The Amazing History of Coffee

Man making coffee over a fire

Most people know that coffee is now the second most traded substance in the world, but they don't know about the long—and sometimes bloody—history behind their favorite drink. Coffee has been used as a stimulant for over a thousand years, and at many points throughout history it's been a symbol of wealth and power.

The Legendary Origins of Coffee

The history of coffee starts sometime between 850 and 900 (the exact year is contested) when a goat herder named Kaldi in ancient Ethiopia noticed that his goats were often restless at night. Eventually, he realized it only happened when they ate the fruit from a specific tree.

He told this story to the abbot at the local monastery, and the monks gathered some cherries to experiment with. They created an infusion, drank it, and noticed a significant increase in their energy levels.

Entering Arabia

Around the year 1100, ambitious Arabian farmers brought the coffee plant home from Ethiopia. They began growing it on their plantations and quickly learned to boil the beans, creating a drink known as qahwa—the first drink that can actually be recognized as coffee.

The Invention of Turkish Coffee

If you've ever been to Turkey, you probably know that coffee there is entirely different from what you're used to. The preparation method used to create Turkish coffee has been heavily refined over the years, but it's essentially the same as the one created in the 1400s, when coffee was first grown in Constantinople.

The First Coffee Shops

In 1454 the Mufti of Aden visited the Ethiopian countryside and got his first taste of coffee. It miraculously cured him of some ailment, and his approval helped coffee spread all the way to Mecca. The first coffee shops, which served as spaces for religious gatherings, were created in Mecca around this time.

Well, that actually depends on who you ask. In 1475 the first coffeehouses in Constantinople were created. Many people insist that these were, in fact, the first coffeehouses in the entire world.

The First Coffee Ban

Banning coffee might sound insane, but it's happened several times. The first time was in 1511, when Governor Khar Bey feared that coffee would encourage energetic debates and even opposition to his rule.

Riots immediately ensued. Before they could grow into a full scale revolution, the Sultan in Cairo declared coffee sacred and executed the Governor.

Coffee Reaches India

Up until around 1600, Arabia and Muslim Africa maintained a monopoly on coffee production. They did this by making it illegal to export fertile beans (beans that still have the cherry around them).

Of course, humans always find a way to break the rules, and eventually an Asian Indian named Baba Budan smuggled out some fertile beans. He returned to India and cultivated these beans in secret. Not only was his crop successful, "Old Chik" beans still account for approximately one third of all the coffee produced in India.

The Pope Tries Coffee

Around this time coffee's growing popularity came to the attention of the church. Like pretty much anything else that could be construed as fun, the church considered coffee a tool of the devil. Alas, coffee has such a delicious aroma that even the Pope could not resist it.

Delighted with his first taste, the Pope declared that coffee should not belong exclusively to the infidels, marking an important moment in the history of coffee. He "baptized" it—I'm not sure how exactly you baptize coffee, but there you have it. Christians have been able to drink coffee without fear of eternal damnation ever since (well, everyone but the Mormons).

Captain John Smith

In 1607 Captain John Smith, British adventurer and author of "Travel and Adventure" (a bestselling book in its day), brought coffee to the Americas. He even mentioned the drink in his book!

Captain John Smith also encountered a certain chieftain's daughter named Pocahontas, but the true story of that is nothing like the one you've heard. If you want to know the true story, you can find it here.

Coffee Comes to Oxford

In 1637 Nathaniel Coponio, a Greek Oxford student, brewed the first cup of coffee ever made in England. His subsequent erratic behavior got him expelled from the school, but coffee remained.

The Spread of Coffee Throughout England

England will always be associated with tea first, but once coffee arrived it quickly gained popularity. The first coffeehouse in all of England opened up in 1650, and the first coffeehouse in London opened in 1652. It wasn't long before coffeehouses were all over the country.

The Dutch Acquire Coffee

The Dutch, who have been patiently watching the growth of coffee and waiting for their opportunity, finally take it from the Portuguese in what is now Sri Lanka in 1658. Their main win is cinnamon, but they also get in on the coffee trade.

Tipping Begins

Around 1670, tipping became a common practice in English coffeehouses. A box would be left on the counter proclaiming "To Insure Prompt Service – T I P S".

