The History of Coffee

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Sometime in the 15th century, a drink became popularized in the Arabian peninsula. It was dark, bitter, and people couldn’t get enough of it. 

From its simple origins, over the centuries, it has spread around the world to become one of the most popular beverages in history.

Today you can find it being served almost everywhere, including specialty stores built around its consumption.

Learn more about coffee, once called the devil’s drink, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The true origin of the coffee plant isn’t known for certain. However, the consensus is that it probably came from the highlands of Ethiopia. 

In fact, the Ethiopians have a legend about the discovery of coffee. 

Supposedly a 9th-century goat herder named Kaldi, from the Kafa region of Ethiopia, was watching over his goats when they began eating the beans off of certain trees. 

He found that his goats wouldn’t sleep and became hyperactive after eating the beans. 

He told a local abbot of a monastery about what he discovered, and the abbot went out and created a beverage from the beans. He found that the drink kept him alert when doing his evening prayers, and thus, coffee was born. 

Another legend from Yemen holds that a doctor named Sheikh Omar from Mocha was sent into exile to live in a cave in the mountains. There he saw the berries of the coffee plant and tried to eat them.

The berries were too bitter, so he put them in the fire, hoping it would take the bitterness away. Having been roasted, they were now too hard to eat, so he put them in boiling water to soften them, and the result was coffee.

We have no idea how true these legends are, but even if they aren’t true, they make for a good story. 

The real story of coffee begins in the 15th century in Yemen. 

If you look at a map, there is a very short distance between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Known as the Bab-el-Mandeb, it is only 31 miles or 50 kilometers across. The short distance is why there has been so much historical commerce and interaction between the two regions. 

So if coffee did indeed come from the Ethiopian highlands, which seems to be the case, then it is easy to understand how it came to Yemen. 

Yemen was the first region where the coffee plant was cultivated. In fact, the early cultivation of coffee in Yemen and the fact that so much documentation points to Yemen for the popularization of the drink is the reason why there is doubt as to where coffee originated. 

In addition to cultivation, Yemen was the place where coffee beans were first roasted and then brewed, creating the beverage that you would recgonize today. 

From its initial cultivation in Yemen, coffee spread all over the Arabian Peninsula.

One of the things which made coffee so popular in Arabia was the Islamic prohibition against consuming alcohol. Alcohol was an intoxicant. Coffee, however, was just the opposite. It was a stimulant. 

Because there was no prohibition against coffee, it served as a popular alternative to alcohol.

Coffee was served in homes as well as in special coffee houses called qahveh khaneh. It became something you could do socially and encouraged conversation and discussion. Coffee houses were also places where you could play chess and listen to music.

Arab coffee houses became some of the primary places to exchange information and were called “Schools of the Wise.”

It also turned out that the Arabian Peninsula was the perfect place to spread the word about coffee. As pilgrims from around the world descended on Mecca to perform the hajj, they discovered coffee and brought word of the new beverage back home with them.

In 1580 the Venetian physician Prospero Alpini introduced coffee to Venice, having brought it over from Egypt calling the drink the “wine of Araby.” 

The European reaction to coffee was not positive at first. This was a land where alcohol was consumed, sometimes in great amounts, at first found the taste to be bitter and unpleasant. It was called “the devil’s drink” or “bitter invention of Satan.”

It not only had to do with the beverage’s taste but the fact that it originated in Muslim lands. 

The issue of the holiness of coffee was put to rest in the late 16th century when it was offered to Pope Clement VIII. He loved coffee and was reported to have said, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it.”

One of the reasons why Pope Clement approved of the drink is that he felt it was better than drinking alcohol.

Having received papal approval, coffee took off in Europe, proving as popular there as it was in the Muslim world. 

Coffee houses became a cultural phenomenon all over Western Europe. By the mid-17th century, there were 300 coffee houses in London and over 3000 in all of England. King Charles II actually tried to ban coffee houses because they were hotbeds for political discussion. 

On December 29, 1675, he issued the “Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.”  The law was supposed to go into effect on January 10, 1676, but it was already abolished on January 8 because of the great public outcry. 

The first coffee house in Vienna was opened in 1683 after the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks.  Supposedly the first coffee house was opened by a Polish officer by the name of Georg Franz Kolschitzky, who found coffee in the supplies left behind by the Turks when they retreated.

Supposedly, Kolschitzky introduced the idea of adding sugar and milk to coffee. 

At the start of the 17th century, coffee was still almost entirely produced in Arabia and exported through the Yemenese port of Mocha. However, the 17th century saw the Arabian monopoly of coffee come to an end. 

