History Of Coffee
As a planet, we drink around two billion cups of coffee every day, making it the most popular drink in the world by quite some margin. It is delicious, it delivers a nice pick me up, and it has various health benefits, ranging from lowering risk levels from certain chronic diseases, to improving mood and energy levels, to boosting fat loss during a caloric deficit.
However, we take it for granted. We reach blindly for the coffee pot, blunder into coffee shops, and order it unthinkingly after dinner. But it actually has a very interesting backstory that is worth telling from time to time.
Coffee has quite the resumé. It is a globe-trotting commodity that has been smuggled, stolen, outlawed and lauded. It has shaped nations and economies and powered much of the world’s commerce (and manpower) for decades.
All this from a nondescript little bean from a clutch of small trees in Ethiopia.
In the Beginning
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This story should start where all good stories start – at the beginning.
History can date coffee’s story back to around 850 CE. Legend and supposition can trace it back much farther, with various stories circling around its earlier usage. Evidence points to the Kingdom of Sheba, in modern day Ethiopia and Yemen, as its birthplace.
This certainly makes sense linguistically. The Arabic word for coffee, ‘qahua’, is rooted in Ethiopian tradition.
If we leave the business of history aside for the moment, and delve instead into folklore and legend, we come to a few different stories concerning coffee’s discovery. One of the most popular, most enduring stories concerns a humble goat herder named Kaldi, who lived on the Ethiopian plateau.
According to the stories, Kaldi noticed that his goats would behave strangely after eating the berries from a certain tree. They would grow energetic and frisky. They would refuse to go to sleep at night.
These berries, of course, were coffee beans.
Kaldi reported what he had seen to the local monastery. The abbot promptly picked some of the berries and used them to make a strong, bitter drink. It was wonderful. He found that it could keep him awake and alert through long hours of prayer, all through the evening. Soon enough, the other monks were in on the action, picking the berries and making their energising new drink.
Word began to spread. It came to the Arabian Peninsula.
How Coffee Spread Worldwide
There is evidence that chimes with parts of this story. Coffee was known of and drunk in the early fifteenth century in Sufi monasteries in Yemen, then still known as Sheba. From here, it likely spread to Mecca and Medina. By the 15th century, coffee was being grown regularly throughout the Yemeni district of Arabia. A century later, it had made its way through the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Persia, and even as far as India.
Coffee was drunk both in homes and in a new breed of public venue – coffee houses, called qahveh khaneh. These coffee houses began to appear in cities across the Near East, enjoying unrivalled popularity that endures to this day. Patrons would enjoy their qahveh, listen to music, talk, debate, dance, played chess and watch performances by local artists.
After lounging awhile in North Africa, coffee made its way to Europe, helped in part by the Moorish invasion of parts of the Western Roman Empire and the cultural cross-pollination that followed. It spread upwards through Italy and the Balkans to come to the rest of Europe, despite being at times banned by religious bodies – notably Muslim leaders in Mecca and Cairo, and the Catholic Church in Western Europe.
It has since been planted all over the world, flourishing in equatorial regions from Java to Columbia, East to West.
Coffee in Europe
European travellers and pilgrims to Mecca who returned from the Middle East brought with them stories of the ‘wine of Araby’, an unusual, bitter, black drink that stimulated the senses and kept the drinker alert for hours.
It first came to Malta in the sixteenth century, introduced there by Turkish slaves sold by the Knights of St John in 1565 – the year of the great siege of Malta. By the seventeenth century, Europe was hooked. Importers thrived and coffee houses began to spring up throughout the West.
All was not plain sailing, of course. It rarely is. As mentioned above, the Catholic Church had cause to outlaw it at times. People referred to it as the devil’s work. Local clergymen condemned it when it arrived in Venice in 1615.
However, Pope Clement VIII intervened. He tasted it. He liked it. He granted it papal approval.
The Republic of Venice eventually grew wealthy on coffee. Theirs was a common port of call for traders from North Africa, Egypt and the Near and Middle East. Venetian merchants brought coffee to the wealthy, great and good of their scity. From here, the rest of Europe beckoned.
