March 30, 2006

Cupping Around the World

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Coffee trails only oil as the second most traded commodity in the world, and it’s nearly as controversial. Just as soaring gas prices cause discontent, a new debate looms over our campus: Starbucks is breaking into the Ithaca coffee market. Why are so many Ithacans upset? Is Starbucks coffee significantly different from coffee at the Ithaca Bakery or at Juna’s? If you inadvertently find yourself in a coffee quality discussion, you’d better know your bean.

No one knows for sure which culture invented coffee as a beverage. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, and the first coffee house in Istanbul was opened in 1554. Coffee drinking spread to Europe via Turkey in the late 16th century and has been causing ruckus ever since. According to Wikipedia, women were banned from London coffee houses in the 17th century, resulting in protest: “The Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE […] has […] Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age.” When coffee production moved to Brazil in the 18th century, it was cultivated using slave labor. Most recently, falling coffee prices and horror stories about starving Brazilian, Nicaraguan, and Ethiopian coffee farmers have resulted in the Fairtrade labelling.

The world can literally be divided into coffee and tea drinking countries. Tea and rice wine still prevail in Japan and China. At the top of the coffee-drinking list sits Scandanavia with the world’s highest per capita coffee consumption (four cups per day). Each culture maintains a unique coffee drinking tradition. In Austria, black coffee is served in traditional, ornate coffee houses with liquors, sugar, milk, cream, ice cream, or vanilla whipped cream. The French drink their coffee with hot milk and add vast quantities of sugar. Espresso reigns supreme in Italy, where it is said that coffee drinking has become and art form. In Spain and Portugal, coffee preparation varies with the time of day: adults drink strong, sweet, syrup-like coffee upon awakening, coffee with hot milk at breakfast, and black coffee in the afternoon. Turkey boasts one of the most intricate coffee creations with its super-fine boiled preparation.

Coffee consumption has developed into a legitimate hobby for some. “Cupping” involves the almost scientific tasting of coffees from various regions to compare flavor profiles. Professional cuppers enact the ritual nearly according to the scientific method by controlling for temperature, water level, and brew time among coffee varieties. claims that tasting a coffee from Kenya next to a coffee from Sumatra will result in an understanding of the “acidity” of a brew, while cupping a Sulawesi versus a Mexican coffee will demonstrate “body.”

Coffee drinking is a social exploit around the world. Whether you finish a meal with a capaccino in Italy, meet at a café for a literary discussion in Austria, or take a mid-day break in the United States, coffee takes center stage. In the microcosm of Ithaca, the coffee scene is about to change. What does Starbucks mean for local coffee shops? Probably not much. Whether it’s an effect of caffeine buzz or daily ritual, coffee drinkers are as loyal to specific coffee shops as soda drinkers are to particular brands. Ithacans and Cornellians alike will continue to drink coffee in settings that make them happy and shops that serve preferred brews, whether that setting is a Starbucks, Gimme!, Ithaca Bakery, ABC Café, or Juna’s.

Archived article by Anna Fishman