History of Coffee
Dec 16, 2019
Coffee is a staple in many American households. We fill cabinets with ceramic mugs, reserve coveted counter space for our coffee makers, and stare down floor-to-ceiling coffee displays in grocery stores — and for what? That perfect, warm cup of coffee.
American's aren't the only population hooked on coffee, either. It's a global phenomenon that touches countries in every populated continent. Though coffee is readily available almost anywhere, the journey from a coffee plant to a steaming cup of coffee requires a careful growing, drying, and roasting method.
With such an involved process, it's natural to wonder how coffee was discovered. Who had the idea to roast cherry-like fruit and brew the beans in water? It turns out the history of coffee was written by discovery, expansion, and an impressive host of historic coffee lovers.
A Brief History of Coffee
Though it's difficult to pin the origin of coffee to an exact date or year, several stories exist. Historians have not been able to verify the truth behind these common coffee origin stories, but they illustrate the extent of what we know about the first cup of coffee.
According to one of the oldest coffee trade organizations, the National Coffee Association, the coffee story may have begun on the Ethiopian plateau. The legend starts with an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. After Kaldi's goats ate the fruit from a specific tree, he noticed they were extra energetic and couldn't fall asleep at night. Kaldi reported his findings to a local monastery whose abbot made a drink with the berries to stay awake through extended evening prayers. In this account, the abbot shared his finding with other monks in the monastery and the news of the special bean spread.
A different account credits a Sufi mystic named Omar with the important discovery. According to this legend, while Omar was exiled from the city of Mocha, he found and ate some bitter-tasting berries. He roasted the bitter berries and discovered that they became hard in the fire. As a last resort, Omar tried boiling the roasted berries in water and discovered they created a fragrant brown liquid. When Omar drank the liquid, he was delighted with the energy it gave him. He returned to Mocha to share his discovery, and its widespread fame allowed him to come out of exile.
Historians can't corroborate either of these stories from ancient literature or findings. However, they can still analyze and discuss the rapid spread and influence coffee had throughout civilizations around the world.
Middle Eastern Spread
By the 15th century, the Arabian Peninsula was a hub for coffee production and trade. Its location offered an optimal climate and soil to cultivate coffee plants and convenient proximity to trade routes. As coffee production increased, early predecessors of the modern coffeehouse emerged.
Known as "qahveh khaneh," these public coffee businesses became commonplace in the Middle East and eastern Africa. Patrons gathered to drink coffee, in addition to other activities like socializing, watching music and dance performances, playing chess, and discussing recent news. These early coffeehouses quickly became known as "Schools of the Wise" for being channels of knowledge and places where citizens could learn more about what was happening in the world.
When Muslims from around the world made pilgrimage trips to Mecca each year, they witnessed the growing coffee and coffeehouse industry. These travelers brought tales of the drink back to their homes, and it wasn't long before coffee spread beyond the Middle East.
European travelers soon brought stories of coffee to the capitals of Italy, France, England, Portugal, Holland, and Germany. By the 17th century, the drink was becoming popular across Europe. Most Europeans sought coffee in local markets or stalls, but the upper class enjoyed luxurious coffeehouses.
Regardless of class, many Europeans regarded coffee with suspicion and religious prejudice. Given its Islamic roots, coffee was dubbed the "bitter invention of Satan" in some Catholic and Protestant circles. Clergymen in Venice condemned coffee and created such a stir that Pope Clement VIII was asked to weigh in. Stories say that when the pope tasted the coffee to make a decision, he enjoyed the drink so much that he awarded it papal approval.
Like the initial Middle Eastern coffeehouses, European coffeehouses soon became socialization and knowledge centers. Europeans dubbed them "penny universities" where patrons could enjoy both coffee and intellectual conversation for a penny. While coffee increased in popularity, it began to replace beer and wine as the most popular breakfast drink. Workers preferred the alertness and energy coffee provided, and their quality of work improved.
When Europeans ventured to the New World, they brought the wonders of coffee with them.
North American Spread
Coffee made its first appearance in North America in a city known as New Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. Like the Middle East and Europe, coffeehouses sprung up in abundance after coffee was introduced. However, tea reigned supreme as the most popular hot drink until one historical event.
In 1773, King George III instituted the Tea Act in the American colonies. This legislation sparked outrage of revolutionary proportions among colonists. On Dec. 16, 1773, colonists smashed open chests of tea and dumped them into the Boston Harbor. Though the Boston Tea Party participants knew their act of defiance would be historical, they probably didn't understand its impact on coffee's history. From that point on, coffee replaced tea as America's favorite drink.
While coffee grew in favor throughout the colonies, it also made its way to the Americas. A single seedling allowed coffee to spread throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Today, these areas stand as some as the most significant coffee producers in the Bean Belt.
From the Middle Eastern Plains to Homes around the World
Coffee has come a long way since its beginnings in the Middle East. It has made its way into countries around the globe and become the second-most traded commodity, second only to oil. More than 50 countries around the world grow coffee, and many more enjoy it.
