World map, 17th century, Image courtesy of Ancient World Maps.
• quawah (Yemen, for wine) • kahveh (Turkish) • koffie (Dutch) • coffee (English) •
Years ago, a great power watched humans and decided that the race was sluggish and dissatisfied. So it presented a gift, a steaming flask of brown liquid, and a seed, and showed how to grow and harvest the first coffee plant.
All right, maybe not. Allow me my fantasies for a moment, ok? Coffee may not have been gifted by the gods, but it does have a long and complex history. In fact, the story of how our current cup of java came to be reaches back thousands of years, starting in ancient Africa and the Middle East. If you’ll allow me a moment of coffee history nerdery…
Image courtesy of Coffee Crossroads, adapted from All About Coffee by William H. Ukers.
From goats to Arab coffeehouses
Long before Starbucks, coffee was mixed with animal fat and eaten (think ancient PowerBar). Legend tells of an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who discovered his goats bursting with energy after eating the berries from a coffee shrub. Kaldi took these berries to local monks, and the monks created the first coffee drink, making use of this miracle energy source for stamina during long prayers. Whether or not this tale is true, wild coffee plants were likely used by nomadic tribes in Africa for thousands of years. Around the thirteenth century, Arabs began to roast coffee beans, and the public coffeehouse, known as qahveh khaneh, boomed not only as a drinking spot but also, crucially, as a hub for social interaction, business, and exchange of ideas. Word of the popular beverage, sometimes known as “wine of Araby,” spread quickly.
Though Arab nations kept a closely guarded monopoly on the coffee trade for many years, the trend made its way to Europe in the fifteenth century. A Venetian merchant brought coffee to Europe in 1615, and the Dutch followed with the first coffee plant in Europe in 1616 and the first European-owned plantations in Sri Lanka in 1616 and Java (Indonesia) in 1696. The coffee trade soon boomed with the French in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America, and the Portuguese in Brazil.
Voyage to the New World
This path has been far from straight, wrought instead with ambition and subterfuge. For instance, in 1723 a French naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu stole a seedling from a coffee plant gifted to King Louis XIV by the mayor of Amsterdam and smuggled it to Martinique, launching the French coffee trade in the Americas. Brazil joined the fray in 1727 through Colonel Francisco de Mello Palheta, with seeds said to have been smuggled through a bouquet given to Palheta by the wife of the governor of French Guiana. And in the soon-to-be United States, coffee rose as the drink of choice after the Boston Tea Party, when tea came to be considered “unpatriotic.”
Coffee as we know it today came onto the scene in the nineteenth century. John and Charles Arbuckle began selling bags of pre-roasted beans in the 1860s, and it became particularly popular with cowboys in the American West. Other well-known coffee producers also broke ground in the 1800s, including James Folger, Maxwell House, and Hill Brothers. The 1960s saw the spark of the specialty coffee movement, and the first Starbucks was established in Seattle in 1971. And now, of course, there’s a hipster coffee shop on nearly every city block. If Kaldi and his goats could have seen that coming…
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Miracle brew or dangerous concoction?
Over the years, coffee has run into many a controversy — both as a health risk and as a supposedly “satanic” beverage — from a 1511 ban in Mecca due to health concerns to 17th-century claims in London that it caused impotence. Allegedly, the case was even brought to Pope Clement VIII in the 1600s; upon tasting the beverage, however, the pope enjoyed coffee so much that he gave it official papal approval! It has also long been linked to slavery and colonization, as most of the European coffee trade had its base in colonial plantations worked by slaves (this issue continues today with exploited coffee farmers in many countries, a concern evident in the rising fair trade and equal exchange coffee movement). Yet with an estimated 2.5 billion cups of coffee consumed worldwide each day, it’s clear that there’s something about this brew that we just can’t stay away from.
*This post was previously published on my earlier blog, Beanopia, in 2014.*
How Coffee Influenced History, NPR.org
The Caffeinated History of Coffee, PBS.org
National Coffee Association
5 Historical Attempts to Ban Coffee, Mental Floss