Our coffee addiction's turning to worship

By John Walsh

The price of coffee will rise and rise, and we will continue drinking it. Photo / APN
The price of coffee will rise and rise, and we will continue drinking it. Photo / APN

In the classic science-fiction novel The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, published in 1952, an overpopulated Earth is run by giant multinational companies, the population is kept in ignorance of its parlous state by giant advertising agencies and the workforce is fed on slices of synthetic protein called Chicken Little, washed down by something called Coffiest.

In this blandly zomboid future-world, everyone drinks Coffiest, day and night. It's mandatory. And it's addictive. After 10 weeks the customer is hooked for life.

Can you imagine being so addicted to a warm beverage? So hooked that you drink it all the time, several times a day, at home, on the way to work, at the workplace, at lunchtime, at tea ... ?

Oh no, hang on, we're doing just that already. Every week, across Britain, we consume 511 million cups of coffee - almost half of them in the franchises that dominate high streets and shopping malls.

How did we become so enslaved? We all know people who proclaim that they cannot face the world, cannot think straight, cannot recognise elementary shapes, simply cannot operate until they've had their first hit of dark roast.

Why do we queue at Starbucks for hot milky drinks which have only traces of caffeine in them? Because we're addicted to the whole procedure behind the Costa bar; the steaming, the percolating, the drip-feed of richness, the warm milky smoothness of the result, the fugitive aromas of vanilla, caramel, honey, nuts and chocolate.

And we seem to be heedless of its alarming cost. According to research, coffee gourmets spend £2000 ($3950) a year on the stuff, while merely everyday drinkers spend £450 a year - more than the average person's domestic electricity bill.

And it's not just some yoof-culture phenomenon: the over-55s consume an average of 15 cups a week.

The first people who tried roasted coffee beans in liquid were Sufi mystics in 13th-century Yemen. The wine they drank at religious ceremonies made them sleepy and they needed a substitute that kept them awake and able to handle long hours of prayer: coffee was the solution.

From Yemen it spread across the Middle East and North Africa, borne by Muslim pilgrims and dervishes. English traveller Anthony Sherley wrote in 1599 about meeting "damned infidels drinking a certaine liquor, which they do call Coffe".

Britain's first coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Turkish Jew called Jacob. By 1675, there were 3000 coffee houses in England - despite the hostility of King Charles II, who suspected they might be hotbeds of sedition and tried to remove their licences (but there was such an outcry, he was forced to withdraw his plans).

Now there are 14,022 coffee shops in Britain and they brought their owners £5 billion last year. That's a year-on-year increase of 12.9 per cent. This trend can't continue, can it? Oh yes it can. More and more branded coffee franchises are scheduled to open. And there are two other trends that should give the everyday coffee drinker pause. One is price and the other is sophistication.

The price of coffee beans has increased alarmingly and will continue to do so. It virtually doubled in the past 12 months - and nobody quite knows why. They're lost in the murky depths of global commodity markets.

Coffee drinkers (and growers) found they had an unlikely champion in the shape of Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, in May this year when he publicly denounced the price increase. "The price of coffee is at a 34-year high," he told Channel 4. "We're seeing a 100 per cent rise. I could understand it if there were some supply and demand issue, or some climate problem, but we don't see any. But there will be a ton of money made here and the people who most deserve to profit from it - the coffee farmers - won't get it."

Last year, global consumption went up by 2.5 per cent.

China and India have woken up and sniffed the Java.

The number of coffee houses in China will triple in three years.

Tea consumption in India has declined ever since the subcontinent's population discovered the lure of the bean and the roast. As demand rises, traditional suppliers in Brazil and Columbia will struggle to match it - and the price to the coffee shops will rise and rise.

We will, in other words, pay much more for our caffeine addiction in the future. And will we cut down on our coffee consumption? Will we hell.

The other trend will fit in nicely. It's a new culture of coffee sophistication that's now commonplace in America and will be joining us shortly. From New York to Los Angeles, there's a new breed of coffee snob, who looks with disdain on "foamed-milk beverages" and aspires to being a connoisseur of Pure Coffee. He (or she) can discourse airily about "single estate" coffee, made with beans from a single country or a single farm.

The new coffee snob also has passionate views about the benefits of light, medium and dark roasts and the long, unfolding aftertastes they can give you.

Try reading the posts about Pure Coffee on foodie websites such as chowhound.com ("Blue Bottle was nothing like anything I'd tasted before - deep, intense, surging with crazy flavours. Long, enormous narrative tails - multi-minute-long aftertastes, with wild trips through citrus flavours, spice flavours, funky meaty flavours ... Madness, insanity, depth, beauty and wonder in a cup") and you glimpse a new world in which coffee varietals will soon be treasured - and bought and sold - like first-growth claret or single-malt whisky.

A month ago, I sat having breakfast in a Los Angeles restaurant and idly picked up a "Coffee List". It went on for pages. It encouraged you to select your choice of bean. Then to choose which brewing method you wanted: aeropressing, French oppressing, vacuum pot, drip and a few others.

Weak from jetlag and a gnawing desire for bacon and eggs, I said: "I'll just have a cappuccino, thanks." Wordlessly, but with a look that suggested I was wasting her vast expertise, she flipped the pages to the front, to reveal that there were at least a dozen frothy-milk breakfast beverages for the amateur coffee-drinker to choose from. I felt about three inches high.

That's how much coffee has conquered the world. It's not enough just to be addicted to it. You have to worship the stuff, as well.

- Independent

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