DiscoveryFood & DrinkInventionPodcast

The History of Coffee

As everyone probably knows, coffee is a hot drink, which is quite bitter until you add milk and sugar and which acts as a mild stimulant, with many of us claiming that we can’t function until we have had the first cup of the day. In modern times it has come to be presented in a number of different ways, each of which comes with its own unique name including espresso, latte, americano, cappuccino, long black, flat white or even triple, venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato. But where did coffee originally come from and how has it evolved into what we know today?

As far as documented records show, coffee has been enjoyed by people since around the 15th century although some legends and unconfirmed reports indicate that it may have been around for much longer. One of these legends says that a Moroccan Sufi mystic, during his travels in Ethiopia observed birds feeding on berries and that these birds seemed to have an abundance of energy and vitality. When the mystic tried the berries for himself, he experienced the same effects.

An alternative legend tells the story of a disciple of Sheikh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, called Omar who was exiled from Mecca to Ousab where he lived in a cave. In order to satisfy his hunger, he chewed on some nearby berries but found them to be too bitter. He tried roasting the berries to change the flavour but this made them hard. He then tried boiling the berries to soften them and thus discovered that the resulting brown liquid could be used as a drink and that the drink revitalised him and sustained him for days. His discovery earned him the right to return to Mecca where he was made a saint, probably because the properties associated with the consumption of coffee were useful in the Islamic world as it enabled easier fasting during the day and wakefulness at night during Ramadan.

Whatever the realities are of the early history of coffee, the evidence suggests that among the first places to be using coffee are in the country of Yemen where it was used in its Sufi monasteries. From here it soon spread to places like Mecca and Cairo.

By the end of the 15th century, the use of coffee was widespread, taking in most of the Middle East. It had also by this time spread as far as Southern India, Turkey and even the Horn of Africa. Coffeehouses started to appear in Cairo, Egypt as well as in Aleppo, Syria and by 1554 they were springing up in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. A ban on the consumption of coffee had been imposed by religious leaders due to the apparent intoxicating nature of the drink, but this was overturned by Sultan Suleiman I in 1524. 

The first reference to coffee within English texts appeared in 1582 with the word being derived from the Dutch equivalent, koffie, which itself was derived from an Ottoman Turkish word khave.

The original Arabic word from which the Turkish one evolved was qahwah which referred to a type of wine that was thought to have been made from the pulp of fermented coffee berries. However, there are some suggestions that the word originated from Kaffa, a kingdom in medieval Ethiopia that exported the coffee plant to Arabia.

Whatever the origin of the word coffee, its progress through Europe started in Malta in the 1500s through the slave trade which saw imprisoned Turkish Muslim slaves continuing to make their traditional drink, even during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when these slaves were imprisoned by the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller. The drink became popular in Maltese high society and coffeeshops also began to appear on the island over the next few decades.

In 1645, the first coffee shop opened in Venice and then, following the defeat of the Turks by the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Vienna, the first coffeehouse opened in Vienna using the supplies obtained from the spoils. It is also at this point that it started to become popular to add milk to the drink.

Through efforts made by the Levant Company, coffee was introduced into England with ever-increasing quantities being brought in by the British and Dutch East India Companies. The first coffeehouse in the country was The Queen’s Lane Coffee House in Oxford which was established in 1654 and is still trading today. The first coffeehouse in London opened later in the same year and twenty years later there were 3000 of them across the country.

In around 1720 a French naval officer by the name of Gabriel de Clieu took coffee plant seedlings from the main botanical garden in France to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. A blight had affected the cacao plantations there and so only three years later coffee had replaced cacao in most of them. By 1770 there were nearly 19000 coffee plants on the island and from here the cultivation of coffee plants spread to the rest of the Caribbean islands as well as to Mexico.

By this time coffee had also appeared on the Isle of Bourbon, now called Reunion in the Indian Ocean. However, the plant that grew there produced smaller beans and so it was deemed to be a different variety of arabica. The coffee produced in Mexico and Brazil is descended from the Bourbon coffee plant.

It took a while for the Brazilian coffee trade to become established but by 1893 its coffee had been introduced into Tanzania and Kenya, which shares a border with Ethiopia, the original birthplace of the drink and so in only 350 years or so, coffee had completed its circumnavigation of the globe.

As the world embraced the magical properties of the coffee drink, the demand increased exponentially, resulting in the coffee producers around the world needing to cultivate more coffee plants. Almost all of this large-scale cultivation resulted in the displacement and exploitation of the indigenous people of many countries. The harsh conditions under which these people had to work resulted in many uprisings which were brutally put down by the plantation owners.

Since 1852, Brazil has been the largest producer of coffee in the world. In 2017 it produced 29% of the world’s 9.2 million tonnes of green coffee beans with its competition coming mainly from Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia. The world’s greatest consumers of coffee are the Nordic nations, with Finland at the top of the list with each person consuming 12 kilograms of coffee per year. This is followed by Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark, with the United States ranked 25th.

Related Articles

Back to top button