Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shipping Java Coffee by Sailing Ship

Shipping Java CoffeeUp to 1915 it was the custom to ship considerable Java coffee to New York in slow-going sailing vessels of the type in favor a hundred years ago. Java coffees "ex-sailing ships" always commanded a premium because of the natural sweating they experienced in transit. Attempts to imitate this natural sweating process by steam-heating the coffees that reached New York by the faster-going steamship lines, and interference therewith by the pure-food authorities, caused a falling off in the demand for "light," "brown," or "extra brown" Dutch East Indian growths; and gradually the picturesque sailing vessels were seen no more in New York harbor. At the end they were mostly Norwegian barks of the type of the Gaa Paa.

It usually took from four to five months to make the trip from Padang or Batavia to New York. Crossing the Equator twice, first in the Indian Ocean, then in the South Atlantic, the trip was more than equal to circumnavigating the earth in our latitude. In the hold of the vessel the cargo underwent a sweating that gave to the coffee a rare shade of color and that, in the opinion of coffee experts, greatly enhanced its flavor and body. The captain always received a handsome gratuity if the coffee turned "extra brown."

The demand for sweated, or brown, Javas probably had its origin in the good old days when the American housewife bought her coffee green and roasted it herself in a skillet over a quick fire. Coffee slightly brown was looked upon with favor; for every good housewife in those days knew that green coffee changed its color in aging, and that of course aged coffee was best.

And so it came about that Java coffees were preferably shipped in slow-going Dutch sailing vessels, because it was desirable to have a long voyage under the hot tropical sun suitably to sweat the coffee on its way to market and to have it a handsome brown on arrival. The sweating frequently produced a musty flavor which, if not too pronounced, was highly prized by experts. When the ship left Padang or Batavia the hatches were battened down, not to be opened again until New York harbor was reached.

Many of the old-style Dutch sailing vessels were built somewhat after the pattern of the Goed Vrouw, which Irving tells us was a hundred feet long, a hundred feet wide, and a hundred feet high. Sometimes she sailed forward, sometimes backward, and sometimes sideways. After dark, the lights were put out, all sail was taken in, and all hands turned in for the night.

The last of the coffee-carrying sailing vessels to reach the United States was the bark Padang, which arrived in New York on Christmas day, 1914.