The Power of Myth in Coffee

Popular Belief and What It Says About Us

By Peter Giuliano, Specialty Coffee Association of America

In the popular parlance, the word “myth” is used to mean “incorrect information presented as fact.” That’s not the whole story. Myths, legends, and popular beliefs are more than just mistakes. For one thing, they are repeated, spreading from person to person through conversation, stories, newspaper articles, social media, and emails. They can be vivid tales that are transmitted over generations, or memorable stories passed around from friend to friend. These stories we tell about ourselves are important to us; they speak to our values and our priorities, they help us explain why we do the things we do. These kinds of stories are all types of folklore, which is a great way to think about them: they are a product of our culture, and they are a reflection of how we build beliefs as people.

We have a habit of spreading myths about coffee, and sometimes we debunk them, but to evaluate these stories as folklore gives us the chance to gain valuable insight into what drives us as coffee people, what makes coffee valuable to us, and how we might better develop our (and our customers’) understanding of what coffee is in our culture.

The Lore

So how do you recognize a coffee myth when you see one? The first, most important, thing is how the belief or story makes its way around the community.  It used to be that “oral tradition” was the hallmark of a myth or legend, but with the ephemeral and universal nature of the Internet this has changed – people now spread folklore in all kinds of ways. Second, folklore is usually charged with meaning that is deeper than normal “facts”. The famous folklorist Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand defines contemporary legends as stories that are “too good to be true”, which places emphasis on how “good”, or meaningful, the story is to the teller and to the listener. Myths make an impact strong enough that the listener cares enough to repeat it. Some have likened this behavior to that of a virus – “infecting” its host so that it can be spread to others. This is an easy way to spot popular mythology in action – does the factoid, story, or tale excite you and make you want to share it with others? Does the person telling you the story have firsthand knowledge of the event, or cite the origin of the fact? Or did he hear it from “someone trustworthy?” If the story or belief has made its way around the community, and appears in a number of places, and it’s tough to track down the specific origin, it’s probably a myth. But does that mean it’s untrue? It’s very possible that true stories could be passed around folklorically, just like false stories can. This question of truth is an important one.

What About the Truth?

Because the question of impact is so important, popular tales generally become embellished as they are passed from person to person. Even if the story begins its life as an objective documentation of reality, the human instinct to emphasize the “important part” kicks in, and with each retelling the story transforms. Before long, the tale has lost much of its objective truth, but has taken on the accumulation of what the tellers have found important or central to the story.  This could be thought of as a “greater truth” or meaning; while it might have lost its literal truthfulness, it says something about what people want to believe. A perfect expression of this is Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness,” a sort of simulation of fact, which in reality expresses what the teller wants to believe.  Generally, the person transmitting a myth thinks it is true, or that it ought to be true, even if it has been so distorted that it no longer resembles any original truth it may have had. The retelling process has transformed and distilled the tale so that it is the essence of what a series of people – or a whole community- wish were true, or believe should be true. Often, this makes the transmitter of a myth a committed defender of its accuracy, even if the teller has no real idea about the reality of the claim or story. This is what makes myth busting so challenging; myths are often cherished, and the defense of their truth (or truthiness) can be fierce. Evaluating the truth of a claim or story is an important feature of evaluating myth, but so is recognizing what made it compelling in the first place, and how the elements of the story reflect the values of a community. Examining and exposing coffee myths can free us from erroneous beliefs, but it can also inform us about what we, as a culture, want to be true about coffee.

Kaldi and The Dancing Goats

Let’s begin with the mother of all coffee myths, the tale of Kaldi the Goatherd’s discovery of coffee. While most coffee people recognize this instantly as a folktale, and are not invested in the literal truth of the story, it’s a perfect place to start to explore how coffee myths express important characteristics of coffee and the coffee story.

The classic version of the Kaldi tale has our hero – a simple goatherd- caring for his flock in the forests of Southeast Ethiopia. One day, he noticed that his goats were munching on a tree with bright red fruits, and immediately afterward began dancing animatedly. Kaldi – curiosity piqued – tried some fruits himself, became filled with energy, and began dancing along with the goats. A passing monk witnessed the dancing, put two and two together, and brought some of the fruits back to the monastery. He and the other monks started using the fruits to keep them stimulated during long periods of prayer, and so coffee was introduced to the human race.

Looking at this tale as folklore, one can recognize a number of motifs. The hero, Kaldi, is a simple goatherd who comes into knowledge of the world, and makes an important discovery. His animal friends, who introduce him to a magical fruit with amazing properties, help him in this. The motifs here – a simple boy from the country who comes into knowledge, an animal helper, a magical fruit – should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever read folktales – these are elements common to myths around the world. These elements reflect that which we value: our celebration of the simple goatherd reflects the romantic ideal of the pastoral life, in communion with nature and the forest. The helpful animal reflects our reliance and affection for the domestic animals who do so much of our work for us, and the magical fruit reflects the mystery we constantly find in nature – from the poison apple of Sleeping Beauty to the “superfood” crazes for pomegranate and acai today. Also important in this tale is the element of the monks appropriating coffee for use as an aid for prayerful study: this detail no doubt had an important function during the early days of this myth – legitimizing coffee as an almost sacred, ritualistic beverage. In this, coffee began its parallel with wine, already ritualized and sanctified in many cultures and religions.

