The history of coffee is alive with intrigue, adventure and a wealth of fun facts. We can trace the origins of coffee back to Africa, and the fertile highlands of southwestern Ethiopia.
There are few records documenting the early days of coffee history. Legend has it that a goatherd named Kaldi, curious about the unusual friskiness of his goats, tried some of the bright red berries they were eating. He was infused with energy, and shared his discovery with local monks. It’s said that the monks used the berries to stay awake during all-night prayers. Many coffee shops have since been named in honor of Kaldi the goatherd.
Whether or not the legend is true, we do know that coffee grew wild in Ethiopia. It was used as a food long before it became a popular beverage. Around 800 AD, the nomadic Galla tribe of Ethiopia ground coffee cherries and seeds and mixed them with ghee, or animal fat, to produce high-energy snack bars. In some areas, Ethiopian people still prepare and eat the bars today.
The first recorded reference to coffee comes from a physician, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (850-922), in his treatise on medicine. The early Ethiopians did business with Arab traders, and by 1000 AD, coffee plants had appeared on the Arabian Peninsula.
Coffee soon made the transition from food to beverage. One Arabian legend tells of Omar the Dervish, who was banished to the desert outside the port of Mocha in Yemen. Omar was expected to die of starvation, but he found some wild coffee plants. He tried to eat the fruit and its seeds. Finding the seeds too hard, he boiled them, and drank the hot fluid. He felt healthier, and filled with energy.
Yemen played a pivitol role in the birth of the coffee and is still grown in the region today
Omar had not wandered too far from civilization, and word of the potent drink soon reached Mocha. Pilgrims came to see him, and partake of the magical beverage. Soon, Omar returned to Mocha as a respected holy man.
Since the Muslim religion doesn’t allow alcohol, coffee became an acceptable substitute. By the thirteenth century, coffee-drinking became widespread in religious ceremonies, especially among the Sufis of Yemen, whose rites included all-night prayer.
Coffee also became a popular part of secular life. Coffee was brewed by boiling the ground or powdered beans with water, sometimes with sugar added, and served thick and unfiltered.
Pilgrims to Mecca brought word of the wonderful beverage back to their homelands, but the Arabs guarded their coffee secrets fiercely, and wouldn’t allow a plant or fertile bean to leave the country. They parched or boiled the beans before trading, to ensure that coffee production remained 100% Arabian.
But, trouble was brewing. Next door to the Arabs, the Ottoman Turks were busy conquering the known world. Trade between Mocha and Constantinople (Istanbul) ensured that the Turks got a whiff of the Arabs’ strange beverage. By the latter part of the 15th century, the use of coffee had spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. As the Turks expanded their empire, they brought coffee with them.
In 1475, the world’s first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in Constantinople. At the time, a Turkish woman could divorce her husband if he didn’t provide her with enough coffee. The Turks were under pressure to import more of the fragrant beans. They looked to Arabia, and decided to acquire the means of production.
Meanwhile in Arabia, the corrupt governor of Mecca heard talk against him in the coffee houses, and outlawed coffee in 1511. When word reached the Sultan at Cairo, the royal gentleman was outraged. Coffee was touted by the brilliant minds of Cairo as a medicinal beverage, and the Sultan himself was a coffee lover. He immediately overruled the governor and had him executed.
In 1538, the Ottoman Turks moved in on Yemen, capturing the port of Mocha and the surrounding Arab lands. They could now grow coffee themselves. The Turks stepped up production and trade, and the Middle Eastern coffee industry boomed.
At the same time in Europe, travelers, merchants and pilgrims continued to spread the word.
In 1570 Italy, Venice became the first city in Europe to get a taste of coffee, when a merchant brought beans from the east. An Italian physician, writing from Constantinople in 1583, described the abundance of Middle Eastern coffee houses, where people would meet for talk, chess or even dancing. Towards the turn of the century, a botanist named Prospero Alpino brought sacks of coffee beans back to Italy.
That’s when the trouble really started.
At first coffee was expensive, and sold only in chemists’ shops. Its popularity soon spread, however, and increased trade brought enough coffee into Venice to lower the price, so that even the poor could afford it.
If not for Pope Clements sanctioning of coffee, it may have never become a staple in the western world
Controversy arose. The pious decried this evil black brew of the Muslims, claiming it was Satan’s substitute for alcohol in the Muslim religion. In 1600, Pope Clement VIII personally intervened. He tried the beverage, and found it good. The Pope declared that he would cheat Satan by baptizing the drink. With his blessing, Christians everywhere could enjoy a cup.
The Turks guarded the secrets of the bean as jealously as the Arabs had, but it was a losing battle. In the early 1600s, a pilgrim to Mecca smuggled fertile beans back to India. India began to grow coffee, in small amounts.
