The Birth of Coffee
text by Linda Rice Lorenzetti

published by Random House/Clarkson Potter


Coffee grows in dangerous places.  World news focuses on the disturbing details   kidnappings, financial upheaval, border disputes, bombings, hijackings, civil war, plane crashes, drought, and earthquakes.  All are frighteningly recurrent events in the countries where coffee grows best. 

Coffee also grows in the temperate and volatile climates spanning the globe between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.  In the majority of these rugged growing regions, fertile soils are primarily volcanic in composition, the volcanoes themselves often very active. Consequently, exploring the land where coffee grows best can be remarkably challenging. We frequently laughed sometimes out of joy, other times out of fear about how our travels were punishing us. But a good-natured guide in Sulawesi corrected us, optimistically asserting that rough roads were 'romantic' roads.  By the book's culmination, we had experienced some extremely intense 'romantic' adventures.   

This pervasive ruggedness is our most vivid memory. Only now do we realize how absolutely it touches the lives of the people who live in these countries in a complex diversity of ways. They often live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption and frequently sit atop fault lines that can cause devastating earthquakes.  Others wait helplessly in the path of destructive hurricanes and typhoons. Climatic conditions caused by El Nino drench some of the growing regions with debilitating rains while others scorch and wilt as if the rain will never come. We never made it to several of the locations on our original itinerary precisely because of such events.   

There are a lot of books about coffee.  So, you might ask, after all this, what motivated us to chose coffee as a subject in light of all the potential difficulties and discomfort.  Part of the answer is actually quite simple.  When we first considered the subject of coffee for a photographic essay, and began to research the many books on the subject, it struck us that something was noticeably missing from all of them.  There are volumes written on the historyof coffee, the cultivation of coffee, and of coffee as a beverage most filled with colorful pages and sumptuous images of tantalizing coffee concoctions, contemporary and old-world coffee houses and coffee paraphernalia of intriguing design and function.  The pages of these books overflow with coffee recipes, facts, opinions and trivia.  But, it seemed to us, the thing oddly missing was the people who pick, plant and produce coffee.  Aside from the occasional smiling face of Juan Valdez staring at us from the pages our favorite magazine, what do we know of the millions of people around the world whose lives are dedicated to growing and producing the world's second-largest traded commodity?  These are the people for whom coffee is not merely a beverage but, more importantly, a livelihood.  Are they as passionate about coffee as the people who drink it?  What is their relationship with this intriguing bean that has traveled around the world? 

The concept of The Birth of Coffee was born in Indonesia. We had known little about coffee before planning a two-month expedition to that amazing island nation.   We knew colonial Java had been an important location for early coffee plantations and we conjured up romantic images of old-world plantations, the Dutch East India Company, and wooden sailing ships journeying to Europe laden with sacks of coffee.  But even as we added a coffee plantation to our itinerary, we had little idea where that adventure would lead.   

We visited our first coffee plantation high on a volcanic hillside not very far from Mount Bromo on the island of Java.  It was there that we saw coffee trees for the first time and were encouraged to savor the ripe, sweet taste of a just-picked coffee cherry.  We had not realized it yet, but we were hooked.  Immediately, we decided to seek coffee on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. Several days later, over dinner in the beautiful art deco city of Bandung, Java, the entire concept of The Birth of Coffee was fully developed.  We already knew that there was much more to tell about the rich story of coffee and the people who bring it to the cup.  

And so our coffee journey began.  Before its completion, we would travel more than a quarter of a million miles around the world, visiting eight countries to learn more than we ever dreamed about coffee. In meeting the people who grow coffee, we often had the feeling that we were touching the heart and soul of the countries we were documenting.  And long before the end of our project, we developed an appreciation for the beverage that far exceeds the taste of a fine cup of coffee.   

The people we met in the individual growing regions inspired and educated us.  Many touched our hearts. There is something indefatigable about people who work with coffee, no matter where in the world they are.  There is, too, an almost universal, feeling of commitment in what they do.  One cannot help but feel the close affinity that the people who grow and produce coffee around the world have for the product itself.  One senses it as a farmer lovingly inspects coffee trees, looking for signs of bloom or infestation, or pops a ripe cherry into his mouth.  And one cannot help but notice the almost worldwide need to touch coffee.  Whether it has just been picked and is sitting in a basket, or has been dried, processed, and stored, if there is coffee nearby, someone is nearly always dipping a hand into it.  If you have walked into a coffee store where they roast on the premises and bags of coffee beans are stored within reach, you know the impulse.   

Throughout our travels, as we met the people who plant, pick, and grow coffee, the answers to our original questions were responded to again and again.  It was communicated in the many outstretched hands welcoming us worldwide, in countless cups of coffee offered in hospitality, and in the explanations and time taken to show us around coffee plantations, large and small. We hope that we have answered some of these questions with our words and images. 

In our opinion, coffee lovers the world over owe all of these people respect and gratitude. They work long and hard for a small amount of money.  Still, they, like those of us who passionately love to drink coffee, are motivated by an intense connection that borders on addiction. Sometimes the connection is not to coffee at all, but strongly to family, culture, or survival.  But more often than not, the connection lies strongly with coffee as well.  We observed it, again and again, in the coffee workers we met throughout the world.  Their faces lit up as they introduced us to their families, showed us their land, and shared their coffee with us.  It is all of these factors that ultimately make a cup of coffee possible. 

In the end, we knew that no cup of coffee would ever taste the same.  To pour a handful of beans into our grinder at the break of day is to envision the many people we have met and places we have traveled. Their faces will always be reflected on the dark surface of every cup of coffee we drink.  

Linda Rice Lorenzetti
Daniel Lorenzetti             

© Linda Rice Lorenzetti and Random House