The history of coffee has all of the elements of intrigue, deceit, romance, greed, invention, politics, and heroics. Today, with over 400 billion cups of coffee served around the globe, coffee is the world’s most popular beverage and is ranked the second most valuable commodity after oil. As popular as coffee is today, this unanimous approval and acceptance was not always the case. Coffee faced many obstacles and barriers throughout its long and eventful history. It has been banned under acts of prohibition, smuggled across oceans, and even condemned as Satan’s brew. All told, a fascinating story behind this humble beverage!
The Early Legends
Although the actual precise account of coffee’s first beginnings is a bit fuzzy and shrouded in legend, there is general agreement among most coffee historians that coffee was first discovered in the mountains of Ethiopia (Abyssinia). One of the most popular legends dates back to the 8th century A.D in Abyssinia, what is now Ethiopia. In the province of Kaffa, located in southwestern Ethiopia, indigenous coffee trees continue to grow today (possibly the only known native coffee trees). The legend tells the story of a goatherd named Kaldi who lived in this Kaffa region. Kaldi noticed that his goats would become more lively and animated after eating the red berries from a nearby plant. Kaldi tried the berries himself and soon found that he too was full of energy.
The monks at a nearby monastery became aware of Kaldi’s discovery and developed a drink from the coffee berries that enabled them to stay awake for longer sessions of prayer and meditation. Enthusiasm for the drink quickly spread from monastery to monastery. Kaffa continues to be a major coffee growing region in the world today.
Another traditional story of coffee’s discovery comes from Yemen. Local legend has it that his enemies exiled an Arabian mystic named Omar to the desert where he faced certain starvation. Omar survived by making a broth from water and the berries he plucked from coffee trees. The residents of the nearby town of Mocha regarded this act of survival as a religious sign. Mocha is known for producing the first coffee beans that became popular in Europe, and remains a favored source for coffee today.
Indigenous to Ethiopia, coffee before the 10th century was eaten by the nomadic tribesmen of the area. The ripe fruit of the coffee plant was wrapped in animal fat to create a mixture that served as a form of sustenance as well as a stimulant. The mixture was shaped into round balls, which the tribesmen would carry on their long journeys.
Another form of coffee consumption that evolved over time was in the form of a drink, but not as we know the coffee beverage today. The berries were mixed with cold water and left to stand, similar to the way we might brew a sun tea today. Preparing coffee as a hot drink didn’t occur until after the year 1000 A.D when the Arabs learned to boil water. They began to crush the green beans and later roast and grind the beans before boiling them in water.
The Spread of Coffee throughout Arabia
The Arabs originally acquired their coffee beans from Ethiopia, but after the 14th century, they began to cultivate their own coffee plants pirated from Ethiopia. This early cultivation began in what is today the country of Yemen. As the popularity of coffee began to spread rapidly, the Arabs became extremely protective of their newly discovered beverage. They guarded their secret zealously and it was prohibited for coffee plants to be taken out of the region. They rendered the coffee seeds sterile by boiling the berries to protect against the cultivation of the coffee plant outside of their borders. But with so many pilgrims visiting their land from near and far, it was impossible to prevent the smuggling of fertile green beans, and over time, coffee trees began to flourish in other areas.
By the 13th century, the first coffee houses, known as “qahveh kaneh”, emerged in the towns and villages of Arabia. As coffee drinking became more and more popular, the qahveh kaneh served as informal gathering places where music, discussion, games such as backgammon and gambling were enjoyed. These lively coffee houses promoted the exchange of ideas, and the rulers of the time, fearing the potential for uprisings and plots against their kingdoms, attempted to closed down the qahveh kaneh. But the coffee houses were too popular and impossible to restrict. Over time, coffee drinking spread into people’s homes and penetrated the mainstream of Arabian life.
Although it is a common misconception that the name “coffee” comes from “Kaffa”, its place of origin in Ethiopia, the name actually comes from the Arab word “qahwa” meaning wine, coffee or any drink made from plants. In fact, when coffee reached Europe at the beginning of the 17th Century it was alled “the wine of Arabia”.
Coffee finds its Way to Europe
As coffee drinking grew in Arabia, many voyagers and traders enthusiastically brought news of it back to their homelands. Historians agree that the first introduction of coffee to Europe occurred in 1615 when the first shipment of coffee arrived in Venice from the Yemen port of Mocha.
In Venice, the coffee beans were distributed to pharmacies where they were used for medicinal purposes. The Venetians learned to roast the beans and brew the beverage. Venice quickly became the source of coffee supply for the rest of Europe. When the drink reached Rome, the clergy initially condemned coffee as the ”drink of the devil”. The popular demand for the beverage compelled Pope Clement VIII to sample the brew in an attempt to resolve the controversy. With one sip, the Pope discovered such delight and he immediately blessed it with Papal approval. The growth of coffee drinking in Italy was assured and soon after the first European coffee houses began to emerge.
