How much did you drink yesterday?
Habitually, Magellan and I each have two in the morning and one mid-afternoon.
You might be thinking, “You two should consider AA.”
But that’s average consumption in Canada.
I’m not talking about shots of whisky or glasses of red wine. Coffee—October 1 is International Coffee Day, although many countries, including Canada, celebrate on September 29.
I know it’s easy to be cynical about these sorts of holidays as just corporate greed to sell more brew, related merchandise, even greeting cartoons. But the day also raises awareness of the plight of coffee farmers. C’mon, let’s go for coffee.
International Coffee Day was launched in Italy seven years ago, but it was Japan that initiated the celebration with a coffee event in 1983.
A character in a novel by Japan’s Haruki Murakamai says,
The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.
One of the best cups we’ve sipped was a pour-over in Tokyo, in ancient times, 1987. It cost the equivalent of $5 a cup (equivalent to $13 today) so we savoured every mouthful, slowly. We had equally good coffee in Kurashiki decades later with Lynn and Ward, the coffee black as the city’s timbered warehouses. And you could say it gave us the shakes—a small earthquake happened while we were in the café!
Percolate on this: is coffee’s fragrance more satisfying than its taste?
Iceland’s Nobel prize-winning author Halldór Laxness may think so given this description from his novel Independent People.
Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten, and the soul is inspired with faith in the future…
Some people abhor coffee’s taste, describing it as bitter, acidic, scorched, oily. A lot of it is. Which is why in Greece, thick and strong coffee called metrios is served in a demitasse with a small glass of cold water alongside.
Canadian poet Suhaib Rumi writes.
Strange how the bitterness
of coffee makes life sweet.
Speaking of oily, coffee is the second-most valuable legally traded commodity in the world, oil being number one. Canadians spend $23 billion a year on coffee!
How did this alchemy begin? Roasting coffee beans to make a hot drink originated in Arabia in the thirteenth century, the Muslim community finding the stimulant useful for enduring long prayer sessions. (In summer, we still emulate the delicious Omani coffee served to us cold at the Sahab Hotel upon check-in: espresso, cardamom, a wee bit of sugar and milk, and a splash of rosewater.) For four centuries Arabs cornered the market by parching and boiling coffee beans to render them infertile. Then someone confiscated a few unadulterated beans into Europe.
The Dutch founded the first European-owned coffee estate in Sri Lanka in the seventeenth century, followed by the French in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America and the Portuguese in Brazil.
In 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England, centres of news and gossip, discussions of business and politics, literature and philosophy. Europe’s coffeehouses became known as penny universities, functioning, as Tom Standage writes in his book A History of the World in 6 Glasses, as “the Internet of the Age of Reason.”
Vienna’s cosmopolitan reputation is associated with its coffeehouses, which the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described as
where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill…a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.
UNESCO has even deigned Viennese Coffee House Culture an Intangible Cultural Heritage. In the 80s on a fam trip with Lufthansa to Vienna, I went to Café Sacher, mostly for the dense chocolate torte of the same name. Esther Morgan captures my feeling of being alone in a coffeehouse in a city with more than its share of sadness:
Though more beautiful still was how the light moved on,
letting go each chair and coffee cup without regret…
Coffee farmers are suffering fewer regrets thanks to two-way traceability of where their coffee is being served. In the past, many poor farmers in remote areas in Salvador were told by shady middlemen that their coffee was poor in quality and not worth much, writes Peter Gakuo in Coffee Intelligence.
Then one day, they did an internet search and found their coffee was being sold by an American roaster who was using pictures of their family and their farm. They realised their coffee was being sold at a premium as specialty coffee and that they had been lied to.
When we visited our granddaughter Clare in Edinburgh where she was studying, she recommended Fortitude; they make excellent lattes—and donate 1% of sales to World Coffee Research.
But top prize (without bias) for the most inspired cup of coffee we’ve ever enjoyed were cardamom rose lattes at Dilly Dally Coffee Café in Halifax.
In small towns across the country, people meet for coffee every weekday morning at the local café, the centre of news and gossip, discussions of business and politics. Like our friend Doug and his pals in Birch Hills, SK.
In bigger centres across the country, friends gather at Timmy’s. In the cities, specialty coffee shops are hot places: Prism Coffee in Saskatoon and Kahve in Vancouver are two of our faves. And in the US? Here’s what comedian Bill Maher said on a segment of his New Rules:
New Rule: Gun-control people have to stop pressuring Starbucks to ban guns. I want my gun nuts overcaffeinated, twitchy, and accident-prone. That way, the problem will take care of itself.
There’s even an ode to coffee, written by the highly accomplished American poet and translator Urayoán Noel, who is originally from Puerto Rico:
ode to coffee
oda al café
(after Juan Luis Guerra)
from Africa to a Caribbean hill
de África a las lomas del Caribe
to the smiling ruin of our cities
a la feliz ruina de ciudades
anoint the neural vessels we refill
al matorral neural en donde vive
until your acid muse drowns our pities
tu agria musa que ahoga soledades
return us to our tribe that grew dark beans
devuélvenos al semillero isleño
cut through the grease of our late-night omelets
metaboliza la grasa nocturna
and warm this empty diner by the club
trae tu calor a nuestro desvelo
where luckless lovers stare at tiny screens
haz que el amante no muera de sueño
and poets brew old socks into psalmlets
tu borra es poema que embadurna
while dreaming it rains coffee from above.
y sombría tu alegría de cielo.
And magazines devoted to coffee, like Standart, which I couldn’t resist ordering.
Still, I wonder. Is it the smell of coffee, the power of this elixir to stimulate our brain, the rituals of its consumption that we romanticize?
We leave you with this last drop, “Recipe for Happiness in Khabarovsk or Any Place” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
One grand boulevard with trees
with one café in the sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups
One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you
Cartoonstock.com is where Magellan purchased a three-pack—check out their hundreds of coffee cartoons.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Recipe for Happiness in Khabarovsk or Any Place.”
Writing Across the Landscape. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2015.
Gakuo, Peter. “Are consuming countries forcing two-way traceability on coffee farmers?” Coffee Intelligence. July 20, 2022.
Laxness, Halldór. Independent People. New York: Vintage, International 1997. Originally published in 1946 and now in its thirty-sixth printing.
Maher, Bill. New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. NewYork: Blue Rider Press, 2011.
Morgan, Esther. “This Morning.” Grace. UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2014.
Murakami, Haruki. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage. Toronto Doubleday Canada, 2014. Coffee quote.
Noel, Urayoán. “ode to coffee / oda al café.” Copyright © 2016. Used by permission from the author. Do check out his website.
Rumi, Suhaib. Emerald Companion. Independently published, 2019.