The Origin of Coffee

There is no real evidence to show exactly when, or how it was first discovered that a stimulating brew could be made from the coffee bean (seed). The stories remain as Middle Eastern legends and myths. The most popular legend tells about an Ethiopian goat herder from the province of Kaffa who was amazed by the lively behaviour of his goats after they had chewed red coffee berries. Kaldi tasted the berries himself, and then shared his discovery with monks in a nearby monastery. Drinking a beverage made by boiling the berries in water helped the monks to stay awake during evening prayers.

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Whether the story is true or not, coffee is considered native to the African country of Ethiopia. What is more certain is that coffee was eaten by slaves who were taken from Sudan to Yemen and Arabia through the great port of its day, Mocha (now a synonym of coffee). Coffee was cultivated by Muslim monks during the 15th century and probably earlier than that. At first Arabians made wine from the pulp of the fermented coffee berries. Later the beverage was used in spiritual ceremonies. The Ethiopians used coffee to make an energetic snack by grinding the beans and mixing them with animal fat. To this day the Ethiopians celebrate the coffee ceremony.

Initially, the coffee beverage was prepared green, un-roasted beans in the same way as tea was brewed. In the late 13th century, the Arabians improved the coffee beverage by roasting and grinding the coffee beans before adding them to boiling water.

Coffee was mentioned in medical texts as early as the 10th century. It was associated with longevity, calmed nerves, increased stamina, and even enemas.

Initially, the authorities encouraged coffee drinking which resulted in the first coffee houses being opened in Mecca. These houses were called kaveh kanes. They spread quickly throughout the Arab world and became successful places with dancing, singing, and the exchange of gossip. The kaveh kanes were luxuriously decorated, and played a social and political role.

A café in Istanbul, 19th century Ottoman Empire. License details: Reproduction of a painting that is in the public domain because of its age

A café in Istanbul, 19th century Ottoman Empire.

Venetian traders brought coffee beans to Europe for the first time in 1615. It was the third hot beverage after hot chocolate was brought in 1528 to Spain from America and tea was first sold in Europe in 1610. The coffee bean becomes infertile when stripped of its outer layers. In order to maintain a monopoly on the coffee bean market, the Arabs had a strict policy not to export fertile beans. However, beginning in 1616, seeds and plant cuttings were successfully taken out of Arabia and cultivated in the Dutch colonies in India and Java. The coffee plants flourished in warm Java’s climate and resulted in coffee’s nickname “Java”. The Dutch became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe, with Amsterdam its trading centre.

At first coffee was mainly sold by lemonade vendors and was believed to have medicinal qualities. In a few decades, coffee houses gained enough popularity to become places visited for social and political purposes. In the mid 17th century they spread to other European countries including Austria, France, Germany, Holland and England. The largest insurance market in the world – Lloyd’s of London, began life as a coffee house in 1688. The most famous European coffeehouse was the Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco which opened in 1720 and is still open for business today.

The first record of coffee being drunk in North America dates to 1668. Soon after, coffee houses were established in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other towns. The 1773 Boston Tea Party was planned in a coffeehouse. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York stared in coffeehouses, in what is today the financial district Wall Street.

gabriel_mathieu_de_clieuIn 1720 coffee first came to be cultivated in America. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer acquired a coffee tree in Paris and brought it back on his ship. It was a romantic and fascinating story – the plant was kept in a glass case as a protection from salt water and cold, it survived a storm by being tied down, and a pirate attack when one of the branches was torn off. De Clieu gave most of his allowances of precious water to the plant. Both officer and plant survived the eventual journey. The tree was replanted in America and its growth was watched over by slaves. It grew, and multiplied, and by 1726, the first harvest was ready.

It was the Dutch who first started the spread of the coffee plant in Central and South America. In 1825, coffee was planted for the first time in Hawaii, which today produces the only US coffee.

Coffee today is one of the most valuable trading commodities in the world, often only second in value to oil as a source of foreign exchange for developing countries. Its cultivation, processing, trading, transportation and marketing provide employment for millions of people worldwide. Millions of people around the world earn their living from it.


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