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BW Businessworld

How Coffee Went Global

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In the excitement of the opening of the first Starbucks café in India, an important historical irony has been overlooked. Globalisation of coffee turns full circle as the plant introduced by an Indian Muslim saint four centuries ago returns as a sophisticated beverage. Starbucks’ offerings, tailored as they are to the Indian palette, are another reminder of the hybrid world created by globalisation.
The way that coffee — al kahwah in Arabic — spread from the Horn of Africa to the Arab world, and from Ottoman empire across to Europe offers a classic example of early globalisation of food and beverage. The brew, made from beans found in the wilds of Ethiopia and Yemen, was discovered by devout Muslims. They quickly realised that drinking the substance enabled devout Sufis to perform thickr, or late night prayers. In a celebrated paean to the power of coffee, the imam of Shehodet monastery in Yemen is described as feeling as if he was “in a state of intoxication differing from all other intoxication hitherto known to his people”. 
According to historical accounts, after drinking coffee he “had almost ceased to be aware of his body, his mind was unusually active, cheerful and alert”. As Islam forbids consumption of alcohol, coffee favoured by Sufi holy men swept the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Yemen as the world’s go-to place for coffee. 
Protective of their monopoly of this elixir, Yemen’s rulers banned the export of unprocessed coffee beans. British and Dutch traders made a fortune by shipping roasted beans from the Yemeni port of Mocha, but new opportunities arose after raw coffee beans were smuggled out of the country. 
According to historical accounts, Baba Budan, a Sufi from Chikmagalur (in present-day Karnataka) was so enamoured by coffee that in early 17th century, while in Mocha on his return journey after performing Haj, he smuggled out a handful of fresh beans sewn into his robe. 
Thanks to those beans, a plantation in Chikmagalur not only produced the first coffee grown outside Yemen and the Horn of Africa but opened the door to its spread to the rest of the world. In Karnataka, there is now even a shrine to the memory of Baba Budan atop a hill named after him.
Dutch traders carried saplings from Indian plantations to Sri Lanka and Indonesia and set in motion the global voyage of coffee. Dutch-run coffee plantations in Java became the launch pad from which the brew was introduced to the western hemisphere. Saplings of coffee plants taken from Java to Europe were eventually carried across the Atlantic to the Caribbean by a French captain in 1723. Soon afterwards, coffee plantations spread to Central and South America, making Brazil the world’s largest grower of coffee and establishing the moniker “Brazil is coffee.” By 1750, the coffee that enchanted Islamic mystics in Yemen and poets and musicians in Istanbul, had circumnavigated the globe. The globalised crop is now grown on five continents.
It is, however, in the North American continent, in Seattle, where three coffee lovers founded a company, Starbucks, in 1971, which has given the ancient brew an unsurpassed reach — 18,000 stores in 60 countries. Although Starbucks uses barely 1 per cent of the world’s coffee supply in its signature stores, its international branding acumen is such that it sells more than just beverage and snacks — it sells a lifestyle that is synonymous with a cosmopolitan cool. 
Starbucks’ phenomenal success in turning cups of beverage into a multi-billion-dollar business has also brought the poverty of the coffee growers at the bottom of the supply chain under global spotlight, provoking criticism and protest. By teaming up with Tata Coffee and, for the first time in its history, sourcing coffee locally, Starbucks has sought to inoculate itself against opponents of foreign retailers. 
Starbucks is also walking a fine line between bringing a global brand to India and catering to a distinctly Indian palette. The concessions to the tastes of a billion-strong population have so far been made only in snack menus, like cardamom-flavoured croissant, chicken tikka panini and tamarind peanut chicken calzone. Starbucks could also have tipped its hat to coffee’s Indian harbinger by naming its strongest espresso after Baba Budan — something the saint might have drunk in preparation for a late night prayer so many centuries ago. 
The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation and Editor of YaleGlobal Online 


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 05-11-2012)