In 1616, a Dutch merchant by the name of Pieter van den Broecke, arguably the first person from the Netherlands to taste coffee, managed to get a live sample of a coffee plant. He brought it back to the Netherlands, where, with very little notice, the plant thrived in the greenhouses of the Amsterdam Botanical Garden.

The plant grew for forty years, and attempts were made to transport the plant to Dutch colonies for cultivation. Initially, they tried to grow it on the island of Sri Lanka, but eventually, they found success on the island of Java in Indonesia. 

By the end of the century, Java coffee became the largest source of coffee in Europe. 

India also received the coffee plan in the 17th century, although it wasn’t brought by Europeans. Supposedly, an Indian practitioner of Sufi Islam named “Baba Budan” brought the seeds to southern India. They were first grown in the town of Chikmagalur in the state of Karnataka

The initial coffee plants which were taken to the Netherlands were eventually traded with other botanical gardens in Europe. In particular, in 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King had it planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. 

The mayor of Amsterdam couldn’t have known it, but that gift became the basis of an entire industry. 

In 1720 a French naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu brought a few seedlings from the coffee plants in the Paris Botanical Garden with him to the island of Martinique. 

Within 50 years, those seedlings had become 18,680 coffee plants in Martinique alone. 

Coffee production began in earnest in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, or modern-day Haiti, in 1734, and by 1788 Saint-Domingue was producing half of the coffee in the world. The production of coffee in the colony and the brutal condition of the slaves who grew it was one of the major reasons for the Haitian Revolution. 

In the 18th century, North America was primarily a tea-drinking culture due to its influence from the British, which had shifted over to tea with its conquest of India. However, after the British imposed tea taxes on the American colonists, there was a shift in consumption from tea to coffee.

To this day, North America remains more of a coffee-drinking culture than a tea-drinking culture.

Today, the largest coffee producer in the world is Brazil. 

The Brazilian coffee industry was supposedly started by the Portuguese military officer Francisco de Mello Palheta, who was sent to French Guyana to bring back coffee samples. 

The French, obviously wanting to protect their coffee industry, refused to give him any samples. However, the wife of the governor of French Guyana became taken with Palheta and, as a parting gift, gave him a bouquet of flowers. Hidden inside the flowers were coffee seeds, which became the basis of the Brazilian coffee industry. 

By 1852, Brazil became the largest coffee producer in the world, a distinction it has held ever since. 

Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia saw dramatic expansions in their coffee industries. Their dependence on coffee actually became a liability during the second world war as European imports of coffee dramatically dropped. 

The United States intervened to create a system during the war for coffee importation from various Latin American countries so their coffee industry could stave off collapse. 

Today, there is a belt of coffee production that extends around the world through the tropical regions. The five largest coffee producers in the world today are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. 

As coffee spread around the world, different methods of serving and consuming coffee sprang up.

The number of different ways to serve coffee is beyond the scope of a single podcast episode, as there so so many. However, every method involves water and ground, roasted coffee beans. 

Different methods for brewing coffee have been developed all over the world, and you are probably familiar with many of them. It can be percolated, dripped, cold brewed, flash brewers, French pressed or shot at high pressure through an esperesso machine. In 1907, instant coffee was developed, which allowed freeze dried crystals of coffee to just be mixed in hot water. 

Coffee, in some ways, is similar to wine in that different regions can produce different varietals. 

One of the most famous coffee varieties is Kopi Luwak from Indonesia. They are coffee beans that have been passed through the digestive system of a palm civet.

The civet feeds on ripe coffee beans, but it is not able to digest the coffee beans inside them. The beans are excreted in the animal’s feces, which are collected and processed to produce Kopi Luwak coffee. 

The unique production process of Kopi Luwak coffee is said to give it a distinctive flavor profile, characterized by a smooth, earthy taste with hints of chocolate and caramel. However, it is also one of the most expensive coffees in the world, with prices that can exceed $100 per pound.  

Kopi Luwak coffee collected in the wild can go for ten times that price. 

Thailand has a similar type of coffee bean known as Black Ivory coffee which has passed through the digestive system of an elephant. 

Black Ivory coffee is extremely rare. The entire 2021 global production was only 215 kilograms, and the product can sell for $2,000 a kilogram, and a single cup of coffee can run as high as $50.

Today, coffee is said to be the second largest legal commodity traded in the world today after oil. The annual global production of coffee is over 10 billion kilograms or 22 billion pounds. 

The entire global coffee industry is estimated to be over $100 billion dollars annually. 

The humble coffee bean has come a long way in over 1000 years. From its legendary discovery by an Ethiopian goat herder to one of the world’s most important commodities, which millions of people around the world can’t start their day without.