My Quest to Learn About the History of Coffee

With a camera in one hand and a book (or a coffee) in the other, I always find enticing byways—such as Luang Prabang.

Our weekend retreat (c) A.Harrison

Our weekend retreat (c) A.Harrison

The Morning Brew

Where and when coffee drinking began remains debatable. Trading letters from the 10th century AD mention farmers cultivating native beans in the lush Ethiopian highlands, yet the legend begins earlier. In the 9th century, a goat-herder, Kaldi, followed the example of his skittish goats and nibbled on the plant’s red berries. He brought some to a local monastery, where a disapproving monk threw the branches into a fire. As the smell of roasting coffee wafted through the monastery, other monks raked the beans from the embers, ground them up and dissolved them in hot water, thus yielding the world's first cup of coffee.

I cannot help but wonder how that first coffee tasted, compared to our modern brew. Drinking coffee has permeated the most unusual places. Even in my weekend retreat, set amongst acres of Australian bush and free of telephone and television (and the dubious power connections often taken out by a passing kangaroo), I have an espresso machine. Flavoured by the mineral-laden bore water, the taste is quite unique.

The emerald waters of Halong Bay (c) A.Harrison

The emerald waters of Halong Bay (c) A.Harrison

The pace of life in Halong Markets (c) A. Harrison

The pace of life in Halong Markets (c) A. Harrison

Coffee in Halong Bay

By contrast, the waters of Halong Bay are famous for the thousands of limestone peaks rising from her turquoise waters. Turning my back to the bay and the chaos of tourist touts, I chose instead to venture uphill into that part of town somehow forgotten by UNESCO's World Heritage Listing. After some twenty minutes of walking, I discovered the local markets, a huge collection of stalls where anything and everything was for sale.

A large covered area served as a food hall – large enough, it seemed, to feed the whole town. With nothing more than a simple cooker over a small gas burner, and with her hair in curlers, a lady deftly prepared me some pho (complete with the tiniest, juiciest limes I have ever tasted). As I nursed her baby my coffee was prepared: a small percolator set directly over the cup, the brew sweetened with a dollop of condensed milk. Perhaps it was the setting, perhaps because I had not found a decent coffee since leaving Saigon, but this java proved one of the best I have drunk outside of Italy (or Melbourne). The meal and coffee (for two) cost less than five Aussie dollars.

Nara - where deer are messengers of the gods (c) A. Harrison

Nara - where deer are messengers of the gods (c) A. Harrison

Map of Nara Park (c) A. Harrison

Map of Nara Park (c) A. Harrison

Coffee in a Can

Traders brought the coffee bean from Ethiopia to Yemen, where Sufti monks used it to help them stay awake during night-time devotions. Taste for the beverage spread northwards, via Mecca, through larger cities such as Cairo and Damascus, until finally reaching Constantinople. In 1587, an Arabic writer noted how drinking the brew drove away lethargy and gave the body 'a certain sprightliness and vigour.'

One of my strangest servings of coffee came in Japan, where just about anything can be bought from a vending machine (although I’m still searching for those fabled machines selling underwear.) The youth hostel in Nara had a machine offering a dozen different types of coffee – all labelled in Japanese. Only the colour of the button gave a clue: blue for ice coffee, red for hot. I dropped some coins in a slot, then came a whirl and a thud, after which a small door slid open and out came a can. A very hot can. Not the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (with the flavour further tainted by the hot metal) yet still it was caffeine. Of a type. And it did give my body sprightliness and vigour.

In 1511 in Mecca, a theological court banned the drinking of coffee, concerned about its 'stimulating effect'. Similar bans came into effect in Cairo in 1532, and in Ethiopia; it was not until 1554 that the first coffeehouse opened in Constantinople.

The Naramochi district is the heart of Old Nara, yet just a street away from a stretch of wooden buildings I discovered a café straight from Italy. It served a true macchiato, and a range of gelato to keep any child (or adult) happy.

Temple grounds, Nara (c) A. Harrison

Temple grounds, Nara (c) A. Harrison

A hidden graveyard, Mont St Michel (c) A. Harrison

A hidden graveyard, Mont St Michel (c) A. Harrison

The French Style of Coffee

French coffee differs in style to her Italian neighbour. For breakfast there is nothing more delightful than a café crème complete with un pain au chocolate, whether it be watching the world go by on the streets of Paris, or the tidal surges of Mont St Michel. The waters around this island monastery really do move, as Victor Hugo wrote, vitesse d’un cheval au galop (as swiftly as a galloping horse). I looked away to sip my coffee, and when I glanced back a whole swath of sand had disappeared. I bought a small cup from a shop along the ramparts. It is an art deco swirl of golds and browns and blacks, born of the tidal surges around the island.

