The History of Coffee – A Global and Chequered Journey

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The humble coffee bean has gone on a varied and chequered journey to become the globally loved beverage it is today. From ancient myths in Ethiopia to the dark stain of colonial abuse, the history of coffee is a fascinating and diverse story.

King Louis XV of France once reportedly asked, ‘What would life be without coffee?’ And now, well over 200 years later, many continue to ask the same question. 

This once rare drink is now loved and cherished all over the global community. It is estimated that a staggering 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day on a worldwide scale. Further, coffee beans are the second-largest traded commodity globally, second only to oil! 

So what is the history of coffee? 

Ancient Days in Ethiopia 

The simple truth is that the initial origin of coffee is shrouded in mystery. However, there is a general consensus among historians that the earliest history of the humble coffee bean can be traced back to the Ethiopian plateau or the land of Abyssinia as it was known in those days.

There are many myths and legends about how coffee first transitioned from a wild plant to a consumable product. The most popular and delightful of these is the legend of Kaldi, the goat farmer. 

According to legend, a young boy named Kaldi was looking after his goats one day, and he called for them on his pipe, but none answered or returned. So mystified, Kaldi climbed and searched, wondering where they could be. Finally, he heard the sound of bleating and, turning a corner, saw his goats acting erratically and almost dancing in a sort of hysteria. 

After initially putting it down to witchcraft, he noticed that the goats were all eating the red berries of a tree he didn’t recognize. So he took some of the fruit and brought it to the local abbot of the nearby monastery. 

Kaldi Goats discover coffee

Here the myths diverge; the most enjoyable one, however, has the abbot pronouncing the fruit as satanic and casting them into a fire, after which they cast off a delightful aroma, and coffee was discovered. 

Most likely, at least parts of this are anecdotal and have been elaborated over time. Most accounts date Kaldi to 850CE, while the first recognized written account appeared in 1671CE. So the simple reality is we don’t know exactly how or when coffee beans were first consumed among humans. But we do know it was most likely among the ancient nomadic tribes of Ethiopia. 

At least by the 1400s, it was known in Ethiopia that the seeds of this fruit could be roasted and produce an enjoyable beverage. It was from here that the history of coffee really took off. And its next destination … Yemen.

Coffee Spreads Through the Arabian World

Once the Ethiopians discovered the good stuff, it was only a matter of time until it spread. One way or another, the coffee plant spread to the Arab world and particularly the Yemeni district of Arabia. It was in Yemeni that coffee plantations and mass production first took off. One way or another, the Arabs took with great vigor to this stimulating drink (who can blame them!?).

To start with, it was mainly employed by Sufi monks and the wealthy and privileged. The monks used the caffeine to help them stay awake and alert for midnight prayers. It was used as a medicinal aid among the rich and was thought to help cure the body. 

From these rather interesting origins, it quickly spread to the common masses. By the end of the 1400s, Muslim pilgrims had introduced coffee throughout the Islamic world as far as Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa. 

It was around this time that coffee houses began to spring up. These coffee houses were called Kaveh Kanes and quickly appeared in most major centers in the Near East. The benefit was not merely the enjoyable flavor but instead the intellectual stimulant and social benefit. These coffee houses became places of social activity and ritual. In fact, they became so crucial for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as the ‘Schools of the Wise.’   

A rather amusing ramification of this growing importance of coffee was that coffee was, in fact, banned in Mecca in 1511 as the governor was concerned that it might unite his opposition. This turned out to be merely the first of many such bans in the global history of coffee. 

In the year 1536, the Ottoman Turks invaded and occupied Yemen. Soon after, coffee became a vital export throughout the diverse Turkish empire. Most of the coffee was shipped through the Yemeni port of Mocha, which is interestingly where we get the term from today. 

However, because coffee was such a valuable commodity, the Turks were very careful in guarding their monopoly over these coffee plants. No fertile beans were allowed to leave the country without first being steeped in boiling water or roasted to prevent possible germination. 

