Coffee and its Dark Past: Java


As a kid one of my favorite movies was George of the Jungle. There’s a scene in the movie where George drinks far too much coffee and proceeds to run around and bounce while repeatedly saying “java, java, java, java.” My mom would always quote this section of the movie when she wanted coffee (which was often) or when she felt overly energetic (which was also often). Even now, as I work in a coffee shop, I can hear her voice saying the word “java” over and over again. Coffee was something that was always present at home. My dad grew up drinking it with his Italian grandmother and he instilled the family passion for the drink in us. My mom is never without a cup at breakfast. My childhood is full of the acidic, earthy smell of coffee. I always thought that the word “java” was an Americanized expression of a very European drink. The word is used commedically in movies and for businesses, such as Java Software. But the word “java” is far more complex than I had ever thought it could be.

Coffee beans come from Latin America, Asia and Africa where the climate is ideal for the beans to grow and get their unique flavors. The Dutch were likely the first to use the term “java” in reference to coffee. Arabica coffee is a desired single origin coffee (coming from one type of bean plant) due to its unique flavors that came from Java Island. However, leaf rust ravaged the island’s plants and the coffee farmers were forced to grow liberica and robusta which are considered cheaper strains of coffee beans. Now “java” has been used to refer to coffee in general and not the high quality desired coffee it was originally.

When colonization was really becoming large in the 1600’s products like sugar and coffee were highly desired for trade due to their popularity and value. Thus places in which these were grown were desired. In the early 1600’s the Dutch landed in Indonesia and discovered the Island of Java of its coast. The island is full of everything colonizers would want. There was game to hunt for sport, huge exports available for profit, and a people who were easily taken over due to internal conflicts. The Dutch stole the land from its original people and turned the island into a business enterprise. Throughout history as the Dutch gained and lost power to Britain, Java was used as a bargaining tool. The people were slaves without being called slaves. They no longer had any rights to their land and were used to increase the production of exports that were turned for profit.

While I originally thought “java” was just a fun word to use in reference to coffee it is far from that. The history of this word is full of tragedy. Colonization is never beneficial for the colonized. It took well over three-hundred years for Java to regain any semblance of independence and the natural resources the island began with were never the same. The Javan Rhino has been hunted for sport so that only fifty individuals remain, the people were used for profit and deforestation devastated the island to make room for coffee and rice productions. This is important. People in Europe and America cherish their coffee. As a barista I have people come in and discuss in depth the differences of beans and blends in depth. People are so privileged that they think of their own favorable tastes and not what goes on behind the scenes of those tastes. Learning about just one word has opened my eyes to the tragedy that we have inflicted upon people in order to gain money. If we are to appreciate coffee, if we are to joke about java and use it in logos, we need to recognize what we have put an entire people through in order to do so. It’s easy to ignore it. It’s easy to sip on an African single-origin and just think of the coffee. But there is flaw in doing so. We need to recognize the mistakes we’ve made and do our best to fix them in order to deserve the right to reek the benefits of them. I love coffee and will always appreciate having it in my life and childhood. However, it is important to know why I, and may other, have been able to do so.

How DO You Even Coffee??

While it seems like simple bean water coffee can be difficult to figure out. A lot of people don’t know how many options there are when ordering coffee. Menus can be extensive and very overwhelming. So here’s a little guide with common menu options and coffee terms so that you may come across so you can be a coffee genius instead of a coffee dud.

Types of Coffee:

*This is a very loose break down of brewed coffee. Each cafe will have different blends so it’s good to ask about what they have if you’re into that.

Medium Roast: has a nice balance of body and acidity; most coffees you get are medium roasts; pairs best with milk, cream, sugar or flavoring

Light Roast: most acidic type of coffee, lighter in taste, light body, doesn’t sit on your tongue as strongly, more caffeine typically

Dark (Bold) Roast: bold tasting, strong body, strong taste, won’t be altered so much by the addition of cream or sugar

Single Origin- the beans all come from one location as opposed to a blend

Blend- beans are a mix of different locations, coming from different farms and parts of the globe

Espresso Drinks:

Espresso- essentially a concentrated coffee shot; on average there is slightly less caffeine in a single shot of espresso (about 2oz has 80mg of caffeine on average) than a cup of coffee (12oz has 120mg of caffeine on average).

*That being said, if you go for more shots of espresso expect to be more caffeinated, I have underestimated the amount before and the jitters hit me hard. Two is usually good, ten is not. Trust me. Please trust me. Do not try this, that was a rough day.

