As ubiquitous as coffee can seem within the context of life in 2020, most of us probably don’t spend much time considering how it was discovered, not to mention the terrifying prospect that there was a time when life without coffee was a reality.
It’s true. There did indeed exist a time before coffee. Yuck. (No wonder the average life-expectancy was 25 years...)
Luckily for everyone, once it had been discovered, it spread across the globe relatively quickly. While some of the details of this journey remain shrouded in mystery, there are some facts we know about it, and some suppositions to fill in some of the remaining blanks.
All that said, welcome one and all to Coffee History 101 – class is in session!
The most common legend regarding man’s discovery of coffee centers around an Arabian goat-herder named Kaldi. As the legend has it, when Kaldi was shepherding goats on the Arabian Peninsula one day, his flock did not return when he called for them as they normally would. The concerned Kaldi went searching for them and when he found them, they were jumping about and playing excitedly while eating berries off a strange green shrub.
Kaldi did the thing any sensible man would do; he ate some of the cherry-like fruit off the mystery bush. When he tried the fruit himself, he experienced a burst of energy and felt rejuvenated. He then took the fruit to a local monastery where it was brewed and, thus, the human tradition of coffee consumption was born.
Today we know that this story is most likely not true. The true history of coffee’s discovery by man, in fact, remains fairly ambiguous, however, there are a few things we do know.
We know that coffee originated in Ethiopia and was spread around the world from there by humans.
The first evidence of coffee being roasted, ground and infused in water is found to be from around the 14th century in or around Yemen, however, it is likely that the leaves and fruit pulp of the plant were brewed like a tea before this time and some scholars believe the leaves were chewed for their energy-boosting properties for possibly 1,000 years by this point as well.
In fact, legend has it that Ethiopian warriors would mix coffee seeds within animal fat and let the mixture congeal into solid material they would subsequently eat for a boost of energy during battle. The world’s first power-bars?
The word coffee entered the English language in 1582 via the Dutch word Koffie, from the Turkish Kahva, from
Arabic Kahwa, a truncation of qahwat-al-bun (or “wine of the bean”).
The first place we know coffee to have been cultivated intentionally by people was in Yemen by at least the 16th century. The original method of brewing coffee, popularly known today as the “Turkish” method remains a popular way to brew coffee today in parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean. This process involves combining finely ground coffee and sugar with water, boiling repeatedly and decanting into small cups.
By the 1600s there were coffeehouses called Qahveh Khanehs, around the Arab world, the first of them located in Cairo and Mecca. These coffee houses were colloquially known as “schools of the wise” and were popular hubs of social activity where people would debate, listen to music, watch performers, play games, learn of current events and more. These coffeehouses would often become hubs of political activity and were for this reason were sometimes shut down or heavily taxed.
With thousands of pilgrims visiting the Holy City of Mecca each year, word of the “wine of Arabia” spread quickly and Arabians, wishing to maintain their monopoly on the product, closely guarded their secrets of production, even outlawing the fertile seeds from being taken out of the country.
During the 17th century coffee began to spread across Europe as well. There is a story that while liberating Vienna from the second Turkish siege in 1683, soldiers of the Polish-Hamburg army found a number of sacks of beans, which they suspected to be camel feed and planned to burn. John III Sobieski, the Polish king, granted the sacks, deemed to be worthless, to Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, one of his officers who offered to take them away.
As the story goes, Kulczycki, who had spent 2 years in Ottoman captivity, had seen the coffee ritual and knew what the beans were and used them to start the first Viennese coffee house (likely the first in Europe), at which the Viennese tradition of adding milk and sugar to the coffee is also believed to have been born.
To what extent this account is accurate remains unknown, however, many Viennese coffeehouses continue to hang pictures of Kulczycki in their window in recognition of his contributions to Viennese coffee culture.
Initially, as coffee spread across Europe it was often viewed with suspicion, earning nicknames such as “the bitter invention of Satan” and even being condemned by Venetian Clergy upon its arrival to that city in 1615.
The controversy was so great, in fact, that Pope Clement VIII was called upon to make a decision regarding it. Before making his decision, he decided to taste the beverage. When he did, he enjoyed it so much that rather than condemn it he actually gave it his Papal approval.
In many countries, coffee began to flourish with less - or in spite of the - controversy and coffeehouses quickly became centers of social activity and exchange of information in major cities throughout England, France, Germany and Holland.
In England, these coffeehouses earned the nickname “Penny Universities” because the cost of a cup was a penny and one could stick around engaging in stimulating conversations about science, politics, philosophy and more.
