Reliving Coffee's past

Reliving Coffee's past

Beverage boost

When having your early morning cup of coffee or hanging out at a café with the drink and friends, would you ever think that this soothing, aromatic beverage would have a history almost as stimulating as the drink itself?

Probably not till you hear Mukul Mangalik, professor of History at Ramjas College and Kalyan Kumar Mukherjee, assistant secretary, Coffee Board of India. Coffee lovers were treated to a steaming discussion on ‘Coffee’s many pasts’ at the May Day Café in Shadipur recently.

Coffee had a very interesting beginning. As Mukherjee informed the audience of mainly college students, coffee is originally not an Indian drink. The plant was discovered in Ethiopia by shepherds. While grazing, some goats and sheeps consumed coffee leaves and berries and became rather energised and excited. When the shepherds noticed this, they too consumed some and felt the same sensation.

However, coffee beans being bitter, the idea of having them was abandoned for some time. Then one day some coffee plants were thrown into a bonfire for the lack of wood and it started emanating the typical coffee aroma. The shepherds discovered that coffee beans could be roasted. So they started crushing the roasted beans and having them with water. This is how the original Arabica coffee originated.

“Soon, the whole of Arabia started having coffee and even prophet Muhammad advocated the consumption of coffee over alcohol. It became a sacred drink and its beans were prohibited from being taken out of the region.

Then one Baba Budan of Karnataka happened to go to Saudi Arabia for Haj and had coffee. He liked it so much that he hid some beans in his walking stick, came back to India and planted the seeds at Chandragiri hills in Karnataka. This is how coffee arrived in India,” Mukherjee said.

However, it was not before the British colonisation that commercial coffee cultivation started in India. In 1920, the British established the Coffee Development Corporation which then opened its first coffee house in Mumbai in 1930s, the second and third in Calcutta in 1941, the fourth in Lahore and Karachi and so on and so forth.

Even today the Karachi Coffee House maintains the same posters, furniture etc. which it had when it started; and this was noted by none other than the late actor Dev Anand when he visited the place with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the first Delhi-Lahore bus service in 1999.

However, the growth of coffee was not as easy either in India or even outside, reminds Professor Mukul, “The fact that coffee is a brain stimulant and makes one think, scared the ruling regimes. They thought it might promote sedition.

So, in 17th century England King Charles banned coffee houses as spots of revolutionary thinking and activity. Religious leaders opposed gr­o­wth of coffee houses as they felt that people would stop going to mosques and churches.

Tavern owners were up in arms as they felt that coffee houses were taking away their customers and even till very recently the beer lobby in Germany hated coffee.”  Opposition often came with strange logic as well. In Tamil Nadu in 1930s, men opposed drinking of coffee by women as they felt that it would make them ‘too modern.’

Coffee also stirred a labour revolution in India in the 1950s after the Indian Coffee Board started shutting down loss-making coffee houses across the country. Workers refused to vacate the premises and demanded that they be allowed to run these cafes privately. AK Gopala, the then secretary general of CPIM headed this movement and finally an agreement called the Nehru-Gopalan pact was signed in 1956 granting the coffee house workers their wish.

Many of these coffee houses are running successfully now. However, Mukherjee says, “The government-run coffee houses are in trouble. The Indian Coffee House at Connaught Place also could be saved from closure with a lot of difficulty some time back. The problem remains administrative deficiency and people coming in more to kill time than have coffee, as a result of which profits go down.”

So he advises, “All you young ones, and those young-at-heart as well, please do visit the Indian coffee houses and have coffee. Of course please don’t just sit and chat and do pay the full amount, because if we love something we have to invest in it, we have to make it self-dependent and allow it to grow, not let it die. Only this way can we ensure that the future of the original Indian coffee houses smell as sweet as the drink itself and we can enjoy it for many more years to come.”

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