Where’s My Coffee!? – A History of Our Favorite Brew
If you are like half the people on the planet a morning cup of coffee is a ritual – it wakes us up and gets us going. Next to water, it’s the most popular drink. So how long have we been drinking this hot black fluid we call coffee and where did it come from?
Tales of Coffee for the Mystic Past
To understand the history of coffee, it is necessary to get a glimpse into the etymology of the word. The word “coffee” comes from the Arabic “gahwah”. From Arabic, the word was borrowed by the Turkish as “kahve”, which was later borrowed by the Dutch as “koffie”, before reaching the English form of today. The Arabic word most likely came from the name of Kaffa, a medieval settlement in Ethiopia, from where the coffee plant was exported to other parts of the Arabic peninsula. At the same time, the word could be a derivation of the verb “qaha”, which means “to lack hunger” and which could be connected with the drink’s effects on the appetite. There is also another similar Arabic word, “quwwa”, which means “power, energy”. The actual history of coffee starts, however, with several legendary accounts that try to explain the origin and the discovery of the coffee plant.
Most of these legends are set in the eastern parts of Africa, in the lands of Ethiopia and Yemen, where the coffee plant was supposedly recognized and used for the first time. Several studies on the genetic diversity of the coffee plant show little evidence of where or when native Africans started to know or use coffee. It is thought, however, that the plant’s origin lays in Harar, Ethiopia, and the surrounding lands of Sudan and Kenya. There is no clear written indication that coffee was known or used anywhere in Africa by any of its native populations before the 15th century. The ancestors of the Oromo ethic group from Ethiopia were the first to recognize the energizing effects of coffee, yet it has proved difficult to establish around which time the discovery happened. Despite the lack of evidence, many legends have sprouted around Africa in which coffee becomes a mysterious discovery embed in a story of mythical proportions.
One of the legends appears for the first time in writing in 1671 and refers to Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd from the 9th century who noticed his goats would become overly excited and energized after consuming the beans of the coffee plant. Kaldi chewed the berries himself and intrigued, took some of the berries to a monk living in a nearby monastery. Disinterested, the monk threw the berries into the fire. The aroma that unraveled in the room made other monks come and investigate. They roasted the beans and dissolved them in hot water, preparing thus the world’s first drinkable coffee. While the story appears in writings from the 17th century, the events in the story take place centuries earlier. It is highly likely that the legend is apocryphal and has no real basis on reality. Another account talks about a Yemenite Sufi preacher traveling through Ethiopia, who noticed an unusual vitality on some birds and suspicious, he decided to try for himself the berries that the birds were eating. The Sufi experienced the same revitalizing effects and decided to share his findings with other people.
According to another legend based on an ancient chronicle, coffee was discovered by Sheikh Omar, a healer who could cure the sick through prayer. Exiled from Mocha, and heading towards Yemen, Omar fed himself with berries found in a shrubbery. To suppress their bitter taste and to improve the flavor, he boiled the seeds, which softened and transformed the water in a savory brown liquid. Omar drank the liquid only to discover that it had the miraculous effect of revitalizing his energy. Coffee became thus a miracle drug, and the rumors spread up to Omar’s city, Mocha, where he returned to be worshipped as a saint.
PBS Documentary on Coffee
Coffee and the Arab world
More credible evidence of people having knowledge of the coffee plant comes from the middle of the 15th century, through the accounts of a man from Yemen, Ahmed al-Ghaffar. Moreover, the Sufi monasteries of Yemen hold records in which there are references as old as the 15th century to coffee drinking and the coffee tree. There is no doubt that the habit of roasting and brewing coffee seeds appeared and evolved on the Arabic territories, and that coffee was prepared at that time in a very similar manner to how it is prepared today. Putting together legends, historical chronicles, and scientific evidence, researchers were able to reach a more specific conclusion and were able to declare that Ethiopia is indeed the native homeland of coffee. A famous Islamic scholar from the 16th century, named Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, mentioned in his writings a drink called “qahwa”, made from the seeds of a tree in the Zeila region. Around the same time, in 1583, a German physician named Leonard Rauwolf, who had traveled to the Near East, describes coffee by calling it a beverage black as ink, able of curing stomach illnesses, and which is drank each morning in small sips from a porcelain cup by the local populations.
Coffee beans traveled from Ethiopia to Yemen as an exchange good between Ethiopian and Yemeni traders. Yemen traders brought home the coffee seeds and began to cultivate them. Soon, the coffee became part in the lives of the Sufi monks, who used it as an aid for better concentration during the nocturnal religious ceremonies and prayers, but also for the intoxicating feeling that coffee provided, similar to the one they were trying to kindle through chants. A manuscript from the 15th century reveals how coffee was spread from Yemen to Mecca and Medina. Through traders and merchants, it reached large cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Constantinople, and Baghdad. As time went by, the coffee plant reached even the most remote parts of North Africa, Middle East, and later all the Arab world, including Turkey and Persia. In the Islamic countries, coffee became a vital element, directly related to social and religious practices.
