Sometimes a Cup of Java is Just a Cup of Joe

Sometimes a Cup of Java is Just a Cup of Joe
Posted in: History
By Mike Ferguson
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Sometimes a Cup of Java is Just a Cup of Joe

In most dictionaries, the first definition listed for java is coffee; and a coffee beverage is what most people think of when they hear the word java. If you think of an island in Indonesia before you think of a cup of coffee or a computer programming language when you hear the word java, there is a good chance you work in coffee … or teach geography. When it comes to slang synonyms for coffee, only “joe” comes close to java in frequency of use, and people have been referring to a “cup of java” longer than they have a “cup of joe.”

Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, banned alcohol from ships in 1914, so during World War I the strongest drink available to sailors while at sea became resentfully known as a “cup of joe.” That was 100 years ago, but the coffee and Java connection is over 300 years old. While we’re not sure how long “cup of java” has been used for cup of coffee (Random example: The president of the American Chemical Society referred to a cup of java in a 1894 speech), we know that the first coffee seeds were brought to Java in 1696 by a government sponsored monopoly, The Dutch East India Company, commonly referred to by the acronym of its name in Dutch, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC).

The first attempt at planting coffee failed due to flooding, but Hendrick Zwaardecroon, an ambitious and agriculturally minded employee of the VOC, tried again in 1699 and the plantings were successful. By the time H.Z. retired as Governor-General of the VOC in 1725, over 1 million pounds of coffee from Java were being sold annually at auction in Amsterdam. The volume would increase to 2.5 million pounds by the end of that decade and over 5 million pounds a year by 1780.

For the first 100 years of commercial coffee cultivation on Java, the Dutch colonizers had little to do with production itself beyond paying almost nothing for the coffee once it was ready for export. According to historian M.R. Fernando, the VOC “bullied the indigenous potentates of the region into accepting contractual obligations to supply coffee at fixed prices.” The supply chain was essentially a feudal arrangement with local chiefs in the role of lords over peasants.

In 1799, three years shy of its 200th birthday, the VOC collapsed under the weight of debt and corruption. The monopoly gone, competition arose within the coffee producing sector and there was some restructuring of the supply chain, but the lives and incomes of those who grew coffee did not improve. In what is now an old and familiar story in coffee, layers of margin-scraping middlemen emerged between coffee farmers and coffee markets.

Things went from bad to worse in 1832 when the Dutch government declared that coffee was a “compulsory crop” and became a full participant in the production and marketing of coffee. Not surprisingly this “monopsony,” combined with what amounted to a system of forced labor, was highly profitable and coffee production expanded rapidly. Annual coffee production on Java peaked at 168 million pounds in 1855, around 25% of the world’s supply. Brazil was already growing half the world’s coffee at that time, but coffee from Java was considered higher quality and received higher prices. Java would never see that type of volume again, but because Java received better prices the stage was set for more Java to be sold than was grown and for Java to become synonymous with coffee.

In 1857, Eduard Douwes Dekker, a career government bureaucrat stationed in Java, complained to his superiors about the abuse of indigenous people growing coffee. Before he was fired for protesting these injustices, he quit and returned to Holland. In 1860 Dekker published a novel, Max Havelaar, under the pen name Multatuli. The book was a satirical expose of the ruthlessness and corruption of Dutch colonial rule in Java, specifically in the coffee sector. The first line of the novel, which echoes repeatedly throughout the book is, “I am a coffee-broker, and live at No. 37 Laurier Canal, Amsterdam.”

Max Havelaar was a bestseller, went through many reprints, and is considered the spark from which some changes to Dutch colonial policies emerged. For example, prices paid to farmers were raised, farmers were allowed to process coffee in their villages rather than distant centralized mills, and the cost of transporting coffee to port was no longer deducted from their payments. Growers were allowed to farm coffee on small plots near their homes rather than working on large plantations far away. The compulsory aspect of coffee growing began to wane, though unofficially. As the government’s iron grip gave way to reforms, production declined steadily then fell dramatically when leaf rust disease arrived in the 1880’s. Add to these circumstances a price collapse in the late 1890’s and by 1900 production on Java had dropped to 84 million pounds, precisely half of its peak in 1855.

The Dutch Government began to withdraw its monopolistic participation in the coffee industry on Java in 1905. Coincidentally, in 1906 the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act which, theoretically at least, should have made coffee grown on Java more valuable. The new law made it illegal to mislabel products. This included labeling coffee Java that wasn’t from Java, a common practice for generations because coffee from Java was considered one of the best coffees in the world and consumers were willing to pay more for it. In 1922, William Ukers wrote in All About Coffee:

Food Inspection Decision No. 82, which limited the use of the term Java to coffee grown on the island of Java, was sustained in a service and regulatory announcement issued in January, 1916. Likewise the name Mocha may be used only for coffees of Arabia. Before the pure-food law was enacted, it was frequently the custom to mix Bourbon Santos with Mocha and to sell the blend as Mocha. Also, Abyssinian coffees were generally known in the trade as Longberry Mocha, or just straight Mocha; and Sumatra growths were practically always sold as Javas. Traders used the names of Mocha and Java because of the high value placed upon these coffees by consumers, who, before Brazil dominated the market, had practically no other names for coffee.

