which rescinded Article 827, the officers' wine mess. Rumor has it that from that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships was coffee, and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe."

Cup of Joe" is an American nickname for coffee. Or perhaps it is because the word "joe" can be used to define an ordinary person. For instance, the phrase "an average joe" refers to the every day, typical man. Thus, a "cup of joe" would be a drink best suited for the common man.

Back to Baba Budan, the cave and the area had become a religious bone of contention. At Chikmangalur the religious factions were once arguing over the remains in the cave. The Muslims say the cave at Attigundi is that of Baba Budan whereas the Hindus say it is the throne of Dattatreya, whose arrival or appearance at the mouth of the cave will herald the final avatar of Vishnu ushering in a new millennium. The whole story becomes further complicated with the mention of a Sufi preacher Abdul Aziz Macci who was sent from Arabia in the 11th century. Locals also believe that Baba Budan from a later period was Dattatreya. In these animated discussions by people who have plenty of time for such matters, especially those not concerning any kind of labor from their part other than vigorously exercising their vocal chords, after consuming a good amount of coffee or tea, the origins of coffee from there and the old chik are forgotten, and are replaced by all kinds of religious fervor. But then, that is life, I suppose.

Oooh..after all this writing, my coffee urges are kicking in, I need my cuppa joe…Reddy’s store provides me two options, the Coorg coffee and the Kothas coffee, not Narasu’s, but what I want is a Brahmin variety that RK Narayanan loved, but then his sister is not around to make it.. I have to switch on the percolator and get it done, well, no other choice, maybe I will add a bit of the New Orleans Chicory coffee to the Dunkin donuts coffee to get it right…it is a chance I have to take… Time for my cuppa

All about Coffee - William Harrison Ukers
A planting Century – S Muthaiah
In those days there was no coffee – AR Venkatachalapathy
For those who need only a ready reckoner – See these NG pages
Coorg pic from Coorg Adventure
All B&W pics from Uker’s book

Previous coffee articles – Click on title

Filter Coffee
Goats and beans


harimohan said...

maddy that was wonderful an exhaustive report on my favourite brew
,having born and brought up in Mylapore and tasted Aduthatthu filter
coffee in abundance I cant stand the sight of starbucks ( one in my
hospital too now which i detest ) and all the modern coffee dens which
to me resemble the emaciated models one sees in fashion TV compared
to say Ravivarmas voluputous damsels so is Udupi coffee compared to
Coffeee days !
whenever we went to nadu on hols those days my mother would carry my
BRU which caused great amusemsnt to my Kerala bred cousins who used to
make fun of me ......
.Hari Annakku puru vennam thre !!

still i love my coffee but in its orignal form
one thing you left out is Keralas Ifamous ndian coffee houses !
amongst its multi tea shops
Tea shops in Madhras was called Nair kadais

windwheel said...

Amazing story- can't believe coffee drinking habit is so recent!
Actually, now I recall, great grandmother did not take coffee- also white sugar was considered 'impure'.
Now my mother complains because she is not allowed 'proper' coffee and feigns to believe that all this de-caff and 'sweetener' is against Morality- she even uses the Hindi word, 'Insaniyat' to draw attention to the outrage!

I remember RK Narayan wrote about the Chickmagalur cave and the Dattatreya/ Baba Bedur connection in his guide book to Mysore. Apparently, religious differences on this point are more recent.

Maddy said...

hi hari..
i did have a para on ICH in teh original draft, then took it out as it is a story by itself. saved that research for another day as ICH memories are priceless..
ah! your comparison of the models was puuuuuurfect.
but bru - ugh! no instant for me.

Maddy said...

thanks windwheell..
know what - white sugar is teh cause of many a problem, so yoru grandma thought right..
RKN's thoughts about coffee are brilliant..


Great piece, very thorough!

Happy Kitten said...

Was not much of a coffee lover though Hubby never gets up from the bed unless I hand over him his cup of hot black cofee.. only recently I started sharing a cup with him since I keep on reading abt it's virtues.. My MIL is also a black coffee drinker and she is in perfect health at 83.. so there must be some truth in this..

Thanks for the coffee tail.. hope to visit Coorg this year..

sumal said...

Excellent article, to state the obvious!Your promise to me to write an article on Kerala's affair with liquor is still unfullfilled!

Maddy said...

thanks sumal..
yest to start on it. will do soon

Maddy said...

thanks HK
I am told there are some great Coorg getaways.
perhaps you will meet Baba Budans ghost there...