The Wild Coffee of Ethiopia

From Kaldi, we move forward to a myth that is still cherished today by many – the legend of wild Ethiopian coffee. Here’s an example of this legend: one day I was working at a coffee bar with a colleague from a respected coffee company. A customer asked if the coffee was organic, and my colleague replied (I am paraphrasing), “This coffee is from Ethiopia, where coffee grows wild in the forest. Nobody uses pesticides or anything, because it’s wild! They just go in the forest and pick the coffee. Farmers can’t get certified organic because who can certify a forest?”

To be clear, coffee certainly grows wild in Ethiopia. Uniquely in the coffee world, there is a category of coffee from Ethiopia called “forest coffee,” which most observers would think of as almost wild. Other categories of Ethiopian coffee: “semi-forest,” “garden,” and “plantation,” represent progressively more intensely managed and less “wild” types of agriculture in Ethiopia. Forest and semi-forest coffees from Ethiopia are a unique treasure of the coffee world. Forest coffees represent a very small percentage of Ethiopian coffees, and semi-forest coffees are managed by farmers, a much more labor-intensive process than simply picking wild coffee in the woods. Most coffee grown in the regions of Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar – the most common origins to the specialty trade – are “garden” coffee, which are grown by smallholders in family plots near homes1.

It’s easy to make the mythic leap from the existence of some wild coffee in Ethiopia to an imagined land where people simply wander into the forest to collect the wild abundance that grows there, with no need for agriculture or agrochemicals or agrotechnology. This mythic land of primeval coffee forests -which is vividly described by many coffee people in marketing and coffee tales -speaks to our desire to celebrate nature and origin, and to pay tribute to Ethiopia, which takes on a “Garden of Eden” symbology. We yearn for coffee that is grown in the most natural environment possible, and we want the coffee in our cup to be from that very place.  It is from that place in some sense – all coffee can trace its roots to that ancient forest – but it’s extremely unlikely that your cup of Yirgacheffe was grown in a way that is “wild” in any sense of the word. This myth is often used to discredit sustainable certifications in Ethiopia, or rather to make them seem superfluous – who needs sustainability standards in a place that doesn’t even need agriculture?

The Second Most Valuable Commodity

You’ve heard it, and you’ve probably repeated it: “Did you know that coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world, next to oil?” This factoid has appeared in countless books and articles about coffee, and many a coffee professional has dropped the detail into coffee lectures, classes, and tastings. I have relayed this little fact myself in years past, and I can remember people actually gasping in amazement at the global importance of the seemingly trivial coffee beverage. Trouble is, it’s not true. The factoid is always presented without citation, so it’s hard to tell what people mean. It’s certainly not second in trade value: green coffee is outstripped by a number of other agricultural commodities, and many mineral commodities (such as oil and copper) tower over the agricultural ones. Could it be number of people involved the trade? Or the ultimate market value? Mark Pendergrast, who himself used the faux-factoid in the first edition of his definitive work on coffee, Uncommon Grounds, ultimately researched and debunked the idea entirely. Coffee is, he says, “Not exactly number two in the world, by anyone’s reckoning.” However, in that very article, he begins to unpack the significant storytelling value of the “#2 myth.” He quotes Joseph Sette of the ICO who says, “Whatever the relative ranking of coffee in the international trade of commodities, we believe it is more relevant to emphasize the important social role played by coffee in the generation of rural employment and income.”2

And this is why we cherish the #2 Myth. We know – through our experience, our knowledge, and our understanding – that the coffee trade is critically important to millions of people’s livelihoods. We know coffee is a global product, grown and consumed millions of miles apart. We know that coffee puts food on the table for farmers in Brazil, millers in Nicaragua, exporters in Ethiopia, importers in Europe, and roasters and coffee shops in our own hometowns. “Second most important commodity next to oil” also makes the explicit comparison to oil, that mysterious black substance, used as fuel all over the world. Can you think of another mysterious black substance thought of as “fuel?” Coffee-petroleum comparisons are commonplace, from the trucker who refers to his cup of coffee as “crude”, to the coffee bars in remodeled gas stations, to the implicit subtext of “Black Gold: The Movie.” We know that we’re reliant on oil, and we’re reliant on coffee, too – we might feel as if we need it to provide energy for our minds just as the oilfields provide energy for our power plants and automobiles. When we want to make sure our audience is paying attention, when we want to make them understand that coffee is important and essential and global – pointing out that coffee is right there as the runner-up to the king of all commodities is just the thing.

We’ve explored three coffee myths, but there are many, many more. Think about the stories you tell about coffee, and the things you believe. It’s likely that many are undergirded by myth, and that the evidence we use to support our beliefs about coffee are themselves representations of our beliefs, creating a circle of assumptions, which may or may not be true or useful.

 Footnotes

1. Volkmann, J. 2008. How wild is Ethiopian forest coffee? The disenchantment of a myth. Conservation and use of wild populations of Coffee arabica in the montane rainforests of Ethiopia (CoCE) Project Report, Subproject 5.4. Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, Germany.

2. Pendergrast, M. “Is Coffee Really Second Only To Oil?” Coffee and Tea Trade Journal, April 1, 2009

Peter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer and business owner. The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.

 

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