Coffee, tea and empires


Picture yourself in England at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. If you have some skills as a part of the growing middle class, things look better every day. That life comes in part from unskilled workers driven into the growing (and filthy) cities who are more productive than ever before. The great symbol of the improving standard of living greets you in the morning as a cup of this once luxury beverage, tea. It comes from China, traded under the barrel of the guns of the Royal Navy through the new colony of Hong Kong. The latest in technology, the Clipper Ship, brings it to you with great speed and makes it possible to run this enterprise at a distance. The sun never sets on the British Empire, and tea is both its greatest commodity and emblem of success.

Today, in the waning daze of the American Empire that isn’t an empire, things could hardly be different even as they are the same. Coffee is the beverage of choice for 54% in the US. It has always been the workingman’s drink, but it is moving more yupscale – even though 35% of us still drink it black (as it is meant to be, damnit). It is shipped from tropical, underdeveloped nations in unromantic cargo containers as the second most traded commodity in the world by value ($15B per year), behind only oil. The nations that produce it are rapidly urbanizing into filthy cities. The trade is managed over the internet by a cadre of traders and speculators.

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes like a street poet hitting a beat.

Ordem e Espresso?

The largest producer of coffee is Brazil, about 30% of global exports. None of it is produced outside of the tropics since it can’t grow in the industrialized temperate zone that consumes so much of it. The trade of over $15B per year is important for many nations, especially Vietnam, but as Brazil grows it has found that even with 5M jobs dependent on the crop it only represents 2% of their net exports.

The thing about coffee is that it is a luxury good – you could live without it. Really, you could. But the amount of money that goes into it is amazing. It defines the buzzy, anxious world we live in that can’t stop for a moment to enjoy the cup, far too often slipped into a round vinyl hole carved out of our cars just for it.

There is nothing new about this kind of trade, and luxury goods have always driven at least the more romantic memories of commerce and shipping. But there are so many twists between the rise of tea in the middle class and the rise of coffee in our world that the contrasts highlight just what is different in our world.

The Flying Cloud

Empires do not define trade nor open ports the way they used to. Luxury goods becoming commonplace can still define the success of a culture in people’s minds, but the effect is different. We don’t credit the arrival of new beans and tastes to the Royal Navy and a dearly loved Queen, but to the success of commerce. Even those who are a bit skeptical can put their nose into a cup of Fair Trade coffee that operates under different rules. There is something for everyone who wants that morning (and afternoon) jolt they’ve come to depend on.

But our enjoyment of this luxury is so assumed that very few even think of it as a luxury. It never really has been, either. Where tea started out with a great pedigree (and taxing it was a great way to soak the rich, no matter what Bostonians thought in 1773) coffee was given to troops as early as the Civil War to wake them up and get them moving. It took a lot of steam and cream to move it into a latté that costs … way more than I’ll pay, I’ll tell you. But it has moved up, and the average coffee drinker spends $165 per year on the stuff.

There is a lot to say about how and why we drink so much coffee, but the point is a simple one. We can use this as a way of looking at other luxuries from the past and see what has changed – and what has not in our world. When there’s a lot of money to be made, the latest tech and the mightiest machines will be brought to bear. A culture may come to be defined by the cool, the hip, the fashionable. But our world is different than the one that created empires – ours is a world that denies empires. That is one trend that can only continue.