What do coffee and chocolate have in common?

Geography professor and coffee maven Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan explains.


It’s hard to think of a more delectable combination than coffee and chocolate. Both are deep in color and flavors. And the two travel thousands of miles and pass through dozens of hands on their way to our morning brew or afternoon candy bar. Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan, professor of Geography at Bridgewater State University, drew on his travels to many coffee lands and his relationships with farmers, roasters, and baristas to tell the story of coffee from seed to cup, along with the remarkably parallel story of chocolate, last Sunday at the Vineyard Haven library. He considers himself a maven — more than an enthusiast but less than an expert. And if the topic wasn’t enough of a lure, the free Mocha Mott’s coffee, cookies, and raffle of free-trade chocolate bars and a cold-brew press drew a crowd of avid students.

Both coffee and chocolate have ancient histories. While you may know that chocolate originated in the Americas, coffee seems to have first come onto the human radar in about A.D. 200 … via dancing goats in southwest Ethiopia. Goats, I hear you cry? Well, Hayes-Bohanan tells us that according to legend, “there was a guy named Kaldi who had goats, and they were out dancing. He said, ‘That’s really pretty cool. They have a lot of energy. I want some of that!’” Kaldi noticed that the jumping goats were eating these red berries off a tree — red berries are ripe. He took it and sucked on the fruit, and felt energized. The fruit itself has more caffeine than the seed, where we actually get the drink, Hayes-Bohanan said.

When talking about the spread of coffee over the centuries, he pointed out an interesting phenomenon that parallels recent history. In 1551, the governor of Mecca was shutting down coffeehouses. Hayes-Bohanan explains, “Alcohol is forbidden. Turns out that when you have taverns and alcohol, people can get together and complain about the government, but they don’t make plans, or if they do, they don’t follow through on them. But if people get together in a coffee shop and complain about the government, they might make some plans. That whole Arab Spring thing. That started in a coffee shop adjacent to Tahrir Square.”

Today, the major producers are Brazil, cultivating one-fourth to one-third of the world’s coffee, and Vietnam, which produces half as much as Brazil. Then, in descending order, come Indonesia, Columbia, and India in the top five. Apparently, the better coffee grows at an altitude of 2,500 to 6,000 feet, toward the equator where the seasonal conditions are fairly steady, and it thrives at about 70°F. And it particularly likes volcanic soil, which still contains a lot of nutrients.

Hayes-Bohanan took us through the soil-to-cup process, which he determines as touching about 165 hands before it gets into our mug. While he says others might say it touches about 50, the point is that there is a lot of labor involved to get it planted, the fruit harvested, peeled, fermented, dried, sorted by size, roasted, and then ground. “There is no such thing as unskilled labor,” Hayes-Bonhan points out. 

“Historically, coffee was harvested by slaves, and today many work in conditions that are not noticeably better. The fair-trade movement is an effort to transform the economic geography of the industry into a more equitable form,” he says.

Hayes-Bonhan led us through some of the thornier issues related to the topic at hand. Producers of coffee and chocolate are vulnerable to many kinds of disturbances that can lead to the failure of individual crop years, entire farming enterprises, or even the continuity of production in entire regions. Hayes-Bohanan described some of the ways in which both sellers and buyers of these are developing resilience, the capacity to continue producing despite various risks.

The first area in which coffee producers have developed resilience is in dealing with the tendency of market prices to fluctuate in the short term and to trend downward in the long term. Alternative markets such as fair trade provide some financial security to farmers, and innovations that improve quality provide even greater opportunities to improve incomes in the long term. Diversifying what they grow can also provide a buffer against short-term fluctuations, as farmers use some of their land for household food or food for local markets.

Dr. Hayes-Bohanan pointed out that although coffee and cacao (from which chocolate is made) are unrelated botanically, they do enjoy similar climates, and each may therefore serve as an alternative cash crop for the other.

Climate change is an even more serious challenge to coffee and chocolate producers, because both overall temperature increases and wild fluctuations in the timing of rainfall can severely reduce yields and increase the threat of insect or fungus pests. Resilience here comes by growers creating new plants that combine the strength of one variety and the flavor of those that command a higher market price.

Unfortunately, political and criminal violence are ongoing threats to producers in many parts of the world. “We are connected to people and places all over the planet in many ways we do not fully understand. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil,” Hayes-Bohanan said. “It employs millions of people who grow, process, transport, market, prepare, and serve it. These people are connected in complex relationships that span the globe, and that exemplify the interconnectedness that characterizes the 21st century.”

Now, that’s something to ponder over your next cup of morning joe.

To learn more about James Hayes-Bohanan, visit webhost.bridgew.edu/jhayesboh/coffee/index.html.