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Originally published Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Burke exhibit takes a deep drink of what goes into coffee

The Burke Museum's "Coffee: The World in Your Cup" looks at the brew's environmental, economic and social impact.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exhibit preview

"Coffee: The World in Your Cup"

Today-June 7, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Northeast 45th Street and 17th Avenue Northeast, University of Washington, Seattle; $5-$8 (206-543-5590 or burkemuseum.org).

Few drinks have become more ingrained into our society, more woven into everyday life than coffee.

Many online-dating sites rank "meeting for coffee" as the most popular first date. Even former President Bush recently mused about having to make his own coffee now that he won't have the White House staff preparing it for him.

Is it a stretch to call coffee an elixir, considering that millions of Americans can't fathom getting through the day without a cup of joe?

It's only fitting then, that in the city that gave the world Starbucks, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture would debut a new exhibit today called "Coffee: The World in Your Cup," a look at the brew's environmental, economic and social impact.

As part of this weekend's opening, the museum will host coffee seminars and tastings with Caffe Vita, Starbucks, Caffe Appassionato, Trabant Coffee & Chai, Victrola Coffee, Finca Vista Hermosa, Pangaea Organica and Fidalgo Bay Coffee.

"Coffee connects us all," said exhibit coordinator Ruth Pelz. "It crosses so many areas — environment, natural history, botany, social issues and ... people and culture. That fits with our mission and our understanding of our world and our place in it."

The exhibit takes a look at coffee from the ground up, as a plant, as our morning jolt and as one of the world's most widely traded commodities.

It tells the story of coffee through video documentaries, blown-up color pictures of farmers milling and tilling in Central America and artifacts such as a hand mill and pot from Turkey and Ethiopia, where coffee was discovered 1,000 years ago.

Starbucks, one of the exhibit sponsors, also loaned the roasters and coffee plants on display.

"People here know coffee as a consumption product — Starbucks, Tully's," said Max Savishinsky, who served on the exhibit's advisory committee. Organizers wanted to show the other side of coffee, the tilling and fertilizing of it and the people behind it, said Savishinsky, who as program director for UW's Exploration Seminars leads students through small coffee farms in Central America.

The exhibit also looks at fair trade and other issues raised by the coffee trade.

In the 1960s, "sun grown coffee cultivation" was introduced, in which coffee is grown like corn crop for efficiency. But that method relies on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And the "deforestation" of coffee plants has cut into the habitat of Bengal tigers, chimpanzees and migratory songbirds.

Each vignette is meant to show the global reach and impact of coffee.

In 1989, as the exhibit points out, coffee prices crashed worldwide due to oversupply and low demand, pushing prices to historic low. That forced many farmers out of the coffee trade, putting the industry in peril for years afterward.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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