Visit the World—in Your Cup
Seattle may be known for its devotion to coffee, but how much do most of us know about our morning cuppa joe?
|The fruit of the coffee plant contains the coffee bean.|
Not nearly enough, says Ruth Pelz, who curated Coffee: The World in Your Cup to shed more light on the popular beverage. The Burke Museum exhibit, which runs through September 7, provides an overview of the history, geography, politics, economics, and health benefits of coffee. A related eight-week lecture series begins April 7.
Pelz gathered a team of more than 20 experts from the UW and beyond to help plan the exhibit. “I found that UW professors in fields from biology to chemistry to social justice were already teaching content related to coffee,” says Pelz. “The expertise was already here.”
Pelz also worked closely with the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and Seattle Audubon, incorporating their research on the effect of coffee plantations on migratory birds. (Research indicates that avian diversity is mostly preserved in shade plantations but drops alarmingly in deforested plantations.)
|Visitors are encouraged to lift a heavy bag of coffee beans--or at least make an attempt--to appreciate the effort required.|
“Coffee connects us all,” says Pelz. “Most consumers don’t think about the people and places that bring coffee from the field to the roast to the cup, but this exhibit offers visitors a chance to be more socially and environmentally aware of what they drink.”
The exhibit begins with a brief history. The coffee plant—related to the gardenia, with shiny leaves and fragrant white flowers—was discovered in the highland forests of Ethiopia more than 1,000 years ago. The Turks soon monopolized the coffee trade, with coffee houses dotting the Ottoman Empire as early as the 1100s. By the 1400s, coffee had been dispersed to Europe. During the American Revolution, when tea was famously taxed, coffee became the patriotic drink.
“The history of coffee is full of controversy and intrigue,” says Pelz. “It quickly developed a reputation as a revolutionary drink because it brought people from diverse backgrounds together for stimulating talk.”
Coffee processing methods range from traditional processing by hand to a more mechanized approach, with the processing method greatly affecting flavor. “When you buy a bag of coffee, to really get an idea of what it takes to produce the bag, it’s mind boggling,” says the narrator of a video that follows the whole process, beginning with the picking of the “cherries” that contain the beans. A display of processing implements and a model of a traditional drying patio hint at the steps required.
The contemporary coffee industry figures prominently in several displays. Coffee certification programs (USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and others) and roaster programs are demystified. About three dozen local companies are hosting specialty coffee tastings at the Burke on weekends from 11 am to 2 pm. Starbucks, a major sponsor of the exhibit, also loaned a coffee roaster, processing implements, and other objects now on display.
For Pelz and other Burke staff planning the exhibit, immersion in the world of coffee has had its, well, perks. They’ve held numerous planning meetings at coffee houses around town, with the occasional sample offered. Of course that’s had its downside for those attempting to lay off the caffeine.
“Our exhibit designer, Andrew Whiteman, had sworn off coffee for a couple of years before working on the exhibit,” says Pelz sympathetically. “He’s totally back into it now.”
Really, who can blame him? As coffee-loving Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir wrote more than 400 years ago, “Where coffee is served, there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness…. All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips.”