Turkish coffee

However, of course, some eventually slipped through. In the late 1600s, an Indian Pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled some seeds out of Yemen by reportedly taping them to his stomach. From there, he brought them back to Southern India and cultivated them there. 

Unsurprisingly, the Dutch East India Company also got their hands on some of these precious plants. After failing to grow these plants in Holland (due to the cold temperature), they brought them in the late 1600s to the island of Java in Indonesia, where their growth took off (which is why we also use the term Java for coffee). Cultivation spread to Sumatra, Celebes, Timor, Bali, and other East Indies islands. In fact, for a long time, the Dutch East Indies effectively determined the world price of coffee.

From this point on, Christian missionaries, colonists, travelers, and traders facilitated the spread of the coffee seed to various further countries where coffee plantations were subsequently established. Whole new nations were established on the global demand for coffee, and fortunes were made and lost. 

So while up to the end of the 17th century, coffee was exclusively sourced from Yemen; after this, it spread rapidly, particularly among the colonies. 

The Dark Stain of Slavery

Unfortunately, this rapid propagation of coffee plantations in colonies went hand in hand with the dark stain of slavery and exploitation. Many slaves had been brought to the Caribbean to harvest sugarcane, the sweetener that was regularly used to make the bitter coffee palatable. 

So the coffee coming out of Haiti and especially San Domingo was the result of the back-breaking labor of African slaves and coerced laborers. San Domingo, in particular, came to provide an astounding half of the world’s coffee by 1788. On this Island, the slaves were kept in appalling conditions. They lived in rough huts, were underfed, overworked, and cruelly abused by their western overseers. 

As such, it should not surprise us that it was on one of these coffee plantations that the slaves revolted in 1791. This was reportedly the only major successful slave revolt in history. Plantations were burnt to the ground, and the owners killed. 

So while coffee has a fascinating history and has become a cherished staple in many homes, we must never forget the cost and the suffering that coffee consumption brought to far too many lives. 

The Proliferation of Coffee in Europe

It wasn’t long until European travelers began to bring home stories of this dark and bitter beverage. Before long, the drinking of this exotic beverage spread to Europe and brought a host of coffee houses in its wake. 

Italy

Coffee was passing through the streets of Venice from the early 1600s, and the first coffee house opened here in 1645. By the 1650s, coffee was sold on Italian streets by aquacedratajo, who were like lemonade vendors. These vendors sold coffee, chocolate, and liquor. 

Initially, most of the criticism and suspicion of this new drink stemmed from the clergy. Within Italy, the clergy initially labeled coffee “the bitter invention of Satan” and sought to ban it. 

There is a possibly anecdotal story that the controversy grew so great that Pope Clement VII had to intervene. After tasting the ‘satanic’ brew, he reportedly announced, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.” With this papal blessing, coffee houses sprang up all over Europe.

England

Coffee seems to have been rooted in British soil in Oxford when a Jew opened the first coffee house in 1650. Within a short matter of time, there were over 300 coffee houses in London and 2000 by 1700. These coffee houses were the places of innovation and intellectual discussion.

Even the auspicious Royal Society grew out of the Oxford Coffee Club. Within England, coffee came to replace beer as the standard breakfast beverage. In fact, it was often joked that the arrival of coffee led to the sobering of Europe. 

Coffee houses quickly established themselves as places of influence and places where stimulating discussions were had around politics and religion. These coffee houses were often dubbed ‘penny universities’ because, for a penny, you could get a cup of coffee and be educated by the discussion. 

However, while men quickly took to this new brew, the women of Britain were less enthused. These coffee houses became the go-to place for married men but were strictly male-only. Wives were less than impressed that their husbands were increasingly absent drinking coffee and discussing theology. 

And so, in 1674, The Women’s Petition Against Coffee was put together. In it, they complained of “the excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee.” In the petition, it was declared that coffee causes impotence and general physical degeneration. 