In the 20th century, coffee continued its cultural influence when shops started in Seattle, WA brought on the advent of specialty coffee. Many cultures now enjoy the ubiquitous coffee shop with milk-based espresso drinks, drip coffee, and more. Though coffee shops are quickly spreading and growing, many individuals still enjoy their coffee from the comfort of their own home.
Interesting Facts about the History of Coffee
Like any world-traveler, coffee has garnered quite a few stories during its trek around the globe. Here are some interesting coffee facts to share with fellow coffee lovers:
1. The Term "Coffee" Has an Unclear Origin
Just as historians are uncertain about coffee's discovery, they're also not sure where the term "coffee" comes from. When tracing the English word back, they find coffee comes from the French word "café." The French term — along with the Italian "caffé," Dutch "koffie," and German "kaffee" — stems from the Turkish root "kahveh." The Turkish root for "kahveh" is the Arabic term "qahwa," which marks the end of historian's certainty.
There are a couple of theories about the origin of the Arabic "qahwa." The root of this word means "to make something distasteful." This root may seem nonsensical, considering coffee's wild popularity. However, the root appears in an Arabic term, referring to a stimulating drink that dulls the senses, like wine. One Arab account suggests that coffee's energizing effects gave it the title of a poor man's wine. This may explain how the distasteful definition came to be associated with coffee.
Another more anecdotal theory connects the word "qahwa" to the Arabic terms for power or strength. The story says that one day, a weak, poor man rested near a collection of trees and cut one down to use as firewood. As the wood burned, the man noticed its roasted berries had a pleasant aroma. He accidentally dropped some of the roasted berries into his water supply, and when he drank the water, his strength was renewed. The story says the coffee trees were then given a name with a root meaning "strength."
Though no one is sure how we arrived at the point of calling our favorite morning drink "coffee," that doesn't change the fact that coffee is delicious and here to stay.
2. Coffee May Have Been Around before Kaldi or Omar
Even though stories about coffee's discovery begin with Kaldi and Omar, coffee may have existed long before them. Written records make little mention of coffee-like beverages, but the prevalence of coffee plants across Africa suggests they were growing in the wild or being cultivated during early empires.
Given their conquests and trading, civilizations like ancient Egypt, Persia, Rome, and Greece could have come into contact with coffee plants. If they did, there is very little ancient literature to support it.
3. The First Coffee Ban Occurred in 1511
Coffee has been banned several times throughout history, but the first ban took place in Mecca in 1511. The chief of police put a restriction into place after noticing the heated political, social, and religious discussion that happened in the Meccan coffeehouses. He thought such discourse would lead to rebellion and health concerns, so he ordered coffeehouses to close.
As a coffee lover, the sultan of Cairo ordered the chief's edict to be softened. When the police chief was replaced after a year, coffee returned to the area — but not without controversy. Factions for and against coffee squabbled until the governor of Cairo invited high-ranking officials who opposed coffee to his home. After listening to their arguments against it, the governor made all the officials cups of coffee, and public peace was eventually restored.
After all the coffee hoopla, Cairo introduced a covenant to its marriage contract, saying a husband must provide his wife with an appropriate supply of coffee. If he didn't, his wife could use this action as a basis for filing for divorce. Whether coffee lovers or haters, it's clear these civilizations took their coffee seriously.
4. The Dutch Were the First to Try Growing Coffee outside Arabia
As coffee took off and spread, it became a desirable commodity. The Dutch were the first to attempt to cultivate coffee outside the Arabian Peninsula. After a failed attempt in India, the Dutch succeeded on the island of Java.
The Dutch coffee influence spread when the mayor of Amsterdam presented a coffee plant to the French king in 1714. When a naval officer carried a seed from that plant to the island of Martinique, the seedling grew perfectly in the warm climate. Remarkably, that one seed from a Dutch plant served as the single ancestor to millions of coffee trees on Martinique and throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
Coffee History FAQs
Here are some of the most common questions about the history of coffee and their answers:
When Was Coffee Invented?
It's difficult to pinpoint how long coffee has been around. Though historians aren't sure about coffee's exact origin, they can date the legend of Kaldi back to the ninth century. Even with early stories about discovering coffee, there is no written record of its existence until the 15th century.
Who Invented Coffee?
No one is certain. The invention of coffee wasn't like normal inventions. Unlike Gutenberg's printing press or Edison's light bulb, we have no evidence that coffee was intentionally developed as a product. Most stories about its first appearance involve an individual stumbling upon the energizing effects of the coffee cherries and somehow arriving at their most pleasing form as a brewed drink.
Who Made Coffee Popular?
Coffee drinkers all around the world make is popular. As coffee spread from the Middle East to Europe to North America and beyond, avid consumers fueled its popularity. Early coffeehouses also added to coffee's popularity. Not only could patrons buy coffee in coffeehouses, but they could also hear current news and knowledge.
Where Did Coffee Originate?
Coffee most likely came from the Ethiopian mountains.
When Did Coffee Come to America?
Coffee reached America in the mid-17th century. Though coffeehouses sprung up soon after its arrival, coffee didn't catch on as a popular drink until after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
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