A few years later, in 1616, a Dutch sea captain pirated several coffee plants from Yemen, and whisked them off to Holland. At the time, the Dutch owned an island in Indonesia, called Java. Before long, they were cultivating coffee, and began to establish plantations throughout Indonesia.
Murad IV was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1623 to 1640
Meanwhile, Constantinople had another coffee crisis. In 1633, Murad IV had taken the reins of power from the previous Sultan, his uncle, Mad Mustafa. Insanity ran in Murad’s family. He was jealous, paranoid and violent. He shut down the coffee houses, knowing that the patrons were speaking against him, and ordered a cudgeling for anyone caught drinking coffee. On the second offense, the coffee drinker was sewn into a leather bag, and dumped in the river.
At the height of his madness, Murad stalked the streets in civilian clothes, executing anyone who unwittingly offended him, or who might take a peek at his harem. Although he had also banned alcohol, Murad drank heavily. He died at the age of twenty-seven, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Of Politics and Debauchery
Back in Europe, coffee was all the rage. A Turkish man opened the first English coffee house in Oxford in 1632. Twenty years later, the first coffee house opened in London. At first, coffee houses were run by immigrant Turks or Greeks, but English entrepreneurs quickly seized the opportunity. Like the Salons of Paris, many coffee houses were run by women.
Patrons paid a penny admission, which included the price of a coffee and an unsurpassed social and networking scene. Coffee houses offered shipping news and updates, as well as newspapers and pamphlets. They were known as Penny Universities, since patrons claimed one could learn more in the coffee house than in the lecture halls. Runners went from one to another, bringing the latest news, politics and gossip.
An illustration of an 18th century Penny University
Coffee houses hosted lively discussion groups, and even society meetings. English coffee houses allowed anyone entry, as long as the patron had a penny. However, each coffee house catered to a different type of clientle. Houses ranged from the elegant, to the downright tawdry.
Moll’s Coffee House in London was notorious as a den of debauchery. The clientle ranged from prostitutes and pimps, to celebrities such as Sir Walter Raleigh. Even the King of England once visited Moll’s, but didn’t stay long. A rowdy patron, not recognizing him, challenged him to a fight, whereupon the king quickly left.
Another London coffee house, Lloyd’s, catered to ship owners, merchants and insurance men. Lloyd’s Coffee House on Lombard Street grew into Lloyd’s of London. The London Stock Exchange also got its start as a coffee house.
Coffee houses in England were primarily patronized by men. Women of aristocracy sometimes attended society meetings in certain coffee houses, and prostitutes frequented the shabbier places. The average moral English woman, however, kept her nose out of the coffee shop. Many women weren’t interested in news and politics, and even if they were, custom frowned upon a woman speaking or reading in public.
In Germany, the story was different. Women frequented coffee shops regularly, and took an active part in discussion and politics, or met for society and gossip.
In England, women protested that coffee made their men sterile, and tried to ban coffee shops in 1674. A later movement in Germany claimed that coffee made women infertile.
In 1683, a radical change in coffee-drinking occurred, with the invention of cappuccino. The Ottoman Turks had steadily pushed the boundaries of their empire, and were at the gates of Vienna, Austria. Their defeat at the 1683 Battle of Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire.
When the Turks retreated, they left sacks of coffee. The coffee became property of Franz George Kolschitzky, who opened a coffee shop. The Viennese found the coffee too bitter, so he sweetened it with cream and honey. Kolschitzky named his concoction cappuccino, after the color of the robes of Capuchin monks. Sweet, creamy coffee began to catch on in Europe.
Meanwhile, the industrious Dutch were cultivating coffee in Indonesia, and by 1696 had plantations in Java, Timor, Sumantra, Ceylon and Cerebes. The Mayor of Amsterdam generously gave gifts of coffee plants to worthy aristocrats.
One of these, in 1714, was King Louis XIV of France. Louis planted his coffee tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris.
The New World
A few years later, a young naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu was in Paris on leave from Martinique, in the Caribbean. De Clieu had seen the Isle of Java, and imagined Martinique as a French coffee plantation. De Clieu asked for a cutting of the coffee tree, but was refused. He broke into the garden’s hothouse, and liberated a young coffee plant.
Gabriel DeClieu watering his famous coffee tree
His trip back to Martinique was a nightmare. A jealous passenger tried to take the plant, and ripped off some branches. Pirates attacked and chased down the ship, and the vessel barely escaped. Then, a storm struck, and boat almost capsized.
After the storm, the weather grew deadly calm. Water was in short supply, and de Clieu shared his meager ration with the withered coffee plant. Finally, he arrived in Martinique. Under armed guard, the little plant grew. Eventually, over eighteen million coffee trees would flourish in Martinique. Production soon expanded to French Guiana, on the northern coast of South America.
In 1727, the government of Brazil cast an eye on coffee production, and decided to take part in this prosperous endeavor. However, the French coffee plantations were like fortresses. Attack was out of the question. The job of bringing coffee to Brazil was placed on the shoulders of Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta.
