Monday, June 26, 2017

Second Coffee Myth: Busted

The first myth of coffee is the myth of its origin about 1500 years ago in Abyssinia, in what is now Ethiopia. A goatherd named Kaldi is said to have noticed his goats dancing with extra energy. He also noticed that they were eating the fruit of some tall shrubs, so he chewed on them, got energized, and the rest is history.
Coffee: Fruit to grounds
The rest is also geography -- the Abyssinians only got as far as mashing the fruit into something like a power bar; it was across the Red Sea in Yemen that coffee as we know it began to emerge about a century later.

The second coffee myth comes much later, in the 1970s, and it actually includes the word "second." The myth goes like this:
Myth: Coffee is the second-most actively traded commodity, after oil.
This is a myth that I have repeated online, in classes, and in public lectures. I have read it on coffee web sites and many kinds of books about the beverage. And I have heard it in almost every documentary film about coffee that I have watched.

And, it appears, it is about as likely to be true as the legend of Kaldi. Perhaps less so.

Over the years, I have intended to look up the numbers behind the claim, to make sure that they were "still" true. The possibility that the claim was never true simply did not occur to me.

And then an alum shared Jon Greenberg's PolitiFact article No, Coffee Is Not the Second-Most Traded Commodity After Oil. The article is a bit blustery and inexplicably centers on Starbucks, but it usefully cites a couple of statistics and authorities that cast doubt on the second-most ranking. One of those incorrectly says that the claim was once true, which would give me comfort, but it turns out that even this is not the case.

Fortunately, Greenberg cites one authority I know personally -- Mark Pendergrast. When I first began preparing to teach coffee classes in 2005, I chose his book Uncommon Grounds as a text. Coincidentally, a teacher who was attending a geography workshop at which I was giving a short presentation on coffee said, "My uncle has written a book about coffee." It was the book I had already chosen, and I was able to arrange for him to speak on our campus as part of the send-off for my first coffee travel course. I later took a group of students who had read his book to meet him while we were touring a roastery near his home.

I mention those meetings because they took place after the book was published, but before Pendergrast had been made aware of the error shared by so many scholars of coffee. Scholar that he is, he doggedly researched the topic, going much deeper, of course, than the PolitiFact author could go. Details of his retraction were published in a 2009 issue of Coffee & Tea Trade Journal  with the cumbersome title Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?, which is helpfully republished on The Free Library.

Pendergrast's best theory as to the origin of the myth is that it originally referred not to global trade, but to exports from developing countries. He explains this distinction clearly, and also explains why apples-to-apples comparisons (as it were) between the 1970s and today are no longer possible.

As careful as he is in the retraction, Pendergrast is also careful to emphasize that the ranking is not so important. However it is measured, the coffee business touches tens of millions of lives directly, along with wildlife habitat and water supplies throughout the tropics. Those of us who care deeply about those people and places should never have taken the "big is important" bait.

A second edition of Uncommon Grounds includes the correction, but as we all know -- retractions never travel as widely or quickly as errors. I am making it my duty as Coffee Maven -- beginning with this post -- to set the record straight.

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