Around the World in a Cup of Joe

Angela Dansby

Last weekend I was briefly back in my old stomping ground of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States. I stayed on the “Magnificent Mile,” which is sadly no longer magnificent due to several shuttered (farewell, Macy’s) and boarded up businesses from riots last summer and COVID-19. However, I discovered a bright spot getting morning java.

Starbuck’s largest outpost in the world moved onto the Mag Mile (Michigan Avenue) in late 2019, replacing Crate & Barrel. It is five stories of all things coffee-related, including a roastery and mini museum to inform the public what goes into a perfect cup of coffee. As someone who has promoted food from farm to fork throughout my career, I am impressed by the effort! The simple joy many of us experience drinking coffee every morning comes from a complex process of growing, selecting, roasting and even barrel-aging coffee beans.

As its name suggests, Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery has a coffee bean roaster on site and customers can purchase freshly roasted beans as well as drink coffee made from them in a variety of ways. There are coffee flights and sumptuous offerings like affogato (made with house-churned vanilla gelato infused with nitrogen), espresso martini, whiskey barrel-aged cold brew and the Smoked Cold-Fashioned. The drinks are served in three coffee bars, a cocktail bar and rooftop terrace – all of which are complemented by an on-site Italian bakery making sweet and savory offerings. (FYI, Starbucks is not only America’s number one coffee company, it is the third largest restaurant chain! Coffee shops are the fastest growing niche in the restaurant industry.)

Bags of green coffee beans are shipped from all over the world to this Starbuck’s (as well as to other reserve roasteries in Seattle, Shanghai, Milan, New York and Tokyo), which are stored in public areas for visual appeal. For roasting, they are poured into clear storage units and transported via tubing to a five-story roaster that looks like a bronze sculpture. The beans are roasted to release their flavors. Then they are stored, sold and brewed. Simple, right?

Not really. First, coffee beans are grown in hot, often tropical geographies (think Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia), where farmers have to fight hard against pests and diseases. For example, coffee leaf rust disease can reduce crop harvests by 40 percent or more, affecting both quality and quantity. Warmer weather due to climate change is making it worse. Countries like Ethiopia – the birthplace of coffee – and Uganda are particularly at risk. This is a “wake up” call for the 25 million people who depend on coffee farming for their livelihood. In Ethiopia, for example, there is a proverb translated as “coffee is our bread” because it is the backbone of the country’s economy. It has been exporting coffee since the 15th century, growing up to 10,000 varieties.

Second only to crude oil, coffee is the world’s most traded commodity – more than natural gas, gold, sugar and corn – with about 500 billion cups consumed per year. It is worth more than $100 billion worldwide and grown in over 50 countries in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

A whopping 67 percent of the global coffee supply is grown in the Americas alone, led by Brazil. In fact, Brazil has been the world’s number one coffee producer for more than 150 years. It currently produces about 2.6 million metric tons annually! It also uses a unique dry process, where coffee cherries are sun-dried rather than washed.

Arabica and robusta are the primary types of coffee beans representing quality and quantity, respectively. Arabica is more flavorful and common, accounting for 70 percent of production. Robusta is hardier and cheaper, so it’s often used in instant coffee.

While 90 percent of the world’s coffee is grown in developing countries, most of it is exported to developed countries, such as European Union members and the United States. Surprisingly, Finland drinks the most coffee per capita in the world (it’s really cold up there) but the United States consumes the most by volume. Continentally, Europe tops the chart.

Europe also surpasses North America in coffee strength. It distinguishes espresso-based drinks from “Americano,” watered down coffee that Americans call normal. Europeans joke that it is water (they also think wine is water). The American notion that bigger is better also holds true in java cup sizes. A small U.S. coffee is about twice the size of the largest cup of Americano sold in Europe!

Austria is famous for its elegant coffee houses, especially in its capital of Vienna, which has a coffee culture recognized by UNESCO as “intangible heritage.” Viennese coffee is even distinctive: espresso topped with steamed milk and foam, then whipped cream and cocoa powder.

But Ukraine is credited with the origin of European coffee houses. A Ukrainian war hero named Yuri Kulczycki learned about coffee from Turks in the late 17th century and brewed the first cups in Europe at a Viennese café called Under the Blue Bottle. While it has been long gone from Vienna, the Medieval city of Lviv in Ukraine pays homage to Kulczycki in a café with the same name. And coffee culture in Ukraine is as big as it is in Austria; its unofficial national language is “java script.”

But like many lifestyle elements, Italians have popularized coffee culture better than anybody. They have unwritten rules; drink cappuccino only in the morning, espresso all day and affogato – hot espresso poured over vanilla ice cream – after dinner. Brazil rivals Italy’s espresso with cafezinho, a stronger and thicker version brewed with unrefined (brown) sugar.

The Irish win the prize for best jazzed up java. They add Irish whiskey, sugar and whipped cream to it. And the Swedes take first place with the strangest coffee tradition: pouring it over cubes of Leipäjuusto “bread cheese.” (Next time you spy “marshmallows” in your coffee, think twice.)

Hot Greece is known for frappé, foamed instant coffee with sugar and milk served over ice. It was accidentally invented by a Nescafé employee named Dimitris Vakondios in 1957 and later became a national drink. Today, Nescafé sells a special frappé formula. Greece also makes a thick, sweetened coffee from finely ground beans. It is essentially the same as Turkish coffee but don’t say that to a Greek! (There is an ongoing food war over its origin.)

Rival Turkey brews finely ground beans, often with cardamom, in a small copper or brass pot, adding sugar but no cream or milk. The sediment from grounds are so thick at the bottom of the cup that fortunes are often told from them. There is even an official term for coffee reading: tasseography. Ironically, in the 17th century, drinking coffee in Turkey was punishable by death (decapitation or drowning) as it was thought to cause indecent behavior and negative health effects (we now know the opposite is true, never mind added sugar).

Speaking of sugar, in Vietnam, the second largest coffee-producing country in the world, coffee is very sweet and strong with sweetened condensed milk – hot in the morning and iced in the afternoon. Iced Thai coffee is similar but adds evaporated milk for less sweetness and more creaminess. On the hot and sweet side, Mexico features Café de Olla, which is brewed in a clay pot with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon and sometimes other warm spices. It’s served black.

That’s in contrast to my unsweetened grande latte with almond milk at Starbuck’s. Who would have thought that my “cup of Joe” (named after U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels who banned alcohol) in Chicago would sail me around the world. It was the least expensive trip I ever took …

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).