Similarly, in 1675 King Charles II put out A Proclamation of the Suppression of Coffee Houses. He contended that these social gatherings had led to growing idleness and laziness, and more seriously, had been places of sedition where the Monarchy was gossiped about, and false reports spread. Almost as soon as the announcement went up, decreeing the impending closure of all coffee houses, London rose up in protest. There were fears the Monarchy might be overthrown, and the proclamation was withdrawn within ten days. 

It was only in the 1700s that Britain switched to tea. Poor souls. 

France 

While the French were a little late to the party, they also took to coffee with great passion. Coffee houses soon sprang up in Paris and attracted names such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. It was in these coffee houses that the sparks of dissent first flickered, which grew into the inferno of the French Revolution. 

As French historian Michelet put it, the advent of coffee was “The auspicious revolution of the times, the great event which created new customs, and even modified human temperament.” 

Amusingly, there also grew a trend of coffee fortune tellers who would predict your future based on coffee grounds. So if you ever have any old grounds lying around …

However, the case of France and America later shows the truth of coffee historian William Ukers’s claim that “Wherever it has been introduced, coffee has spelled revolution. It has been the world’s most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people began to think, they became dangerous to tyrants.”

History of coffee

Patriotic Coffee Drinking in America 

Coffee has held a long and vital place in American history. Coffee plants first reached the shores of this new colony in the early 1700s. While coffee drinking usually spreads due to flavor, it spread due to patriotism in America.

As we mentioned earlier, by the 1700’s tea had become the preferred British drink of choice. Tea leaves were provided by the British East India Company. England wanted to raise money through the taxation of tea and other exports. This was vigorously opposed in the new world, and the British Parliament ended up dropping all the taxes – except on tea. 

This prompted the infamous Boston Tea Party incident in 1773. In this incident, the British East India Company had sent a large tea export to the Americas. American Colonists responded by attacking the merchant ships in the Boston harbor and throwing the tea leaves into the sea. From this moment on, it became unpatriotic to drink tea in America.

John Adams reportedly wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced, and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.” From this time on, coffee was widely embraced in the colonies and was soon being imported from their own hemisphere. 

The Development of Modern Coffee 

While this is where we leave the history of coffee, this final section is a reminder that coffee has come a long way since coffee houses of ferment and revolution. 

In America, many of the developments arose that led to coffee as we know it. In 1900 a company named Hill Bros. invented and implemented packing coffee into vacuum-sealed cans. This meant that individuals no longer needed to roast their own coffee but could have coffee’ on-demand.’ 

It used to be thought that instant coffee was designed by Satori Kato in Japan; however, this is now credited to David Strang in New Zealand (for better or for worse). 

There are several claimants for the first modern espresso machine, and we have patent files for espresso machines dating from 1884. The great leap forward for espresso would come in the mid-1900s with the use of a large spring to produce higher pressures by Achille Gaggia. This produced espresso as we know it with the thin layer of crema. 

The other significant stream that has shaped coffee as we experience it today and ironically the specialty coffee movement was the birth and spread of Starbucks. Starbucks started as a small company that roasted and sold coffee beans in Seattle. However, under Howard Schultz, it was transformed into the global chain and entity we know today. Schultz sought to emulate an Italian coffee experience for America. Regardless of what you think of them today, it was Starbucks that paved the way for coffee as we know it and raised the expectations of what a cup of coffee could be. 

Coffee drinking has evolved from simple morning stimulation into an expression of self, an expression of values or of conscious consumption. Coffee drinking is now woven into a myriad of different cultures around the world.

James Hoffman
Coffee beans

The History of Coffee

Well, I hope you have found this journey interesting and informative. Coffee, as we know and drink and brew it today, has come on a long path from the dancing goats in Ethiopia to the approval of the Pope and the fermenting of revolutions. 

It is a history that is global, chequered, and ongoing. We honor the past by learning from it. Coffee has been both a blessing and a curse to history. And our role is to make sure that it continues to be a blessing as we walk into the future. 

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