In some major port cities, coffeehouses were even the spots where sailors or other transient businessmen would receive their letters. The same went for news: reporters called “runners” would go around to the coffeehouses reporting the latest news. In a society that placed such an importance on class, coffeehouses were a unique opportunity for people from all levels of society to interact with one another.
By the mid 17th century London was home to more than 300 coffeehouses, which attracted all sorts of patrons including merchants, shippers, brokers and artisans.
Despite Arab efforts to maintain their coffee monopoly, over the latter half of the 17th century the Dutch succeeded in obtaining coffee seedlings. They initially attempted to grow the coffee at Malabar in India, which was mostly unsuccessful, however, in 1699 they succeeded in growing coffee in Batavia on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia.
The coffee plant thrived here and soon the Dutch had a successful and quickly growing coffee trade, which they soon expanded to the islands of Sumatra and Celebes. It only took a few years for the Dutch Colonies to become the primary suppliers of coffee to Europe, where Venetian traders had first brought it in 1615.
In 1714, the mayor of Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV of France with the gift of a coffee plant. The king had this young shrub planted in the Royal Botanical Garden, Jardin des Plantes. By 1718 the Dutch had brought coffee to South America via their colony of Sirinam.
Another fun story of dubious authenticity is the legend of a young naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu. In 1723, de Clieu obtained a seedling from this same plant and travelled with it to Martinique.
As legend has it, after initially requesting clippings from the tree from the king but being denied, de Clieu carried out a night-time raid of the garden, hopping the wall, steeling a seedling and getting away successfully.
De Clieu’s voyage to Martinique is said to have included a terrible storm that nearly sunk the ship, a saboteur who attempted to destroy the seedling and a Tunisian pirate attack. Potable water also became incredibly scarce during this journey and was rationed among the passengers, De Clieu splitting his ration with his precious seedling.
The seedling made it safely to Martinique where it thrived and is credited with spreading over 18 million coffee trees across the island over the next 50 years.
The story of coffee’s arrival to Brazil in particular is interesting. It is alleged that the emperor sent a man named Lt. Col. Francisco de Mello Palheta to French Guiana on the pretense of resolving a border dispute but really on a mission to obtain coffee seedlings.
Palheta was initially unsuccessful as the French were unwilling to assist him, however, it is said that Palheta’s good looks and charm captivated the French governor’s wife and that she gave him a large bouquet of flowers as a going away gift. Inside were the coffee seeds that were taken back to the Brazilian state of Para to begin what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry in that country.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Brazil’s elite started fazendas, or sugar plantations, throughout the country. In the 1820s sugar prices began to weaken and much capital and labor that had previously been devoted to these endeavors was refocused on coffee growing, especially in the Paraiba Valley where it had been introduced in 1774. By the 1830s Brazil was the largest coffee producer in the world and remains as such to this day.
The New World
In the mid 17th century coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, or what is known today as New York. Though coffeehouses quickly began to appear in the colonies, tea remained the beverage of choice in the colonies until 1773 when the colonists revolted against a heavy new tea tax imposed by King George of England. This revolt, the famous Boston Tea Party (which was actually planned in a coffeehouse called the Green Dragon), would forever change the American preference from tea to coffee.
The rapid growth of world coffee production, particularly in Brazil and Java during the 18th and early 19th centuries led to a significant decline in world coffee prices. These price drops hit their lowest point in the 1840s and then began a strong upward trend that peaked during the 1890s. Growth of Brazilian production was slowing during this period due to lack of resources such as land, labor and inland transportation. Higher prices at this time encouraged growth of coffee production in countries such as Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador.
Coffee had been introduced in Colombia by the Jesuits as early as 1723 but civil strife in the country and inaccessibility to the countries best coffee growing regions caused the growth of production here to happen very slowly. After the end of the “Thousand Days War” (1899-1903) Colombians began to put an increased focus on production.
The 20th century saw an essentially continuous rise in demand for coffee. Following WW2 many newly independent nations in Africa found themselves dependent on coffee in varying degrees including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi.
Today the world’s top coffee producers are Brazil (at nearly 3 million tons annually), Vietnam and Colombia.
Today, coffee enjoys status as the second most consumed beverage in the world after tea, is grown in more than 90 countries, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Next time you brew up a cup of your favorite KLLR Coffee, pour some out for the homies of history that made it possible.
…Just kidding, don’t waste any of the good stuff, just be glad you didn’t live in the time before coffee.