Latte-shots of espresso, steamed milk, topped with a small amount of milk foam

Cappuccino- shots of espresso, small portion of steamed milk, the rest milk foam (more foam than a latte)

Dry- more foam in the drink than is standard

Wet- more steamed milk in the drink than is standard

Macchiatto- shots of espresso with a dollop of milk foam

* Some cafes such as Starbucks take this word and use it as reference to the shots being poured on top of the milk opposed to the milk over the shots which creates a more velvety mouth feeling, however outside of these corporates stores macchiato means “stained” with milk foam. If you’re used to places like Starbucks ask before you order, baristas will always help and you won’t get any surprises.

Cortado- equal parts espresso and steamed milk

Affagatto- shots of espresso poured over gelato or ice cream

Espresso Con Panna- shots of espresso topped with whipped cream



Fun Video About Coffee Roasting!

Nate’s Fun Facts

My friend and coworker loves coffee and has a knack for fun facts. Over the past couple weeks I’ve been keeping little notes on my phone whenever he says something particularly interesting. I’ve compiled them onto a list here and have given him credit. Does he know that I’ve been keeping them? Nope. But we can keep it that way.

-Coffee originated from farmers in Ethiopia who saw goats eating the bean and getting extremely energized. They followed suit and began chewing the beans too. Goats to show you, we can learn all we need from those little, devilish farm animals.

-Some people think it was gorillas that did showed us the way. Don’t believe them. They are fools. It was goats. I’m not kidding around here. Also gorillas are frightening and we can’t trust them like we can a goat.

-Espresso means “something that is forced out” in Italian, which sounds like not coffee but something coffee makes you do. So take that one as you want to.

-Coffee started off as a food in the form of “energy balls.”

-There was an attempt to outlaw coffee not once, not twice but five times! People in Mecca thought it allowed for complex thinking which governments don’t like (just look at ours, not sorry for the political joke sliding in). Other countries thought it overpowered consumption of goods made in their countries and didn’t want to import it as much.

-People who drink a lot of coffee may have lower risk of cancer and Alzheimers (so don’t let the haters hate, you drink those five cups a day).

-Decaf does not mean it has no caffeine. This one threw me off. There is a significantly lower amount (12mg compared to 100mg of caffeine per cup) but it is there. You’ve been lied to your whole life. I’m sorry. But decaf is the fool’s way anyway so I don’t feel that bad.

-In the 1600’s a group of women tried to ban coffee in England because it was turning men into useless slugs. I guess the caffeine crash hit hard for the men of Britain. Either way the “Woman’s Petition Against Coffee” formed and there were protests against the “useless corpses” that their husbands were ( I mean they’re husbands, I don’t know what they expected in the first place).

-The most expensive cup of coffee comes from a civet (a lil mammal, they’re real cute) who can’t fully digest the beans. The beans are collected, cleaned and brewed. A cup of you’re finest fecal brew can cost up to $600. I don’t know why this is a thing. Rich people are weird.

-About 100 cups of coffee can be lethal. So don’t try to compete with Voltaire who bragged about having fifty in a day.

-Espresso doesn’t actually have more caffeine than a cup of coffee. If you drink 16oz of it than yeah, that’s gonna wreck you. But 2oz of espresso is about the same as 16oz of regular coffee.

-Only Hawaii commercially grows coffee in the U.S. We import the rest.

-In Arabia a woman could divorce a man for not providing her with enough coffee (I would do it honestly).

-Speaking of Arabia, there was a time when you could only get coffee from a doctor’s prescription in Arabia and Yemen.

And if Nate isn’t enough (sorry bud) here’s a lil video to give you more stuff!

A Clean, Well Lighted Place

Snow is falling through the cold Vermont air. The wind is sharp enough to slice through a person and with it carries crystals that blind. Many are home, holing themselves in with blankets, movies and tea. For some this isn’t a possibility. They brave the weather, driving or stumbling though the snow, and come to a cafe. Some need the coffee to pull the all-nighter to finish a lab report. Some need caffeine because they’re only now, in the blanketing dusk, heading into work. Some need an escape. Some are there every day, whether the sun is pouring its radiance upon us or the snow is carving its way through us. They sit in the corner sipping on cup after cup of tea, coffee, latte. They just need somewhere where comfort is achievable, that is familiar, that they can rest for hours if need be.

One of my favorite short stories is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” for the way it perfectly describes this scene. In the short story two waiters (one old and one young) are watching a deaf, old man drink drink after drink in their cafe bar. He is a regular. They know to watch him because if he drinks too much he may not pay. They know about his attempted suicide but not why he did it. They know who this man is. He comes every night. The story, although only three pages long, embodies the need for some to have a space that is not their home to go. While Hemingway, in general, focuses on the consumption of alcohol in his writing the environment he sets up in this story applicable to more than just bars serving alcohol. It perfectly describes the human desire to seek a sanctuary which is something that I see when I work in my coffee shop.