The first recorded reference to coffee in England was in 1637 when a coffee house was opened in Oxford by an entrepreneur called Jacob, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey. A second coffee house was opened in St Michael’s Abbey, Cornhill, London by Pasqua Rosee, believed to have been a Greek or an Armenian immigrant. Gradually coffee houses flourished in many towns and cities throughout Great Britain.
The coffee houses near the universities, frequented by locals and students alike, acquired the nickname of “penny universities”. It was claimed that for the price of a cup of coffee, one penny, a student gained more knowledge than he ever could from reading books. There is no dispute that the popularity of coffee houses among the student population everywhere has not changed in over 400 years.
The Dutch Defeat the Coffee Monopoly
For almost a century, up to the early 18th Century, the Venetians tried to retain their monopoly of the coffee trade, obtaining all of their imported coffee from Arabia. The Arabs were able to maintain their fierce control over the supply of coffee, but eventually it was the Dutch who finally succeeded in stealing plants from Arabia and began to cultivate coffee in Java successfully.
The fiercely guarded monopoly of the Arabs was finally defeated. The Dutch carefully nurtured these stolen coffee plants in greenhouses setup in Amsterdam. By 1658, the Dutch transported the plants to their colonies in the East Indies where the cultivation of coffee began in Java and Sumatra. The plants thrived in this favorable climate, giving rise to coffee’s nickname “Java”.
The Dutch colonies became the main supplier of coffee to Europe with Amsterdam becoming the center of the coffee trade. In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented Louis X1V with a coffee plant from Java. The French King, who loved the taste of coffee, entrusted the care of the coffee plant to the royal court botanist. In a few short years, offshoots of the Java coffee plants (originally from Yemen) were on their way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Coffee Makes its Way to the New World
Credit for bringing coffee to the New World is attributed to Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a dashing young captain in the French navy. While on leave in Paris, he decided on whim to take a coffee plant back to Martinique where he was stationed. He obtained the seedlings illegally from the Royal Jardin de Plantes (the Royal Hothouse) and smuggled the plants aboard his ship.
Mired in controversy and intrigue, De Clieu eluded the French Court, but little did he know the hazards that lay ahead on this eventful journey. De Clieu and his seedlings managed to survive the trip, narrowly avoiding attack and capture by pirates and surviving the violent storms of the Atlantic. The fresh water supply aboard the ship became so scarce that rationing was required, but De Clieu, in his devotion, shared his water ration with the coffee seedlings.
Overcoming these obstacles and challenges, De Clieu planted his treasured coffee plants in the warm fertile soil of Martinique and stationed three of his men on permanent guard to insure that the plants would survive. His hardy seedling survived, and eventually multiplied to over 18 million coffee trees on the island. These coffee trees became the progeny of most of the coffee grown throughout the French Colonies.
A boundary dispute between the rival coffee producing countries of Dutch and French Guiana enabled Brazil to acquire a few of the highly coveted seedlings. A Portugese gentleman, Francisco de Melo Palheto, managed, by seducing the wife of the governor, to obtain and smuggle a few of the coffee plants out of the colony. She sent him the highly coveted green coffee seedlings skillfully disguised as a bouquet of flowers when he was visiting a neighboring country. Thus began one of the great coffee producing empires. Brazil is today one of the world’s leading coffee producers.
Coffee is introduced in America
Coffee was introduced to many of the countries in the new world and arrived in North America by way of the Dutch traders from New Amsterdam in 1660. Four years later, the British took possession of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. By this time, coffee had caught on among the inhabitants and had soon replaced beer at breakfast time as a more preferable drink to start off the day. Certainly to the benefit of the collective health of the new American nation!
The first coffee houses in New York were more like taverns. They had rooms for rent, served meals, sold ale and wine, hot chocolate and tea, as well as coffee. The English found the custom of drinking coffee more established by the wealthier classes with the less prosperous classes drinking tea. This all changed when in 1773 King George of England imposed a heavy tax on tea. The citizens of Boston, still incensed by the Stamp Act crisis of 1763, dressed as Indians, boarded the English ships lying in the harbor and emptied the entire cargo of tea into the water. This eventful historical event, known as the Boston Tea Party forever changed the fate of tea as the predominant beverage, and forged America’s undeniable bond with coffee. Coffee soon became the national beverage, a position stronger than ever today.
Today, the global coffee industry earns an estimated $60 billion annually. Coffee is grown in more than seventy countries, all situated in a narrow band between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where the climate is most suitable for growing coffee.