Coffee Planting Lessons
Written By: Suzy González
With origins in Africa, coffee provides an earthy bitter aroma, health benefits, and an array of creative concoctions. Coffee truly is one of the world’s most consumed plant medicines.
When making herbal teas, there are two standard methods of preparation: infusion and decoction. An infusion usually consists of steeping plant leaves in hot water for a suggested time of 15 minutes. A decoction is more likely made with a thicker part of the plant, like bark or roots, and consists of heating the medicine in water for a more extended time or overnight without heat. As I study herbalism and am not a coffee drinker, it was a bit of a revelation to realize that coffee is a decoction!
The coffee plant originates in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia. The most common story of how coffee came to be comes from an account in 850 AD of an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. One day, he noticed his goats jumping around excitedly and traced it to their consumption of bright red berries from a nearby shrub. He tried them himself and also felt their energizing effects. Kaldi and his goats frolicked back home so that he could tell his wife of the discovery. She believed the berries were sent from the heavens and advised Kaldi to bring them to the monastery. One monk deemed the berries the work of the devil and threw them into the fire. The others noticed the enchanting aroma of the roasting beans, pulled them out of the fire, and crushed them by putting out the embers. They decided to preserve them in hot water, and incidentally, coffee was brewed! The monks vowed to drink the new beverage daily to be alert in their devotion by keeping them awake during prayer.
As coffee trade and cultivation made its way to the Arabian peninsula, it would then begin its journey across the globe. In the mid-1400s, coffee made its way to Yemen through a port in Mocha. Soon, this reached Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In the 1600s, seeds were brought to India for cultivation and transported by Dutch colonizers to Java, Indonesia, and India. Venetian traders then brought coffee to Europe. The Dutch also spread the crop towards Central and South America, beginning in Suriname in 1718, then to French Guyana, and Brazil. It was introduced in Columbia by the Jesuits as early as 1723. By the 1800s, coffee was a beverage consumed around the world. In Yemen, the drink was called qahwah, which became the Turkish kahveh, then Dutch koffie and coffee in English. Currently, there are a variety of words for coffee around the world.
Along with the plant’s well-known caffeinated properties, the fiber found in coffee induces a laxative effect for many. If you’re an avid coffee drinker, your brew is likely what gets your body (and digestion) moving in the morning! Coffee contains antioxidants that could protect against certain cancers and chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, modulate sugar metabolism, control blood pressure, protect the liver, and possibly defend against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and lower the risk of suicide. Black coffee contains micronutrients like potassium, magnesium, and niacin. According to a 2015 study published in the journal, Circulation, those who drank 1-5 cups of coffee in a day have a 15% lower risk of mortality in general. There were some stipulations, though—the results were found in non-smokers, and other factors come into play like the affordability of drinking coffee daily and access to health care. Regardless, just imagine if people consumed as many beneficial plant medicines as they do with the ever-so-popular coffee! Research is still ongoing to realize the full benefits of drinking coffee and dispel previous health concerns.
Caffeine both blocks the feeling of being tired while also releasing energizing adrenaline. There’s still debate over whether caffeine can better or worsen anxiety symptoms, but it appears different for each individual. While it may help release dopamine that can help with situational anxiety, caffeine could induce negative symptoms in those who experience panic attacks. Consuming coffee allows people to be in control of their own stimulating dosage of caffeine. Like with anything we consume, it’s best to see how one’s body responds and learn our limits. It may also be worth balancing it with other natural stimulants, like cacao, green tea, ashwagandha, chia, or matcha!
The two most popular varieties of coffee are Arabica, which comes from Latin America, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and Robusta, which comes from Brazil, Vietnam, and Uganda. Today, Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, and the United States is the largest consumer. But, like many histories related to the land, coffee is tied to both colonialism and slavery. Coffee farmers in Brazil earn less than 2% of its retail price, and child labor rates are approximately 37% higher than in other coffee-producing regions. These children are unable to attend school, cannot move up the economic ladder, and the cycle of poverty becomes generational.
Each year in Brazil, hundreds of workers become freed from slave-like conditions. Coffee-providing corporations such as Nestlé openly acknowledge that they acquire coffee from plantations that enforce slave labor and cannot guarantee its removal. The non-profit, Food Empowerment Project, provides a list of ethically produced coffee brands. In addition to a history of human rights struggles, this has been a challenging year for Brazilian coffee farmers, as unprecedented cold temperatures brought frost to the plants in July, with some properties losing 80% of their crop. It will take years for them to bounce back and could affect the world market of coffee.
So, while there are evidential health benefits that come from this plant, caffeine’s stimulant is something to be conscious of in our bodies. As we become aware of new findings, what can benefit us is listening to our bodies, what plant medicines we thrive under and when to set boundaries. And since there are still human rights violations in the coffee industry, those of us who have the means to buy ethically should do so. We can find a balance between caring for ourselves, for others, and the planet by seeking out ethical coffee sources and putting our money where our ethics are. Research your favorite coffee provider, so you know where it’s coming from, and hey, you can even grow your own coffee shrub and get into coffee production yourself!