This marked a significant shift on the export side because the practice of labelling nearly all coffee from anywhere in Indonesia as Java was long established. Most coffee drinkers had never heard of Sumatra or Timor even though those islands were also sources for the Java they were drinking.

Even after the Pure Food and Drug Act became law in the U.S., other consuming countries continued to sell mislabeled green coffee to U.S. brokers. Holland, producer and exporter of Java coffee for over 200 years, was apparently one of the worst offenders. Dutch coffee traders would sort coffee from the Santos region of Brazil to a size similar to Java beans, “polishing and coloring them to add verisimilitude,” then sell them as Java.  Known as “manipulated Java,” the practice was so common that U.S. buyers refused to purchase Java from Holland unless it was accompanied by a certified declaration that the coffee was "pure Java, neither mixed with other kinds nor counterfeited.”

The United States Bureau of Chemistry went a step further, ruling in 1921 that Robusta could not be sold as Java coffee even if it was grown on Java. Only Arabica grown on Java could be labelled as Java. The trade took these regulations so literally that when export statistics for Java listed the kinds of coffee produced on the island, the list included Liberica, Robusta, and Java (rather than Arabica); because, if it was called Java it had to be Arabica.

By this time, exports of “pure Java” had fallen to 60 million pounds annually. The drop was not due solely to conditions internal to Java. In the middle of the 19th century, when Java was growing a quarter of the world’s coffee, commercial coffee cultivation throughout Central and South America and was in its early days, with the exception of Brazil. Latin American coffee production grew quickly. Not only were coffees from Central America often of good quality, but their journey to U.S. ports was measured in days rather than weeks, or months by sailing vessel. Competition from emerging coffee growing countries increased significantly. 

But time on a boat was not considered a negative because Java was prized for “mellow” taste, the result of aging. It was the Dutch government that introduced the process of aging coffee for 2-3 years and the consumers came to associate the brownish beans with high quality and a mellow cup. Later, this coffee would assume the moniker “Old Government Java.” Aged coffee became so popular that when disease decreased supply from Java and Sumatra to the point that producers could ill-afford to sit on coffee, they began to “sweat” coffee during its 4-5-month voyage, much of it through the tropics, as an alternative to slow aging. The coffee would be sealed in the hold of cargo ships to sweat during the voyage, arriving brown. The darker brown the coffee, the higher the price paid. In fact, if a captain managed to deliver “extra brown” coffee, they were paid a bonus.

Like the aged coffee that proceeded it, this sweated coffee became popular and for this reason coffee from Indonesia continued to be shipped by sailing ships long after steamships were the norm, just because of the premium paid for sweated coffee. The last shipment of coffee to arrive by a purely wind-driven vessel was aboard the Padang, which arrived in New York from Indonesia on Christmas day, 1914. Demand dropped, in part, when it was discovered that some importers were imitating the look of sweated coffees by steam heating after coffee had already arrived in the U.S. Buyers could tell the difference in taste but not appearance.

During the 1920’s, tastes changed as American’s began to drink more Central American coffee and demand for aged coffee fell. The association of “Java” the island as a source for coffee faded in the minds of coffee drinkers, but the association of “java” in the cup did not.

“And then, quite as though he were no more august than the Cub, he may say: ‘Who’s for a cup of Java?’” -Deadlines, 1923

“I’ve got a hellish bellyache from eating that hog’s load of cake, but they’s one thing that’d go pretty slick right now, and that’s a nice steamin’ cup of Java.” -Adventures of a Scholar Tramp, 1925

“I love coffee, I love tea. I love the java jive and it loves me. Coffee and tea and the java and me. A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup (boy!)” -Lyrics to Java Jive, 1940

“In their white monkey suits, stethoscopes dangling from pocket, those young Jefferson internes who slip out for a late morning cup of java at the 1Oth Street luncheonette across from the hospital play the pinball machines with an intense, professional, operating room gaze.” - Philadelphia Bulletin, 1947

“Goodbye to Capodimonte and to Naples Red Cross (two doughnuts and a cup of java, six lire).” -The Quarterly Bulletin, Northwester University Medical School, 1950

In the 1947 gossipy passage below from Glimmerglass, the student newspaper for Olivet Nazarene College, we can see that 40 years after passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, coffee geography was completely divorced from the word java as the writer refers to a cup of java as “Brazil water.”

“’I think the chapel services are a little dull lately. I’d rather get a cup of java and anyhow I don’t have any studying I could do if I did go to chapel!’ With my bloodhound nose in the situation I’d say a few constructive suggestions to the student council would help the deal along more than a cup of Brazil water.”

Some of the large coffee estates created by the Dutch 175 years ago can still be found on the volcanic Ijen Plateau at the eastern tip of Java, but most coffee farmers are smallholders growing coffee on an average of 1.5 hectare, many of them among a cluster of volcanoes in West Java, where coffee cultivation first began on the island. Small farms grow coffee with few inputs and coffee communities come together during harvest, moving from farm to farm to pick coffee. Although disease resistant Robusta became the dominate coffee crop long ago, West Java has seen a steady in crease in Arabica production in recent years. Arabica generally grows above 1200 meters and virtually all coffee is fully washed.

21 days ago
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