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Coffee goes by many names across the world, and in the United States that’s no exception.
We call it Joe, as in a cup of Joe. We call it espresso, drip, and other slang for ways to make it. And lastly we call it Java.
It makes sense to easily term coffee by how it’s made. Espresso, drip, etc. are easy ways to remember your favorite style of coffee.
That doesn’t make any sense. Why would we call coffee Java?
Break Out the History Books
Somewhere in the 1600s, the Dutch are remembered as introducing coffee to the Southeast Asia region. Coffee is believed to have been cultivated in Ethiopia around 850 A.D. Although they were closely guarded, some seeds were smuggled out of the Arab territory by the Dutch. They started bringing coffee seeds and beans as trade and later were importing whole coffee trees to countries like Bali and Sumatra. Those trees were planted and the territories are still producing coffee today. Another place they visited and imported trees to is a small island called Java.
You may not have heard of Java as an island. It’s the fourth largest island in Indonesia and has a current population just over 145 million people. That population is 56% of the total for Indonesia, and is also the world’s most populated island. You may have heard of the city of Jakarta, and it’s the capital of Java.
So How Did Java Become Slang for Coffee?
When the Dutch first delivered coffee to the island of Java, they also helped to export the coffee from the island along trade routes. History shows that the island of Java did very well in the trade and exportation of coffee and their exports were the start of the term Java as in their export source. The name Java became synonymous with coffee and was used frequently in place of the name coffee as the coffee market grew around the world. Over time, either term has been used to describe coffee, whether it’s technically correct or as slang.
Is Coffee Still Grown on the Island of Java?
While the term Java still is slang for coffee, actual coffee is grown there today. Original settlements of the Dutch still grow Arabica beans for island consumption and export. By the 19th century, the island of Java was the world’s largest producer of Arabica coffee. There was a scare in the 1880s when leaf rust destroyed many of the coffee trees on the island, but most of the Arabica production was replaced with Liberica and Robusta because they are more resistant to leaf rust. The coffee beans aren’t as desirable as Arabica, so they are usually used with lower quality commercial grade coffee instead of the higher quality gourmet coffees offered in export.
One interesting note is that some of the original plantations from the Dutch settlements age their coffee up to three years in a process called “monsooning”. The result of the process is a less acidic and mellow coffee that mimics what Europeans in the 1600s and 1700s would have tasted. Ship exports from Java to Europe could take years to cross the ocean, which is how the coffee could age on the voyage. The process entails a wet processing of the picked green coffee beans right after harvest.
Is Java Technically Correct or is it Really Slang?
If you think of coffee in a similar term like wine, using Java to describe the region where the coffee came from would be technically correct. It would be like calling wine “Champagne” because of the region it came from. It’s technically correct to call coffee Java Arabica or simply Java as it’s a specific type of coffee bean. And yes, you can still use it as slang.
I know. It’s confusing.
However you plan to use the word, you now know that you can blame the Dutch for starting the whole Java confusion 400 years ago by introducing the coffee bean to an island in Indonesia. It’s one of many names that is used more as slang than the technically correct usage. Like Googling something. Have you heard that one yet?