By 1582 the word 'coffee' had entered the English language, via the Dutch koffie. This comes from the Turkish kahve, from the Arabic qahwa, an abbreviation of qahhway al-bun, or wine of the bean. Venice’s robust trade routes meant that by the 16th century the brew had found its way across the Mediterranean, where merchants charged the wealthy Venetians a hefty price for drinking the brew.

The shadow of Mont St Michel Abbé on the rising tide (c). A.Harrison

The shadow of Mont St Michel Abbé on the rising tide (c). A.Harrison

Where else but Rome? (c) A.Harrison

Where else but Rome? (c) A.Harrison

Strong as Death, Black as Hell, Sweet as Love

Although Venetian traders labeled the brew ‘medicinal’ and claimed many benefits from drinking it, coffee’s association with both the East and Arabian traders meant that from the start drinking it was clothed in controversy. Many viewed coffee as an Islamic threat to Christianity. At first, coffee was available only at clandestine meetings – hence the high price – and fear of what insurgencies were being discussed at these gatherings led Venetian authorities to quickly deem the drink sinful. Consequentially, this ‘wine of Arabia’ only grew more popular and more expensive.

Concerned about the clandestine way the wealthy met to drink this ‘heathen’ brew, in 1600 the Doge of Venice appealed to the Pope; it took one cup for Pope Clement VII to deem coffee ‘Christian’.

Named after the brew they served, the first cafés open in Venice around 1645. They quickly became popular, and, now touched with an air of wealth and sophistication, the taste for this new drink rapidly spread. The famous Café Florian in the Piazza San Marco opened in 1720 and remains open today.

Opposite the 1000-year-old Bascilica Sant'Eustachio in Rome is the Sant'Eustachio Il Caffe, renown for its coffee. As the church bells toll midnight across in Rome (never quite in unison, for each church in The Eternal City runs to its own time) the queues outside this cafe fill the piazza. Being Italy, there is no actual queue, but rather a riotous jumble of people trying to elbow their way in, with just as many trying to leave. Laced with aniseed, the recipe remains a well-guarded secret, and worth travelling halfway around the globe to try.

Italy is synonymous with coffee, and the brew is strong, a result of hot water forced through finely-ground coffee which is tightly packed (or tamped). Turkish coffee, in contrast, is not so finely ground; the strength comes from the style of brewing ­– and the freshness of the grind. In the famous bazaar of Istanbul, coffee vendors are easily picked by the long lines forming outside them of a morning, for locals buy just enough ground coffee to last the day.

Ah, Venice (c) A.Harrison

Ah, Venice (c) A.Harrison

And So to the Rest of the World

From Italy coffee spread to Europe and even to the tea-drinking nation of England. Indeed, Oxford’s Queen Lane Coffee House, opened in 1654, is still open for business. Lloyd’s of London began life as a coffee house. The Dutch took coffee to Java and other colonies, as did the Spanish, paving the way for Brazil to become dominant in the world cultivation of the bean.

And so to Australia. I've yet to find a bad coffee in Melbourne. The maze of inner-city laneways has a colourful history and was once not safe to wander through. With each café priding itself on its unique brew, I make a random choice from the warren of cafés. Those laneways not filled with shops or restaurants are covered with street art, including works by the likes of Banksy.

So a bean discovered by an Ethipoian goat-herder has spread to dominate the world, with each place it touches bringing its own disinct style. One day I hope to try the hickory laced brew of New Orleans, or see if New York can produce a macchiato to rival those I have drunk elsewhere in the world.

Melbourne, home of coffee and divine cakes (c) A.Harrison

Melbourne, home of coffee and divine cakes (c) A.Harrison

Street art, Melbourne (c) A.Harrison

Street art, Melbourne (c) A.Harrison

The colours of Melbourne (c) A.Harrison

The colours of Melbourne (c) A.Harrison

Life in the country (c) A.Harrison

Life in the country (c) A.Harrison

© 2015 Anne Harrison


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 16, 2016:

Apologies for the delay in replying, ladyguitarpicker - been with out internet a little while, but definitely not coffee! So glad you enjoyed, Anne

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on April 08, 2016:

Hi Anne, Coffee will always remain. How would we all wake up? Thanks for such a great hub about my favorite drink.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on October 04, 2015:

Morning Dolores,

As i sit here sipping my coffee as the sun rises, I can't help but think what threats we see today will one day be long forgotten - but I hope the coffee remains!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 04, 2015:

As a coffee lover I enjoyed reading this history. Funny how new things can be perceived as a threat, how coffee was seen as a threat to Christianity. Makes you think.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on August 07, 2015:

Hi rawspirit,

If the coffee is good, you don't need to drink a lot. I find so much of the enjoyment is in the preparation and the sharing (much like a Japanese tea ceremony). Thanks for the vote,


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on August 07, 2015:

Hi Kristen,

It's never too late to start drinking coffee! I hope I've inspire you,


Robert Morgan from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Gilbert AZ on August 06, 2015:

Voted up. A very well written hub. Full of good information. I am a coffee lover, though I limit it to 1 small cup a day. I love the smell of it brewing and enjoy it with frothed almond milk. Thanks again, Blessings.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 06, 2015:

Anne, thanks for sharing this hub with us on the history of coffee. I'm more of a tea drinker myself. Voted up for interesting!

