COLUMBIA — When Lakota Coffee Co. opened for business in 1992, it was one of two places that sold coffee in downtown Columbia. Now The District brims with places to get a latte or an espresso.
Americans are hooked on coffee, making it a very profitable business. In 2008, the United States consumed about 25 percent of the total world production.
Coffee giant Starbucks posted a fourth-quarter profit of $150 million even though it closed more than 600 stores last summer.
But where does coffee come from, and why is it so profitable? What makes a good coffeehouse?
Thank Africa for coffee beans
The coffee tree is indigenous to the province of Kaffa in Ethiopia. It grows between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where temperatures average between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year round.
In the early 1500s, coffee was being cultivated in Yemen and sold to coffee shops in big cities such as Mocha, the largest port city on the only sea route to Mecca. There it was boiled with sugar in special brewers and enjoyed by pilgrims in need of energy for their pilgrimage.
Coffee rode the coattails of colonialism. The Arabians controlled the production of coffee until the early 1600s, when the Dutch managed to steal a live coffee tree to harvest in a greenhouse.
This marked the beginning of the spread of coffee to the rest of the world. By 1825 the coffee market spanned the globe.
There are two types of trees that produce different types of beans: arabica and robusta. Arabica beans are considered more complex in flavor and preferred by connoisseurs. Robusta beans make a flatter, more bitter cup, but they contain more caffeine and are less expensive than arabica beans.
For those in the business of specialty coffee, taste is of utmost importance. Much like with wine, the taste of coffee depends on the conditions of growth, the soil and the altitude, as well as the water the coffee tree receives.
An artful roast highlights the origin of the bean, and a true coffee drinker savors the complexity of each sip.
From Africa to Lakota
Skip DeCharme opened Lakota at 24 S. Ninth Street 17 years ago when the coffee trend was reaching a national tipping point.
He learned the roasting craft through an unpaid apprenticeship with a coffee roaster in Austin, and then decided to leave his corporate job and pursue his own business.
DeCharme wanted to open a roasting operation in a place that would suit his family’s lifestyle. It had to be a college town with plenty of parks and open spaces. Lawrence, Kan., Greenville, S.C., and Columbia were all in the running.
Columbia’s then-population of about 75,000 attracted DeCharme. It was a community of educators and students, physicians and other medical professionals and insurers. Columbia had the right demographic for a specialty coffee roaster and coffee shop.
Equipped with determination and a San Francisco roaster, DeCharme named his venture Lakota in honor of the Native American tribe. The tribe was known for taking shipments of coffee from trains, using some for ransom and drinking the rest.
Lakota doubles as a roaster and coffeehouse. Coffee begins to deteriorate soon after it is roasted, so doing it in-house maximizes freshness. Airtight packaging used by large coffee manufacturers helps retain some freshness, but any time that elapses from roasting to brewing is detrimental to the quality of the beverage.
Lee Eckel has been the Lakota roast master for five years. He got into the coffee business through a barista job in California. He was captivated by the industry and the people he worked with.
Now he is responsible for roasting an average of 1,000 pounds of coffee a week.
Roasting removes the moisture in the raw bean. The raw, green beans are heated between 360 and 460 degrees Fahrenheit for eight to 15 minutes, releasing the coffee oil known as "caffeol," the essence of the beverage.
Lakota’s coffee is roasted to a deep, dark color. Roasters do not commonly roast coffee beans that dark because 20 percent of the weight is lost in the process. Eckel said the last minute and a half of the process is responsible for 5 percent of the loss.
Lakota has relationships with multiple brokers who know the profile of the coffee that Eckel roasts. The shop buys coffee from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Lakota also buys coffee from Hawaii, the only coffee-producing area in the United States.
Eckel prefers roasting beans grown within 1,000 miles of the equator at an altitude of 3,000 feet or more.
“Every coffee is different, not only by country but also by farm,” he said. “We rely on their expertise.”
Coffeehouses: a Muslim idea
Coffeehouses originated in the 1500s in the Muslim world, where coffee was first cultivated and brewed. Mostly frequented by men, they are places of entertainment and mental relaxation.
The first coffeehouse in the United Kingdom opened in Oxford in 1650. It was the ideal place for the sophisticated student with a curiosity for worldly matters at a time when explorers were still shocking the world with discoveries.
Coffeehouses were for the rich in Britain, but coffee was available to the masses. Once the coffee was brewed in a coffeehouse, the used grounds were brewed again and the lower-quality coffee given to workers on the way to their factories.
By 1675, England had nearly 3,000 coffeehouses. They were popular places for men such as John Milton, Alexander Pope and John Dryden. Men frequented coffeehouses to such an extent that, in 1674, The Women’s Petition Against Coffee surfaced in London.
During the French Revolution, Parisian cafes were fields of incendiary debate among revolutionaries.
Cafe Procope opened in Paris at the end of the 17th century. It catered to the cultured elite and became the gathering place of actors, authors and musicians — Voltaire and Rousseau frequented the cafe, as did Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
In America, coffee became a symbol of rebellion after the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Rebels gathered in the Green Dragon coffeehouse and planned an attack on a British tea shipment.
Lakota as a gathering place
From its conception, Lakota was meant to be a place for people to mingle and dawdle among books, newspapers, magazines and conversation.
Some come in once a day, like MU head football coach Gary Pinkel, who enjoys a cup every day around 6 a.m. Some come in and out all day, using the coffee shop as home base or communal office space.
The coffee shop attracts students, older customers who come in to read the newspaper, chess players and families. Visitors to Columbia can find random hospitality if they just ask nicely or post a note on the community bulletin board.
It is also not unusual to overhear a conversation in French or Spanish. Coffee is an international common denominator.
Eckel said that's what makes Lakota endure. “You have to make a good drink, but your ability to work well with people is paramount,” he said.