Coffee Continues to Spread

Around the same time tipping starts in English coffee houses, coffee finally reaches the French Court. The ladies instantly fall in love with the beverage, and it becomes popular throughout the country.

Like everything else in France during this time, coffee was also used to wage a kind of class war. The initial coffee shops in Paris were designed for the lower classes and avoided by the elite, but soon enough more elitist shops opened up.

The Women's Petition Against Coffee

Coffee history took an interesting turn in London in the late 1600's when became embroiled in a war between the sexes. Women were barred from most male activities and gatherings, and men went to coffeehouses (or anywhere but home) when they weren't at work or at the pub. Women became convinced that coffee houses were encouraging their husbands to drink more liquor, so they started the "Women's Petition against Coffee".

According to this petition, coffee made men impotent and was ruining English society. Men, of course, claimed the opposite, and the petition became an obscure tidbit of history.

The Birth of Viennese Coffee

In 1683 the Turks had gathered a massive army and surrounded the city of Vienna. Things looked bleak, but a Pole named Franz Georg Kolschitzky gathered enough information for the Viennese army to successfully attack the enemy.

The Turks fled, leaving behind all their stuff, including 500 green coffee beans. Franz was granted Austrian citizenship and allowed to open the first Viennese coffee shop.

The Invention of the French Press

Up until 1710, the entire world drank Turkish coffee. If you don't already know what Turkish coffee is, it's coffee prepared so the grounds are actually part of the drink. It's quite strong and needs to be served in small cups for best effect.

In 1710 the French came up with a better way of doing it, one many coffee drinkers still swear by today: the French Press. This quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe.

The Great Coffee Heist

Shortly after the invention of the French Press, King Louis XIV of France was given a coffee seedling. He grew the tree within the walls of his palace.

In 1723 a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu stole a clipping from the King's coffee tree. He smuggled it out to the Caribbean, where he grew it in secret. When it reached maturity he shared it secretly among the village's intellectuals. It didn't take long for the entire island—and surrounding islands—to become covered in coffee plantations.

Only a few years later, in 1730, coffee arrived in Jamaica.

Coffee Reaches Brazil

Today a large percentage of the world's coffee is grown in Brazil, but it wasn't until 1727 that they acquired their first plants. As was traditional, they stole their coffee seedlings, this time from the French.

Britain Gives Up Coffee Trade

The British East India Trade gives up their stake in coffee and tea becomes their national drink of choice. The Dutch and French happily take over coffee trading.

Advances in Coffee Roasting and Brewing

After the 1700s Hawaii and a few other small players join the coffee cultivation game, but it's mostly about advancements in how coffee is made. The first percolator comes out in 1818. A few years later in France, the first espresso machine is created.

Coffee advancement stalls for a few decades, and then in 1864 makes a massive leap: the first coffee roaster that didn't have to be moved away from the fire to discharge roasted coffee. It's also the grandfather of all the roasting machines we know and love today.

Another few decades past, and in 1900 the vacuum-sealed packing method for coffee is invented. This marks the true beginning of corporate coffee roasting. Vacuum-sealed packing is also the most commonly used method today. Only a year later, the first commercial-grade espresso machine is born.

Along Came Decaf

In 1903 a German coffee importer discovers a roasting process that strips caffeine from the beans. This is done completely by accident.

A couple years later decaf is followed by the first instant coffee, creating an entirely new industry.

Coffee is Healthy!

The widely acclaimed Science Newsletter declares that coffee is good for our health in 1926. It cites the first of dozens of studies, which have shown that coffee offers a myriad of health benefits.

Birth of the Cappuccino

Back to brewing discoveries, in 1946 an Italian man named Achille Gaggia developed the first espresso machine with a piston, drawing Crema. This leads to the birth of Cappuccinos and all the other frothy coffee drinks we love today.

Starbucks Arrives

In 1971, three friends moved to Seattle and opened the first Starbucks. This changed the landscape of coffee forever, and is still changing the landscape of coffee today!

Coffee Comes Home

In 1972 the world of coffee takes another massive leap forward when the first automatic-drip home coffee maker is invented.

Coffee Today

Today America is the largest importer of coffee in the world, and 40% of our imported coffee is specialty roasts. Coffee is also the most popular beverage, and second most traded commodity, around the globe.

So next time you make yourself a cuppa, remember that thousands—probably millions—of people around the world are enjoying this timeless drink with you.


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