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on July 26, 2015:

Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub.

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on July 25, 2015:

I thought this was an awesome hub about the history of coffee. I am a coffee lover of the tamer side. I like it hot, with a touch of cream.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on July 16, 2015:

I agree lindacee - one or two cups of a good brew, rather than the oversized, over priced and over-fancy drinks of the chain stores. Glad you enjoyed.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on July 16, 2015:

Fascinating stroll through the history and culture of coffee. Well crafted and interesting Hub! I've been a coffee lover for a very long time, but I'm not fond of the fancy drinks that Starbucks serves up. Just a simple cup or two in the morning will suffice for me--no sweeteners or cream.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on June 15, 2015:

Thank you, MG Seltzer. Hope you enjoy!

MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on June 13, 2015:

This looks so interesting that I am bookmarking it to read over the weekend. Great photos!

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 14, 2015:

Hi jhamann,

Thanks for stopping by. Occasionally in my travels I come to places where the coffee is either non-drinkable or non-existent, and it makes me appreciate my home brew all the more.

Glad you enjoyed the hub,


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 14, 2015:

Hi suzettenaples,

I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. Like grapes and wine, it's amazing how one bean can produce so many flavours, styles - and discussions!


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 14, 2015:

Hi Vellur,

I often wonder how I would cope in ancient times - no coffee, no potatoes, no tomatoes, no champagne etc etc! We have much to be grateful for, benefiting from their discoveries, if only for my morning cup of coffee.


Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on April 14, 2015:

A very thorough and enjoyable hub about the beverage that keeps me ticking. Thank you for a great read. Jamie

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on April 14, 2015:

Interesting article on the history of coffee. There are some delicious coffees that come from such different parts of the world. You cover them all. I also enjoyed reading the etemology of the word coffee. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this with us as I am a definite coffee drinker.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on April 14, 2015:

Interesting and informative hub about the coffee bean. I cannot imagine how the world would be without coffee. Thank God for the Ethiopian goat herder who started it all. Great hub, voted up.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on April 09, 2015:

Hi Paintdrips,

Strange how some people love coffee and others can't stand it. Glad you enjoyed my hub,


Denise McGill from Fresno CA on April 08, 2015:

Sounds like quite an adventure. And I don't even like coffee. But this was interesting nonetheless. I never developed a taste for it and would prefer iced tea or soda instead. Still I understand the love of coffee and my honey loves coffee so I tolerate it. Thanks for the history lesson. Very interesting.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 30, 2015:

Hi Ann,

I hope you make it here - and definitely try out the coffee in Melbourne (and the shoes).

Mont St Michel is also one of my favourite places, especially as dusk falls and all the tourists leave, and you're left alone on a largely deserted island. Very spiritual - plus I have my coffee cup to remind me of the place each time I use it.

Thanks for stopping by,


Ann Carr from SW England on March 30, 2015:

How well travelled you are! This is a fascinating, informative trip round the world of coffee. Amazing how chance events change the world. I love coffee and I hate tea (I'm not English really!).

Love your photo of Mont St Michel; that's a favourite place of mine, despite it being overrun by tourists most of the time.

Might join you in one of those Melbourne cafés sometime! We're hoping for another trip to Australasia later in the year.

Great hub, Anne!


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 27, 2015:

Hi Catherine,

Many people have that problem - I think I just have years of training under my belt!

Thanks for the vote,


Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 27, 2015:

Hi poetryman,

It was worth wtiting the hubfor your comments alone! Many thanks for your kind words.

I'm off to make the first cup of the day.....


Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on March 27, 2015:

Why is it that coffee will keep me awake if I drink it after noon, but it won't wake me up if I drink it in the morning. I have never been much of a coffee drinker, but I enjoyed reading about the history of coffee. What a long strange road it was. Voted up+++

poetryman6969 on March 27, 2015:

"Strong As Death, Black As Hell, Sweet as Love"

Yes please!

Too see the world in a cup of Joe. It's a good thing.

I always wonder why people originally put things in their mouths. Your story of the origins of coffee makes some sense.

To paraphrase Bob Newhart: Put these leaves in your mouth. Now hold still while I light those leaves on fire....

Voted up.

Anne Harrison (author) from Australia on March 26, 2015:

Hi pstraubie48,

As I said, strong as death, black as hell, sweet as love. The only way to drink it.

Thanks for your kind words and sharing


Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 26, 2015:

All I can add to this is 'thank you' to those monks who scraped the beans out and make that first cuppa'

I have become a huge fan in the last five years and usually drink mine black so I can taste the rich pure flavor.

thanks for sharing

Voted up++++ pinned and shared

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