The Lieutenant visited French Guiana, with the excuse of settling a border dispute between the French and the neighboring Dutch. While there, he realized he would never get into the coffee plantations. He romanced the governor’s wife instead. On his departure, she gave him a bouquet of flowers, containing cuttings and seeds of coffee plants. Brazil was in business.
By the 1800′s, Brazil had become the largest producer of coffee in the world.
Back in Germany, anti-coffee fervor had peaked by the 1730′s. Besides making women sterile, coffee apparently led to debauchery, disrupted families, was a burden on health care, and corrupted the youth. Artists and activists responded with political protests and biting satire.
In 1732, the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his famous satirical work, the Kaffee-Kantate (Coffee Cantata), in which a father tries to convince his headstrong teenage daughter to give up coffee. She declares that without coffee, she will dry up like a roasted goat. “Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!” she cries. “I must have my coffee!”
While Europe and Middle East savored the bean, the coffee craze didn’t catch on in colonial America until the late 1700′s. Beer was the beverage of choice for breakfast. Tea was favored over coffee until 1773, when King George levied an enormous tea tax. The tax led to public uproar. Plans for the Boston Tea Party were laid at the Green Dragon Coffee House, which still exists in Boston today.
Fed up with British taxes, American protestors disguised themselves as native “Red Indians”, and dumped shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor. Coffee-drinking became a patriotic act in America.
The Coffee Revolution
By the 1800′s, coffee had replaced beer as the popular breakfast drink.
In nineteenth century Europe, the the Industrial Revolution was on the horizon. Credible historians claim that the switch from beer to coffee as a daily staple was responsible for an increase in productivity, partly leading to the industrial revolution. New technology and inventions began to appear, and coffee drinkers found ways to make the hot drink even better.
In 1822, a French inventor created the first espresso machine. On December 26, 1865, James Mason invented the first coffee percolator.
The Industrial Revolution was in full swing as the twentieth century dawned in Europe. In Germany, a housewife modernized coffee consumption when she used her son’s blotting paper from school, to make a device to filter out coffee grains. Melitta Bentz cut the paper into a circle, and put it in a tin cup. She began attending trade shows with her new product. Melitta patented her filter in 1908, founding a company that would expand and prosper for over a century.
The first instant coffee appeared in 1901, invented by Japanese-American chemist, Satori Kato, in Chicago. Just add water and stir! The idea caught on when an English chemist, living in Guatemala, created the first instant coffee that could be mass-produced. After many experiments, Red E Coffee hit the market in 1909.
The Modern Age
In 1918, the U. S. Army requisitioned all Red E Coffee for troops fighting World War I.
Two years later, the 1920 Prohibition tried to ban alcohol. Coffee and coffee houses became even more popular. While the Prohibition ended in 1933, the love of coffee did not.
Just before World War II, a company called Nestle introduced the first freeze-dried instant coffee, Nescafe, in 1938. Every soldier received a ration of instant coffee. Coffee became the official drink of the U.S. Navy, thanks to the Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels.
Daniels, a tee-totaler, was appalled at the drunken behavior of sailors on military vessels. He swept the Navy with reforms. He banished alcohol on ships, ordered crews to drink coffee instead, and even abolished the Officers’ Wine Mess, so no one had the privilege of indulgence. Sailors called coffee a “cuppa Joe”, after Josephus Daniels.
Despite the initial outcry, coffee soon became so popular that captains feared to leave port without it. Unofficial “coffee messes” sprang up on every ship. A coffee mess might be no more than a coffee pot and electric burner, but became a gathering place for men to kick back and enjoy a hot cuppa Joe. A World War II battleship could have up to 2,000 unauthorized coffee messes on board.
So intense was the demand that the US Navy established coffee roasting plants on both coasts of America, and in Hawaii, to ensure that American sailors never ran out of coffee.
Over the centuries, coffee has evolved from a few wild berries on the Ethiopian slopes, to a vast worldwide culture. Modern research has found that coffee is indeed medicinal, as the ancient Arabs claimed. Its health benefits range from a mild headache cure, to a dramatic reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s and some cancers.
Despite crippling frosts in 1975, Brazil is still the world’s largest producer of coffee. Columbia, the second largest, is cautious about its major export. Any vehicles crossing the Columbian border must be sprayed down, to prevent harmful bacteria from entering the country.
Vietnam first grew coffee back in the 1860′s, but production was negligible until the 1990′s. Today Vietnam places among the top five of the world’s coffee producers, after Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica and Indonesia, and followed by Mexico.
Today, coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world, surpassed only by oil. Coffee ceremonies are still an important part of Ethiopian and Middle Eastern culture, and people everywhere look forward to a break in the hectic day, with a delicious cup of coffee.