For International Coffee Day, I'm posting a short piece on California's historical connections to coffee that I wrote over the summer with the thought of sending it out into the world. As life got busy and I haven't yet sent it round, I'll put it here for now.
On an afternoon in late July, the radio host rattled off a list of crops damaged by a wildfire in Santa Barbara County. The California Department of Agriculture was reaching out to the owners of avocado, olive, and lemon orchards damaged by the Sherpa fire. One crop stood out amongst this almost stereotypically Californian farm box: coffee.
Coffee is a crop of the tropics, not our Mediterranean climes. Originating in what is now Ethiopia, coffee orchards have come to circle the globe, but only between the bounds of Capricorn and Cancer. First the East Indies – Java, Mocha – then the West – Saint-Domingue, Jamaica – followed by Brazil and Central America and Colombia, then back to Africa, Indonesia, now Vietnam. Across five centuries, coffee saplings have sailed the oceans and been lugged up mountains, carefully packed in woolen batting, closely guarded by agronomists and entrepreneurs bent on further extending the valuable crop’s reach. Now, thanks to the climate change that is subjecting more and more of that traditional reach to flooding and temperature fluctuations, places like Santa Barbara, equally subject to drought and wildfire, have become the new frontier.
California has a long history with coffee, but always as importer, not producer. With the Gold Rush came San Francisco’s dominance of Pacific shipping routes, and the rise of the railroads connected the country's interior to tropical goods coming north from Latin America, east from Asia. New Orleans had a hold on sugar, bananas, and cheap coffee from Brazil and the Caribbean, but San Francisco was a quicker approach for high quality beans coming from Hawaii, Java, and western Latin America. A beautiful array of trademarks in the California State Archives attest to the multitude of importers and roasters spread across the state.
Folgers had its start in San Francisco, and Hills Brothers, which perfected the vacuum sealing process that kept in roasted coffee’s flavor, was just down the street. By the late nineteenth century, Californians also followed the lure of the bean south to try their hands at the work of planting and harvesting. They took up the challenge set in land company advertisements to exploit Latin America’s vast and untapped riches, reversing the product’s usual steamship journey in the hopes of making good on promises of easy profits.
Across the twentieth century, importers and roasters continued their work around the San Francisco Bay. While the Pacific Northwest lays claim to the advent of second and third wave coffee culture, Californians also had a hand to play in the popularization of higher quality, smaller batch beans. Companies like Peet’s Coffee and the San Francisco Bay Coffee Company helped usher in a new era of organic and fair trade importing, and the Californians behind Blue Bottle and Intelligensia have done much to get Americans focused on not only the origins, but also the careful roasting and brewing of their beans. Cultivating relationships with farmers across the tropics, California coffee companies have educated consumers’ taste buds and made us more aware of the environmental and social impacts of our morning cup.
And now Californians are beginning to grow coffee of their own. The temperate foothills of California’s coastal range in many ways mimic the topography of Central America’s Sierra Madre and Colombia’s Paisa region. While its weather patterns differ – irrigation has to make up for smaller average rainfall and planters have to keep a wary eye for frost – the central coast of the state, it turns out, can support the growth of high quality beans. Working with agronomists at UC Davis and planters with generations of experience from Guatemala, farmers like Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics have begun the process of further diversifying California’s agriculture. While their harvests are still small and their costs far exceed those of tropical counterparts, this newest generation of coffee entrepreneurs believes the work is vital. With climate change impacting traditional growers in myriad ways – from flooding and fires to the rapid spread of coffee rust and other pests – new methods have to be developed, new landscapes explored. Fringe farms like theirs, places where planters can play with new varietals and new techniques, are an important part of helping all those who grow coffee adapt to environmental change and all of us continue to enjoy our morning brew.