November 23, 2020

Exploring The Relationship Between Coffee & Spices

From Turkish coffee brewed with cardamom to the pumpkin spice latte, coffee and spices have been paired for almost as long as people have enjoyed coffee. Today, coffee consumers enjoy beverages made with dozens of different spices, including cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger.

However, the relationship between coffee and spices isn’t limited to the coffee shop. In producing countries across the world, some producers cultivate spices alongside their coffee plants for a number of different reasons.

So, to learn more about coffee’s unique relationship with spices, we spoke to two experts at different ends of the supply chain. Read on to find out what they said.

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A Brief History Of Coffee & Spices

Today, spices are both affordable and widely available in shops and supermarkets across the world. However, a few centuries ago, many of them (such as ginger, turmeric, pepper, and cardamom) were rare and incredibly expensive, often only available to the wealthy and the elite. 

While spices have been grown and used for millennia, they were not traded internationally until the 14th and 15th century, when explorers set out from Europe to explore then-uncharted parts of the world. When they did, many of them encountered new and unusual spices which were unlike anything they had seen at home.

These major European powers started to trade spices on an international scale from around the end of the 15th century. Historians have referred to the spice trade as the “beginning of globalisation”, as it established maritime trade routes between Europe, China, India, Arabia, and North and East Africa.

The spice trade was a huge contributor to global economic and cultural development throughout the 15th and 16th century. Many spice traders became powerful and wealthy both at home and abroad; the spice trade only slowed down in the 17th century when coffee and tea became more sought-after in Europe. 

The historic similarities between coffee and spices (and how they were traded) are intriguing. Both were desirable luxuries and symbols of status in Europe, and both have a deep and complicated relationship with colonialism and early international trade. This similarity was noted back when they were first traded, too; it is believed that when merchants first brought coffee to Venice, it was initially considered to be a spice. 

As such, it is unsurprising that different cultures across the world brewed coffee with spices, as they were both luxury items associated with wealth, power, and decadence.

Consequently, some recipes have persisted for centuries and are still widely used today. Authentic Turkish and Arabic coffee, for example, are often brewed with cardamom, while in Yemen, coffee beans are sometimes mixed with hawaj – a blend of ginger, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. 

Spiced Coffee Today

For many coffee drinkers today, however, the concept of combining coffee with spices is somewhat novel. While historically the two have been combined for centuries, coffee shop beverages made with nutmeg, turmeric, allspice, and ginger, just as a few examples, have become incredibly popular in the past 15 years. 

Pumpkin spice lattes have even come to dominate an entire season on the coffee shop calendar, with Nielsen data showing that as much as US $600 million worth of pumpkin spice flavoured products were sold in 2018 (up almost 5% on the year before).

Recent trends have indicated that while consumers choose these drinks for their novel flavour, many also believe that spices offer nutritional value and certain health benefits. Turmeric, for example, is a strong antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, while ginger can be used as a digestive aid. 

It’s important to note, however, that some major chains’ spiced coffees may contain high levels of sugar which could outweigh any nutritional benefits.

Andrés Riveiro is the co-founder of Marjaba Café, a Middle Eastern-themed cafe in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He tells me that when his café opened six years ago, many of his customers were reluctant to try spiced beverages – he says that they either loved or hated it, and that there was no “in between”.

Today, however, Andrés says that his customers have a more developed palate, and many are able to identify distinct and more subtle flavours within their coffee.

He adds that spiced drinks allow him to create an enriching experience where he can educate customers on Middle Eastern culture, which is a big part of Marjaba’s brand and identity.

He also uses traditional bronze cups and arabica coffee imported from Kuwait to offer a “more authentic experience”.

“The coffee with cardamom we serve is a traditional, Palestinian-style drink,” Andrés says. “It’s like [it is prepared] in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt.”

Andrés tells me that when making spiced beverages for customers, he tries to only add spices and flavours that he thinks will appeal to them, and notes that ginger and cinnamon are two of the most popular. However, he adds that he has also experimented with other spices, including turmeric and mahleb, a spice made from wild cherry seeds.

How Do Spices & Coffee Connect At Origin?

For coffee producers, however, spices and coffee have a fundamentally different relationship. Around the world, some farmers practise intercropping with coffee and spice plants for a number of long and short-term benefits. 

Intercropping is when two or more crops are grown alongside each other to increase a farmer’s output per hectare. It’s usually chosen when producers have smaller plots and limited access to agricultural inputs (such as fertiliser). While tending to a denser population of different plants is labour-intensive, intercropping with spice plants can increase crop yield and soil fertility. 

José Ángel Zavala Buechsel is an engineer and a co-ordinator for the 6th Region of the Asociación Nacional de Café (ANACAFE) in northern Guatemala. He tells me that most producers only receive an income for their crop after it is harvested, leaving them without a reliable source of money throughout the off-season.

These producers can use intercropping to generate income outside of these harvest periods, leading to greater stability for their farm. With a more diverse range of income streams, producers then become more financially stable, meaning they are able to improve their living conditions, reinvest in their farm, and use their natural resources more efficiently. 

For instance, while the coffee harvest season in Guatemala runs from November to April, allspice plants can be harvested in July and August. 

“Intercropping helps to improve economic, environmental, and social sustainability,” José Ángel says. “[When intercropping], we design each plot by distributing crops according to their development. Each crop enjoys adequate agronomic management, because each has adequate production.”

He says that this also helps to ensure the farm’s land remains productive for years to come. “Intercropping helps to conserve the quality of the soil,” he explains. “Each crop requires different quantities of nutrients. Intercropping balances the soil by recycling nutrients that each crop extracts, and then returns them to the soil as organic matter.”

Which Spices Do Producers Use For Intercropping?

José Ángel tells me that allspice, cardamom, and cloves are popular spices for intercropping.

Cloves and allspice are grown in what José Ángel calls “mixed intercropping systems”, which have no distinctive row arrangements. They are often found on farms that are smaller than 0.35 hectares. 

Cardamom, however, is often grown in a strip intercropping system, allowing farmers to individually cultivate and harvest each “strip”. This means that the cardamom and coffee plants can both reach their full potential individually, meaning that they don’t compete for space, nutrients, or light. 

Spices and coffee have a rich relationship both in brewing and production, and have been fundamentally linked on an international scale for hundreds of years.

Today, it’s easy to recognise that spices have a unique role at different stages of the coffee supply chain. However, whether it’s supporting producers through crop diversification or flavouring your latte, coffee and spices have a unique relationship that has been cultivated through centuries of international trade. 

Enjoyed this? Then watch A VIDEO Guide to Intercropping for Coffee Farmers

Photo credits: Foam, Marco Verch, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Forest & Kim Starr

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