As in the East, coffee houses in Europe soon became centres of cities’ social lives. They played major parts in the cultural lives of residents of England, Austria, Holland, France and Germany, with reputations for engaging conversation and great arts patronage. These coffeehouses played important roles during the Enlightenment, as they became used as talking shops for religious and political discourse, especially in England. In fact, they became so subversive that Charles II tried to stamp coffee houses out – luckily, futilely so, as it would turn out.
Later on, in the mid-twentieth century, the famous cafes of the Parisian Left Bank would be used in the same way, as existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus flocked to them to write, argue and debate.
The Seeds of Modern Coffee Culture
The Levant Company were largely responsible for the spread of coffee into the UK, no later than the sixteenth century. London played host to the first coffee house in England, in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, opened by the servant of one of the country’s foremost traders in Turkish goods.
Both the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company brought coffee to London through the seventeenth century, and by 1675 there were over 3,000 coffeehouses spread throughout England.
Coffee has often been credited with having medicinal value – which has been largely borne out by much modern research. However, it was often misunderstood. For example, in England, it was at times prescribed for treating nervous disorders. Anyone who has had too many cups during exam season will tell you that caffeine jitters are far from soothing! It was also credited with rebalancing the humours – cleansing the stomach of phlegm, expelling fumes and giddiness from the head, and so forth.
Luckily, modern science is slightly more precise, and a lot nearer the mark.
During this period, unsafe drinking water meant that beer and wine were often drunk throughout the day – including at breakfast time. Unsurprisingly, those who drank coffee instead of alcohol found themselves alert, awake and far more productive. It took on, and thus the pre-work coffee was born.
Arabia couldn’t keep up with demand, nor were other territories shy of muscling in on such a profitable industry. Dutch traders managed to get their hands on seedlings in the late seventeenth century. They failed to grow them in India, but their next attempt, in Java, modern day Indonesia, was a success. Java has been associated with coffee ever since. Soon, the Dutch expanded across Sumatra and Celebes.
Coffee came to the New World in the mid-seventeenth century, arriving at New Amsterdam (modern day New York). Though tea was favoured amongst New Worlders for a century after coffee’s first foray across the pond, political events would change American’s taste in drinks forever. In 1773, colonists revolted against George III’s heavy tax on tea imports. The Boston Tea Party occurred, they threw tea into the sea, and settled for coffee instead.
In 1723, a young French naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu managed to get a seedling from King Louis XIV’s own plantation in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. He brought it to the Carribean, to Martinique. The following fifty years would see the spread of nearly twenty million coffee trees throughout the island, all from the same seedling. This seedling was indeed prodigious – it is thought that all of the coffee trees that eventually spread throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America are from this one single source! Now, the region is famous for its coffee, with Colombia and Brazil being frontrunners in global production.
By the end of the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most popular drinks and, as a result, one of its most profitable export crops. In fact, coffee is the most prized commodity in the world after crude oil.
Today, we owe our coffee culture broadly to many sources, though a few stand out – notably, Italian, Austrian and American coffee culture.
The nineties and noughties saw the proliferation of Starbucks all over the world, reinvigorating the British taste for it. What started as a small, independent movement grew into one of the largest, most powerful, most culturally ubiquitous business going, with their shops on every high street going.
At the same time, Austrian and Italian coffee houses offered a more refined, genteel version for consumers. Their delicate cakes and pastries, their espressos and lightly foamed milk, their pleasant, quiet atmospheres made their way into the UK and influenced many smaller scale places.
This has also been spun out into thousands of independent places, in hipster neighbourhoods from Brooklyn to Glasgow, Austin to Brighton. Now, if you live in a large, Western city, you are likely never far from a man bun, a good beard and an artisan roast coffee, made exactly how you like it.
This account is, of course, brief – I have had to miss out a lot. There are far more influences than Italy, Austria and America – Belgian, French and Turkish coffee culture play their parts, to name but a few. There were many more road bumps and controversies involved in coffee’s history, from its early links with slavery to the exclusion of women from many coffee houses.
However, these are the broad strokes. This is the story of how we came to demand out lattes and cappuccinos on our daily walks to the office, how we came to enjoy brunches over macchiatos.
It isn’t quite what Kaldi would recognise. It is a far cry from first millennia Yemen. But it is coffee, it is the lifeblood of the modern workforce – it is often, quite literally, what gets us all up in the morning.