Coffee, along with water and tea, is one of the three most popular beverages in the world and one of the most profitable worldwide commodities. Caffeine, an alkaloid contained in coffee, has an energising impact, which is largely responsible for the beverage’s appeal. Coffee’s history is a fascinating tale. The bean has circumnavigated the globe for millennia, having been smuggled out of rigorous governments and stolen from royalty, and has altered the economies of entire nations. It is surprising that a small bean harvested from tiny trees in Ethiopia has become the second most traded commodity in the world today. Have you ever wondered where coffee came from or where this tiny bean originated? Prepare yourself for a trip across time and across continents.
The origin of coffee grown globally can be traced back millennia to the ancient coffee woods of the Ethiopian plateau. According to folklore, goat herder Kaldi discovered the potential of these cherished beans there. According to legend, Kaldi discovered coffee after seeing that his goats become so energised after eating the berries from a certain tree that they refused to sleep at night.
Kaldi reported his discoveries to the abbot of the nearby monastery, who drank a beverage produced from the berries and discovered that it kept him alert during the nightly prayer service. The abbot informed the other monks at the monastery of his discovery, and word of the revitalising berries began to spread. As word travelled east and coffee beans reached the Arabian peninsula, they embarked on a voyage that would take them around the world.
Arabic: Arabian Peninsula
The cultivation and commerce of coffee began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 16th century, coffee was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. By the 15th century, coffee was grown in the Yemeni province of Arabia.
Not only was coffee consumed in private homes, but also in the many qahveh khaneh coffee cafes that began to sprout in Near Eastern cities. People attended coffeehouses for a variety of social activities, as their popularity was unparalleled.
In addition to drinking coffee and engaging in conversation, the guests also listened to music, saw entertainers, played chess, and read the latest news. Coffeehouses were such an important hub for information transmission that they were frequently referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”
With thousands of visitors from all over the world visiting the holy city of Mecca each year, word of this “wine of Arabia” began to spread.
Coffee Enters Europe
European visitors to the Middle East brought back tales of a mysterious dark liquor. By the seventeenth century, coffee had arrived in Europe and was gaining popularity throughout the continent.
Some individuals reacted with distrust or horror to this new beverage, dubbing it the “bitter invention of Satan.” Upon its introduction to Venice in 1615, the local clergy opposed coffee. Pope Clement VIII was requested to intercede since the conflict was so heated. Before making a decision, he tasted the beverage for himself and found it so delightful that he gave it papal permission.
In the major towns of England, Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, coffeehouses were rapidly becoming hubs of social activity and communication notwithstanding this dispute. In England, “penny universities” came established, so called because a cup of coffee and lively conversation could be had for a penny.
Coffee began to supplant beer and wine as the preferred breakfast beverages of the time. Those who began the day with coffee instead of alcohol were alert and motivated, and the quality of their work was much enhanced. (We like to consider this an ancestor of the present office coffee service.)
By the middle of the 17th century, there were more than 300 coffee establishments in London, many of which drew merchants, shippers, brokers, and artists.
These specialty coffee shops spawned numerous businesses. For example, Lloyd’s of London was founded at Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.
The Modern world
Midway through the 1600s, coffee was introduced to New Amsterdam, which the British later renamed New York.
Despite the fast emergence of coffee establishments, tea remained the preferred beverage in the New World until 1773, when the colonists rebelled against a hefty tax on tea imposed by King George III. The insurrection known as the Boston Tea Party permanently shifted the American preference for tea to coffee.
“Coffee is the most popular beverage in the civilised world.” – Thomas Jefferson Worldwide Plantations
As the demand for the beverage continued to grow, the rivalry to develop coffee outside of Arabia intensified.
In the later half of the 17th century, the Dutch acquired seedlings. Their initial attempts to plant them in India were unsuccessful, but they were successful on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia.
The plants flourished, and the Dutch soon had a productive and expanding coffee trade. They subsequently introduced coffee tree farming to the islands of Sumatra and Celebes.
Entering the Americas
In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV of France with a young coffee plant as a gift. It was ordered to be planted at the Royal Botanic Garden in Paris by the King. Gabriel de Clieu, a young naval officer, received a seedling from the King’s plant in 1723. He was able to get the seedling to Martinique despite a treacherous journey that included terrible weather, a saboteur who attempted to destroy the plant, and a pirate raid.
Not only did the seedling flourish once it was planted, but it is also credited with the proliferation of approximately 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique over the next fifty years. This seedling was the progenitor of all coffee trees in the Caribbean, South and Central America, which is even more astounding.
The renowned Brazilian coffee owes its existence to Francisco de Mello Palheta, who was dispatched to French Guiana by the monarch to acquire coffee seeds. The French were unwilling to share, but the wife of the French governor, smitten by his beautiful features, sent him an enormous bouquet of flowers before he left; buried within were enough coffee seeds to start what is now a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Missionaries and travellers, traders and colonists carried coffee seeds to other areas, and coffee trees were planted globally. In majestic tropical woods and steep mountaintops, plantations were constructed. Some plants blossomed while others failed to survive. New nations were founded on coffee-based economics. There were fortunes made and lost. By the end of the eighteenth century, coffee had become one of the most lucrative export crops in the world. Coffee is the second most sought-after commodity in the world, after crude oil.
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