What common denominator binds together coffee, chocolate, sugar, and rum (or “breakfast,” as we at Rum & Biscuits collectively refer to them)?
I mean, let’s just lay everything on the table, they all have hella fun short-term effects on the body, amirite? And also on the rosy side of the spectrum, all have played a role in communal bonding and socializing, whether now or in past eras. Sadly, as the still-felt horrors of slavery and colonialism attest to, the non-rosy side of the spectrum is the by far the wider one with regards to each of these four commodities.
But just as undeniable a commonality is the pervasiveness of all four. Globally, sugar consumption averages 45 pounds per person per year. Spirits are the only alcohol category expected to continue growing. Coffee consumption outpaces production, and chocolate is so popular, there’s actually a global shortage.
For all the world to be conquered from a handful of Caribbean islands, South American forests, and African coastlines is what really connected us to these stories, though. While in some cases these crops’ arrival and in all cases their proliferation sprung from tragic and oppressive circumstances, today these regions are recognized as badges of excellence and heritage for these products, from Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee to Appleton Rum.
While their systems certainly remain imperfect, these products have become national symbols of pride for many, including those called home by the African diaspora that Rum & Biscuits loves celebrating most.
It’s why we had to map exactly how these four commodities came to dominate the globe, which you can see above. But it’s worth noting that during our research, a few other major patterns (and surprises) came to life as well.
Here are just a few, supplemented by an infographic, because infographic is life:
India: the real MVP
Fam, India was INVENTING THE GAME out here. How they’ve stayed so low key about it all so long I have no idea. The first documented sugar manufacturing comes from Northern India, dating back to between 500 and 300 BC. India also lays claim to the first historical references to spirits distilled from sugar and molasses, predating the practice in the islands by at least 300 years and potentially as early as 300 A.D.
Even in the case of coffee, which the Yemeni O.G.’s had on lock so tight they were sterilizing beans before exporting, the first java jump outside the region can be traced down to a specific Indian individual, Baba Budan, who in 1600 while on pilgrimage smuggled fertile coffee seeds out of the Middle East for the first time in history and brought them back to the sub-continent.
Islamic empire was like #YoureWelcome
While coffee is thought to have originated in the horn of Africa, it was not until Yemeni Arabs got hold of the bean that the first coffee plantations (and even coffee houses) were documented. Yemenis themselves were then invaded by Ottoman Turks, who spread the bean to the Mediterranean, while the Dutch were working their own magic in Northern Europe and Southeast Asia.
Sugar, too, first spread westward by Persian expansion, got its real foothold in Europe during the Crusades, as cultures clashed on the Mediterranean frontier and Europeans brought home the “sweet salt.” Holy War stuff out of the way, Europeans decided the stuff was so popping that Venetians opened up the trade lines to the Middle East and watched the money pile up.
And if you’ll pardon the reach, even rum – spoiler alert: never a big deal in the Islamic empire – could trace its new world debut to Islamic empire. Umayyad conquest brought sugar to Hispania, from which Spanish and Portuguese would introduce it to Madeira and the Canary Islands, and ultimately to Brazil, where the distilled-sugar spirit cachaça appeared in 1552 – 100 years before rum distillation was taking place in Barbados.
Wealthy Europe = always the first test market
No history of sugar, chocolate, or coffee (sorry, rum, you’re trash) is complete without a time frame labeled “Popular among European elites.” They were the Bay Area of the time, and prior to slavery and then the industrial revolution making everything cheap, each of these three were as exclusive as self-driving cars. And speaking of self-driving cars…
Technology Revolutionized Everything Around Me (T.R.E.A.M.)
Steam-powered sugar mills (1768), the cocoa press (1828), multiple effect evaporator for sugar (1846), and instant coffee in the 1881 all epitomized the industrial revolution and proved game changers for their respective commodities. But directly impactful as each of these advancements were, some pendulum swings in the fates of sugar, rum, coffee, and chocolate were a bit more
The (In)Direct Effect has the most Sway*
Maybe most interesting of all – apart from the India stuff, cuz, c’mon, that’s wild – is that each of the four commodities benefited not just from pure popularity, but from indirect market forces as well.
For instance, in the 1700’s, American colonists said “F**k the British, and f**k their tea,” and coffee demand skyrocketed. Did we worry about the Brits? No, they were just fine, though, because the French banned exports of rum to their colonies to protect their brandy industry, so Britain monopolized the market for and spread rum all over the world.
Then the industrial revolution hit, and developments in European textiles led to the Central American indigo market crashing. So naturally, the whole of Central America went all-in on cacao cultivation, flooding the global market and helping globalize chocolate by keeping prices low.
And sugar – itself already democratized worldwide by the most horrific direct market effect: slave labor – only became more popular during this time via indirect effects. With factory laborers working around the clock, away from meals cooked in the home, but able to get coffee and chocolate for super cheap, they figured, hey, let’s make that shit sweet and delicious: boom, sugar rose to new heights yet again.
*90’s babies, please look at this and appreciate the PERFECTION of this pun
As you can see, it was an insightful project and one we hope has been informative for yall as well! It can’t be overstated that while coffee, chocolate, sugar and rum are a delicious, fun-in-moderation way to connect with the beauty of the tropics, labor abuse is still a daunting issue in these industries, so in addition to buying often it’s important to buy responsibly: look for vetted fair trade sources, and pay exorbitantly for them. It will feel good when you think it all the way through.
Still can’t get enough coffee, chocolate, sugar, and rum?
Better question: why not have all four at once? Now you can, with a Rum & Biscuits cocktail to keep your buzz, buzz, buzz, and buzz going. Happy sippin’!