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Coffee in Europe
The popularity of coffee grew steadily and in 1670, the first coffee seeds reached India, smuggled out of Yemen by a Sufi named Baba Budan. Before the smuggling, coffee was a product of export, but only in a boiled or sterilized form. Several portraits of Baba Budan show him with seven coffee seeds strapped to his chest. The seeds were planted in a place called Mysore, and then the plant spread to many other locations. In no time, it reached Venice, as a result of the thriving trade routes between the Venetian port and the North African and Middle Eastern countries. From Italy, coffee was spread to the surrounding areas, especially the Balkans, then to the rest of Europe.
While some wanted to ban the foreign drink of Muslim origin, Pope Clement VIII deemed coffee in 1600 and eased a wider acceptance. In 1645, the first European coffee house opened in Rome. Soon enough, coffee became a solid business for European merchants. The Dutch East India Company was the first to get seriously involved in the coffee import. The company grew the plants in the fertile lands of Java and Ceylon and brought them in massive quantities to Europe. The first transport of Indonesian coffee on the route from Java to the Netherlands happened in 1711.
Coffee became rapidly popular in many parts of Europe. England benefited from the efforts of the British East India Company, which started to bring coffee to Europe soon after the Dutch. In 1654, Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House, one of the oldest coffee houses in the world, that is still in operation today, opened its doors. By 1715, London, on the verge of becoming the most important city of Western Europe, had more than 2,000 coffee houses open for its over 630,000 residents. After Italy, the Netherlands and England, France was the next to embrace the new beverage. After being introduced in France in 1657, coffee became known in Austria and Poland as well, through the soldiers who fought in the 1683 Battle of Vienna and captured the Turks’ coffee supplies.
Coffee House Istanbul, Turkey circa 1826
Coffee in the Americas
During the Colonial period, coffee finally reached North America. However, it did not manage to replicate the European success in the United States, where alcoholic drinks remained for many years the favorite option. The popularity of coffee increased during and after the Revolutionary War. The increase was so sudden that the supplies could hardly match the demand, and the prices were raised accordingly. The reason for the new, sudden interest in coffee was at first a result of the impossibility to have tea, then a result of the Americans’ choice to avoid tea after the 1773 Boston Tea Party. The War of 1812 caused a severe cut of tea imports from Britain to North America, and the situation made many Americans turn to coffee instead. During the 18th century, coffee was no longer as popular in Britain, where tea had become cheaper and more accessible as a result of the British conquest of India. Tea was also simpler to prepare.
Coffee has a long and interesting history on the American continent. During the 18th century, a Frenchman named Gabriel de Clieu took with him a coffee plant in his journey to Martinique, one of the Caribbean islands under French sovereignty. The plant thrived in the new climate and spread all over the Americas. Coffee arrived in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, in 1734 and by 1788, the island was cultivating half of the world’s coffee supplies. However, Haitian coffee plantations were known for the inhumane exploitation of slaves. The living and working conditions on the plantations became a prominent cause of the Haitian Revolution, which destroyed the industry beyond recovery. Only in 1949, Haiti managed to restore its former power in the coffee industry, becoming the world’s 3rd most important coffee exporter. However, the come-back was brief and the Haitian coffee industry soon entered another collapse.
In 1727, coffee was introduced to Brazil, yet local cultivation took more years. Soon after the independence in 1822, massive areas of rainforest near Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo were cleared to make room for coffee plantations. Even though it started from scratch, in less than thirty years Brazil became a significant coffee producer in the Americas. By 1852, Brazil was already the largest coffee producer in the world and remained as such for many decades to follow. During the first twenty years of the 20th century, Brazil exported approximately 70% of the world’s coffee, while other Latin countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, and Guatemala exported 15%.
In the second half of the 19th century, coffee cultivation became a major preoccupation for many countries in Central America, yet this interest came along with unpleasant things such as the exploitation and forced displacement of the indigenous people. The harsh conditions led massive numbers of workers to organize protests and coups, which were often suppressed in bloodbaths. Costa Rica was the only country to escape the turmoil, mostly because the small number of Costa-Ricans workers could not be organized in large farms. At the end of the 19th century, the social unrest slowly faded in other countries as well, as smaller farms promoted egalitarian and fair conditions for their workers.
During the latter half of the 19th century, when South America was rapidly becoming the world’s largest exporter of coffee, the United States was transforming into the world’s largest consumer. While the level of coffee consumption was really high in most developed countries, the growth in the United States seemed unmatched. One of the main reasons was the rapid growth of population. Moreover, the per capita consumption doubled as well between 1860 and 1920. The sheer size of the country was also a contributing factor of United States needing more coffee supplies that any European country. In 1920, the US received half of the world’s coffee supplies. The Scandinavian countries, along with Belgium and Netherlands were heavier coffee-drinkers than the United States, with higher levels of per capita consumption, but they had comparatively smaller populations.
Undoubtedly, coffee is the most popular beverage in the world, consumed in a total of 400 billion cups each year. Moreover, coffee is the second most traded commodity, behind oil. Today, many developing countries are dependent on the coffee exports, with more than one hundred million people working in the industry, relying on coffee as their main source of income. Many Central American countries, as well as African countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda survive on the coffee exports.
- Weinberg, Bennett Alan; Bealer, Bonnie K. The world of caffeine. Routledge, 2001.
- Kaye, Alan S. The etymology of "coffee": The dark brew. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1986.
- Ukers, William. All about Coffee. New York: The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935.
- Wild, Anthony. Coffee A Dark History. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, 2003.