At one point in the story the two waiters are looking at the man questioning why he is the cafe all night. The younger wants to kick him out to go home and sleep, saying an “hour is more to me than him.” The older waiter disagrees, saying that because the waiter is young and full of confidence he has yet to experience events in his life to lead him to the necessity of a place to go. The older remarks that the man requires “a clean, well lighted place” in order to escape from the things in his head other environments may foster. This is the same for many people seeking solace in cafes. Cafes differ greatly. Some are noisy with live music. You can sit and escape in the crowd and sound and experience what’s in front of you. Others are homey with couches and chairs that you can find comfort in. Some are basic, lit in amber lighting with small tables and wooden chairs. People find cafes which adhere to their needs. They find their own version of “a clean, well lighted place” and will escape what they need to escape in them. Will find the comfort they desire from the people and environment in them.

The only true difference I find between the text and my experience and idea of what a cafe should be for someone is the way in which the waiters interact with the man. They serve and discuss him but do no more. They talk of how he had tried to hang himself recently and how his “niece had to cut him down.” They don’t make an attempt to communicate in any way with him. This is the the largest difference that I find between the scene in Hemingway’s mind and what I’ve experienced.

I have had regulars come in so often they take a step in the door and I have their order being made. I know what their tastes are. I know by their body language what kind of day they are having and adjust accordingly, as do a majority of my coworkers. I allow them to vent to me if they need to. I don’t know enough about their personal lives that my opinion will matter to them. I’ve had one customer vent to me about how he wished that he could have had kids. He comes in every night with hid wife and talks about how how he works with elementary school children as he sips his too large black iced tea, no sweeter. I’ll refill it over and over after hours of the pair being there. He told me he works with children and wishes he could have had some, that his empty house is depressing. The couple love each other greatly but there’s something there that they can’t fulfill and they can’t bear the rooms of their housing containing only them.

These people need a wall to talk to. Sometimes we all do. If they choose me to be the wall I do it not because I’m stuck behind the bar making them coffee but because they are faces I see every day and there is something bonding with that. If one of my regulars were to suffer tragedy (and some have) I would hope that I could at least give them their drink on the house to show that someone is there.  Because of my own personal experiences I find it strange that the waiters do not attempt to comfort the man in Hemingway’s story, especially when he is a man who may need it.

Sure, plenty of people come into a cafe just to have a quiet place to crank out an essay just as some go to a bar to get drunk for the night and stumble home to be hungover in the morning. But those people that we see day to day. Those people, like the deaf man in the story and the childless man in my cafe, whose order we know as soon as we see their face, they are the ones that matter. They are the ones that seek not only the room to escape in but the faces to confess to. The faces of bartenders and barista who will listen, express sympathy,give them the comfort of a regular place. That’s a huge part of the job that Hemingway misses.

Overall Hemingway remarks on how people need a place to go. How, for various reasons, we seek these places. We can all identify with the man sitting in his usual spot with his usual drink. I see this every time that I work. I see it with every familiar face and order. Cafes adhere to something human.

Barista Day One: Failure

I walked into my first shift at work. My hair tied back for the first time in years, a new black t-shirt tucked into my old, comfortable jeans and a green apron over the entire thing. Hands freshly washed, nerves gathering, the chaos outside the swinging door engulfed me.

It was a Saturday morning. Saturday mornings are notoriously the worst shifts to work due to the need for caffeine to carry a person through the activities of the day and the freedom of schedule that these customers have. The result is a line to the door from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon alongside a bombardment of people ordering from their phones. In short, this was not a shift you would want a person fresh out of training on.

I walked through the entryway and checked in with my manager on shift, Alex. He handed me a Sharpie and assigned me on a register. Relief flooded my body. I had used a similar system before. Register is simple button pushing, using the screen for cup codes, and sending marked cups down the line. There was little anyone could do to drastically mess it up.

Or so I thought. The first several orders were easy. Just a couple of lattes and brewed coffee. Then it went downhill fast. An elderly man came in for a plain, simple cup of dark roast. Easy. Until my Massachusetts accent made it sound like I was asking him if he wanted to start is morning off right with an Irish coffee and throw some liquor in there. To him, my asking if he wanted me to leave “room” sounded like “rum.” After that chaos ensued.

Customers threw words at me that I had never heard of before. Ristretto, machiatto, affagatto, bold, black-eye, upside-down, espresso con pana. Rapid fire of words that I had never heard of before. I had to have a buddy with me on the register to explain to me everything that was happening.

By noon my brain was flooded, I had been yelled at in full by several regulars, I had had returns, I’d made numerous mis-markings on cups that slowed the line. I was struggling. Alex came up to me and told me that it had slowed enough that I was going to learn bar. I was a little relieved. Bar was the fun part. Bar was where you learned latte art and created those perfect cups of coffee.

