Coffee is an enigma. There’s no one accepted story for how or when coffee was discovered, but we do know that it has a rich history comprised of many intriguing interlapping stories. Although the details are hazy, there are many legends surrounding its origin.
There are lots of similarities between how we consume coffee today compared with how we consumed coffee half a millennium ago. This only speaks to the universality of coffee making and coffee drinking. Coffee is and will continue to be one of the world’s most loved drinks. Keep reading to discover its unique history.
Coffee most likely dates back to the 15th century, or even perhaps earlier, to ancient forests in Ethiopia. According to local legend, a goat herder Kaldi first discovered coffee beans after noticing that after eating berries from a certain tree, his goats would become so energetic that they would stay up all night. Kaldi told the abbot of a monastery of his experiences, and the abbot brewed a drink with the same berries, finding the berry’s powerful effects to be in fact true, as he could stay wide awake through long hours of prayer at night. Knowledge of the bean’s properties spread throughout the monastery, and word moved east towards the Arabian peninsula.
Coffee cultivation in the Arabian Peninsula
The earliest proven evidence of coffee cultivation and trade is on the Arabian peninsula slightly after its roots in Ethiopia. Coffee was grown in Yemen, and by the 16th century it was present in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
Coffee wasn’t just drunk in the privacy of one’s home, but in coffee houses across the region. These houses gained lots of popularity, and people started to frequent them for social activities, such as meeting with friends, playing chess or watching performers. These coffee houses also became a hub for intellectuals. Because many of these coffee houses were in Mecca – a holy pilgrimage site – knowledge of the drink began to spread.
Coffee arrives in Europe
Word of a mysterious dark beverage was soon brought to Europe by travelers by the 17th century. Some people were suspicious of the drink, and when coffee arrived in Venice in 1615, local clergy called it the devil’s drink and asked Pope Clement VIII to ban the drink. However, the Pope enjoyed it so much that he gave it his approval.
Like in the Arabian Peninsula, coffee houses rapidly became hubs of social activity in cities across England, France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. It began to replace beer and wine as the most popular morning beverages. By 1650, there were over 300 coffee houses in London alone.
Coffee is brought to the New World
Coffee was then brought to New York, called New Amsterdam at the time. Tea was still the preferred drink for over a century until 1773, when a revolt against King George III’s heavy taxation on tea made Americans start to favour coffee.
Cultivation becomes a worldwide phenomenon
As demand for coffee increased and competition for cultivation arose outside of the Arabian peninsula, plantations started appearing all around the world. The Dutch succeeded in planting coffee in Batavia, in what we now know as Indonesia. This made the Dutch a big player in the production and trade of coffee, and they expanded their plantations to Sumatra and Celebes.
A coffee plant was gifted to King Louis XIV of France, and it was planted in Paris. Seeds from this plant were then transported to Martinique in 1723, where coffee thrived. Over the next 50 years, there were 18 million coffee trees in Martinique, and these trees were spread throughout the Caribbean, and South and Central America.
As the world was becoming increasingly interconnected due to travel, trade and colonisation, coffee seeds began to spread everywhere. Many nation’s economies revolved around coffee. By the late 18th century, coffee became one of the world’s most profitable exports. The power of coffee is only surpassed by a few other products, namely crude oil. But unlike oil, which will one day be used up, coffee will always be around, and as long as it is, people around the world will continue to drink it.