I messed up the first seven drinks that came to me. I’m going to be honest and tell you that I didn’t even fix half of those. The customers got them, walked out, and I let it go. I felt like I was an animal in a zoo. Everyone who had ordered was waiting at the end of the line, watching everything I did to their coffee. I had several yell at me that they had ordered a cappuccino and their cup felt too heavy. I had several say that it tasted too sweet or that they had wanted mocha and not white mocha. I misread cups, I hit the wrong buttons on the espresso machine, I burnt milk. I was a tragedy.

But I made it. And eight months later I’m equal in strength to people who have been working as a barista for years. Coffee is hard. There’s this perception that baristas know everything but I learn something new every shift. Many of my regulars know more than I do. You can’t hop into the coffee industry, as a worker or a lover of it and know everything immediately. It takes time. Based off my experience I realized how difficult coffee is. That’s why I’m including a guide below to help you out with those words that I didn’t know. There’s a lot of information to learn but even a quick look will help someone learn what type of coffee will appeal to their tastes. Coffee is hard but it is accessible to everyone and it is possible to not be overwhelmed by it.

Uncommon Grounds

After a long day of scurrying around Church Street doing errands with my boyfriend and running on fumes I made a stop into a popular cafe right in the heart of downtown. Uncommon Grounds is a well known cafe as it is nestled right on bustling Church Street. It’s one of the more easily accessible shops for people who are new to the area. Anyone who doesn’t know Burlington can find this little cafe and pop in for a cup of coffee. I remember doing so on my first visit to Vermont and it’s one of my personal favorites. It’d been a long while since I’d gone there so giving it another go felt right.

The way the cafe is set up is very personal. It’s a local and family owned business and the owners really want their customers to be able to experience some of that Vermont politeness and connectedness that Burlington is known for. Unlike other cafes you interact with one person. They’ll take your order, make your coffee, and ring you out, allowing you to feel comfortable with the barista. The first time I went I was taken aback by this. Very few cafes will put in the effort to make that connection with their customers but this one does. You walk through the little glass door (passing a little chalk sign full of coffee puns, which I think is nifty) and are welcomed in with brimming smiles. Even if you know nothing about coffee, and I mean absolute minimal knowledge, can’t tell a cappuccino from a latte, the baristas will guide you through with zero judgement. They’re very well trained and you can see the effort that they put in to knowing their products and absolutely love passing that down to people walking through the door. Shyness isn’t necessary here, they want questions.

It being below forty degrees with falling ice on the attack I went with a hot mocha this time around. All a mocha really is is a latte and chocolate syrup so it’d be a good pick-me-up with the sugar and espresso. My boyfriend just got a simple hot latte. Our barista was a very nice bearded guy who got our orders and drinks out in five minutes. The lattes themselves were very pretty, each decorated with a fern and having those tell tale rings of perfectly steamed milk

We decided to walk and drink our coffee as the shop itself has limited seating. This isn’t a cafe where you can go to and expect to get a seat every time. It’s small so a happy handful can manage to sit and chat or do work but not much more than that. If you’re looking for a shop to set up camp for a while with friends or a place to chip away at a final paper this isn’t the place. It’s a good place to learn about different types of coffee as they have featured bean blends allowing for people to get into that aspect of coffee life. It isn’t really a place to hang out though.

Now I’m not a huge fan of hot coffee in general. A nice hot featured roast, black (cause I’m boujee like that) will always make me happy but not always a hot latte. It has to be made just right for me to fully enjoy it. That being said the mocha was not all that great. It was very pretty but the chocolate was drowned out by the espresso and made for a weird, dirt kind of taste and sat on the tongue very heavily. I stirred it up and kept taking sip after sip in hopes that it’d get better but it fell flat white (haha coffee puns). Despite the mocha not being so great I managed to snag a sip of my boyfriend’s latte (despite his protests) and that was very good. The milk was steamed perfectly, yielding a smooth, velvety feeling and the espresso was delicious. Whether it was the type of chocolate in mine or the their recipe I’m not sure but I think sticking with the basics at Uncommon Grounds is the best route.

Overall the cafe is a great place to start to learn about coffee. Their bean roasts are superb and that cafe is one of the few in and around Burlington where they feature different bean blends. For someone interested in blends or someone wanting to learn the difference between a bean grown in South America and one grown in Africa this is the place. The owners love coffee and that reflects in their choices of roast and in the way they train their employees. As a hang out place or a cafe to get that little extra dessert latte I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a great place to stop in and grab an energy boost during a shopping trip. Definitely worth the trip if you enjoy simple coffee.